PR Insider: PR is Dead. Actually, Long Live PR!

Evan Zall
Evan Zall

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Two PR pros walk into a seminar. One says to the speaker, “Looking forward to your thoughts on social media and digital strategy.” Speaker points to his first slide and announces, “PR is dead!”

There’s no actual punchline (sorry about that), but I’ve lost count of the times that social media strategists have proclaimed that traditional public relations tactics are a fading, quaint art, antiquated, out of touch and ineffective. They say the new publicity paradigm is about direct engagement, brand-centric dialogue, and online visibility. Traditional media holds little value, and content must be drafted as short, energetic bursts that will capture micro-audiences with historically short attention spans.

I don’t roll my eyes at digital strategy—it’s an imperative piece of marketing for brands across all industries. But I balk at the idea that PR is on life support. The truth is that digital opportunities have given PR a second wind by adding a new host of channels for us to consider as we build programs.

Let’s jump back five years, when social media began to make an imprint on outreach to consumers. Even amidst the confusion of Twitter as either a sensationalist celebrity mouthpiece or an incredibly mundane tool to chronicle day-to-day life, it leaped to the front of the scene because people were communicating.

A debate launched over who would manage this domain (pun intended); new digital agencies and freelancers proclaimed that PR agencies were on the way out, to be replaced by armies of social media specialists.

I was confused by the tug of war back then, and I’m even more taken aback when I hear that theory today. As a journalist a long time ago, my job was to convey a story that would provide value to my readers. When I moved to investor relations, my job was to convey my clients’ story in a way that considered shareholders and regulators while still providing value to readers. Into public relations, where—funny about this—the job was still to convey my clients’ story in a way that supported their business goals, whether through print media, broadcast or online formats.

 How has digital media changed that? PR is not about the channel, it’s about the skill of storytelling, in the same way that baseball is still baseball with the designated hitter and an extra playoff round. Digital media improves our ability to target, learn and converse with audiences.  When combined with long form thought leadership content, traditional media, video production and speaking engagements, it presents the potential for more fluid, responsive campaigns that operate simultaneously on macro and micro levels. In fact, Twitter has given us a powerful way to connect with reporters in real-time as appropriate, allowing for fresher pitches in the 24/7 news cycle. With artfully blended tactics, brands can grow faster and better, and public relations can serve as the core discipline that gets them there.

Indeed, a singular focus on the digital side leads to subpar brand management. No marketing effort should be one-dimensional, and too often, those who are eager to bury PR embrace quantity of content and outreach over quality. But a barrage of social media posts with no anchor to an overarching message or business goal is begging to be ignored. In old school terms, we wouldn’t call a journalist five times a week with random story ideas: Whether for social media or traditional information streams, we need to know the audience and deliver a message they can interpret and eventually act upon.

A recent teaser on LinkedIn about research from the Content Marketing Institute hits it on the head, noting that most content marketing initiatives flounder due to a lack of three critical pieces: Strategy, focus and accountability. That is an insane observation, to put it mildly, and it applies to PR as well. Would a CEO launch programs in other facets of the business without strategy in place? Without focus or accountability? The ease of entry into digital channels has been twisted into the idea that “noise equals marketing." As this notion permeates the business, we see too many campaigns that are fragmented and ineffective.

Public relations ties tactics together under one thoughtful umbrella. It is bigger than traditional tactics alone, bigger than digital media alone, and it’s not going anywhere. The most impactful campaigns will be run by teams that embrace multiple channels and keep the emphasis on smart content; those that sacrifice one in favor of the other will miss opportunities and weaken client brands over the long term.

So the joke’s on you, Mr. Social Media Seminar Man. We’re all in this together.

  • Ted Birkhahn

    PR is not dead, but it has forever changed. I strongly believe that a brand’s online presence and its commitment to using social media has a direct influence on its ability to generate coverage in mainstream press. In fact, any significant void in social media communications will hurt a brand’s ability to capture the hearts and minds of the media. As a result, communications professionals can’t view media relations as a channel unto itself. Instead, it should be viewed as one of many channels that a brand should be using to raise awareness and build credibility in itself.

    • Guest

      I have not experienced this. We’ve developed media strategies for clients with little to no real social media presence and have still secured top-tier, national coverage.

      • Ted Birkhahn

        As have we, but media hits alone just won’t suffice. To be most effective, and, I believe, thrive as an agency, you must have the ability to help clients target, reach and influence audience where they want to be reached. Is third-party, independent media one of those channels? Absolutely. But it is one of many and that is why the industry is going through such profound change.

        Plus, as it relates specifically to generating earned coverage, the ability to target journos and extend the reach of all coverage is amplified by having a robust online platform.

  • Lynne Boschee

    THANK you! So amazingly well said.

  • Trish R.

    Although Social Media has its merits in the world of public relations, it can be also be an uncontrolled open forum. In some cases, it lacks credibility. Traditional PR maintains the credibility factor, as it’s reviewed by editors of key industry publications, as well as being peer reviewed. Not every article gets published – only those who present relevant information that editors feel is of real value to their readership. (In my humble opinion) That’s the value of traditional PR.

  • Guest

    I have not experienced this. We’ve developed media strategies for clients with little to no real social media presence and have still secured top-tier, national coverage.

  • Sola

    Thanks Evan…This sums it up ‘PR is not about the channel, it’s about the skill of storytelling’ Great write up!

  • ChesterHrob

    Outstanding post.

  • Antonia Hall

    Wonderfully written post! Thank you, Evan.

  • tom

    Well said. The key is to harness the sheer enthusiasm that exists in social domains, and to channel it — move it toward a singular brand outcome.

  • Joan Grant

    I’ve been in journalism and pr for decades – I couldn’t agree more and SO cheering!!! Thank you. JG

  • Christine


  • Judi

    If anything, PR is more relevant in this digital age where there are more avenues to consider. (Of course, be accountable, focused and strategic about which tools you use, how you use them and why.) Ever-evolving, but not extinct. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Great piece, Evan!

  • Greg

    Public Relations will never be dead, same goes for marketing. Both have and will change over time.