Finally: the Demise of the PR Person

by francine Hardaway on October 22, 2007

Brian Solis and Robert Scoble are having a discussion about the future of PR in their blogs. Scoble isn’t in PR, but he has the most profound understanding of it of anyone I know at present. His knowledge of PR is instinctive and he lives the fearless life of a person who has nothing to hide and a high tolerance for fools.

Solis is a professional PR guy, although he’s stuck because he’s such an avid social media participant, and sometimes those two roles don’t entirely mix. Solis admits he’s a little burned out by being a PR guy, and wants to do something about PR. But PR is doing something about itself, and ironically, it has no need of Brian (no offense, because I love him) or any other PR person.

PR, just like everything else, has been disintermediated by the Internet. This is my humble opinion, but it’s not so humble, because I owned a PR firm from 1980-1996, after which I was Worldwide Press Relations Manager for Intel’s Computing Enhancement group. When I was at Intel, we did everything in the order Brian discusses in his blog: first the “long lead” publications, then the weeklies and dailies, and finally broadcast. We produced press releases that went through four or five revs before they were declared “approved” — aka stripped of anything that would remotely interest a reporter. Inside the corporation, approved meant “our messages, like we want them said.”

We all know that is not the case anymore. I don’t think any PR person can do what people used to hire PR people to do: control the messaging and contact the press.

When I went into business in 1980, the press hid from PR people. You had to have (and pay heavily for) the names, addresses, and phone numbers of media people. Journalists were deluged by press releases and hated them even back in the day. They had far more material than they could ever use, and they didn’t want to write about business subjects anyway. They looked at all PR people as born liars, or flacks.

Somewhere during the 80’s, business became more glamorous to journalists and more interesting to their readers. However, business news was still highly controlled, partly due to SEC regulations, and partly due to the control freaks who ran large companies.

The reason I allowed my firm to be acquired by Intel (nothing to acquire but people, by the way, after all those years) was that I saw the change the Internet was going to make. By 1996, there were already web sites like Yahoo news that consumed content so fast that anyone could get a press release published there. Brokers were being disintermediated all over the place: design was becoming commoditized by desktop publishing, and distribution agreements were moving to online exchanges.

But like the real estate agent or a big old tree, the PR person dies slowly. Maybe the boiling frog is the best analogy. Little by little, his functions are replaced or are disappearing. Spell checkers, grammar checkers, blog editors, and all kinds of technical tools have taken over the mechanics of composition. Clipping services are replaced by Google News. Journalists have their own web sites, and are also to be found on Facebook. All the dirty little secrets of my former profession have been revealed. Any literate person can do what we used to do. Remember the “media list”? That invaluable Rolodex of names and addresses you compiled painstakingly through careful research? Replaced by search.

I don’t know a situation in which a press release is really necessary today. A fact sheet, maybe, to help a hurried reporter maintain accuracy, but not those documents with the made up quotes attributed to the CEO. Why waste the time writing them? Why not just produce a good backgrounder and an accurate alert?

And why not replace the PR person with…the community manager.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Cortland Coleman October 23, 2007 at 8:38 pm


I respectfully and completely disagree. The PR business and the PR person is alive and thriving, and will continue to flourish. Which is as it should be.

The mechanics of composition can be made easier and even partially automated through technology but the art and science of good writing will never be done by software, web-based or otherwise.

Getting press releases published is one thing. Getting people to listen and take action is, as you know, a whole different ballgame.

Google News is an awesome thing. I love the time I spend with it – on the site and through multiple RSS feeds – every day. But it has not and will not replace clipping services. It can only index what newspaper publishers post to the web, and in the case of most newspapers, that’s less than what’s in the hard copy edition.

And throwing away the Rolodex to replace it with search? I wouldn’t dare. Yes, smart and innovative reporters are establishing a bigger presence online, but if I need the cell phone of an old-school editorial page editor at a rural weekly or the home fax number for USA Today’s environmental reporter, I’m probably not going to find it on Google. Plus, it’s not just the number that counts. A good PR person brings the Rolodex AND the pre-established relationship with the reporter which help makes getting stories published oh so much easier, as you know.

It’s chic to say newspapers and PR are dead. It’s also false. Both will still be here in 20 years.

francine hardaway October 24, 2007 at 4:21 am

Many things that are dead are still standing :-) Literally, I can agree with you. And of course good writing will never be replaced. But I have to say that the writing I did for press releases would never have constituted good writing in my book. Some of my blogging might.

What I accurately mean is that the value of the good PR person has changed or diminished. Or perhaps that his/her role is strategic, and not tactical anymore. You can make a case for the need for strategic advice, but never for clipping services anymore.

With love and respect.

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