Now for The Fall of PR

22 Jun

Humans need narratives to simplify the muddy complexity of life. These narratives (stories) sometimes become so compelling that they appear to be the truth. But a narrative isn't the truth, it's a convenient and sometimes prevalent world view.

Here's a compelling narrative. Ten years ago The Cluetrain Manifesto proclaimed that 'markets are conversations' and that marketers should stop shouting and start listening. The text wasn't comfortable reading for public relations practitioners, but it suggested they were closer to mastery of the conversational style needed in the online age. (The book was written in the early years of Google and before the rise of blogging, social networks and twitter.)

Then, in 2002, brand evangelists Al Ries and Laura Ries narrated 'The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR'. Their thesis turned the normal thinking upside down: 'You can't launch a new brand with advertising because advertising has no credibility. It's the self-serving voice of a company anxious to make a sale. You can launch new brands only with publicity or public relations (PR).'

In The Long Tail (2006), Chris Anderson turned to markets. The whole process of launches and hits was becoming less important than the aggregate sales available in niche markets over time. Publicity was becoming less important than discovery in our Google-mediated world.

Then, in Here Comes Everybody (2008) Clay Shirky took a look at organisations in the age of social media. What are they for, he wondered, when individuals can come together freely to create knowledge and products that are often then made available for free.

There have been other good books in the past decade, but many contribute to the same narrative. It's a narrative about fragmenting media, shortened attention spans, about trust, transparency and who we permit to talk to us. It's important to everyone in the media, commerce, marketing and public relations.

An argument (a thesis) invites a response (the antithesis); the debate sometimes leads to a useful synthess.

A belated riposte to Al Ries and Laura Ries pops into my inbox in the form of a free ebook

It's a reassertion of advertising's importance and a critique of public relations.

At one level, it's simple. If the objection to advertising was that it operates as one-way communication, then change this.

So Amazon channeled its advertising budget to subsidise free delivery, and recouped free advertising recommendation from customers as a result. Smart move, but surely this is now a public relations triumph.

What are the author's objections to PR? It's that it's too good at achieving free press, at a time when the press is in decline. Then there are the usual objections to fakery, to astroturfing and to benefiting from bad news (through offering crisis management services). That's all it amounts to.

We're told that 'PR is a one night stand in a world where people are looking for lasting relationships with their brands'. 'Advertising can become successful if it becomes more interactive and creates a relationship with the consumer'. Indeed, but doesn't it then become public relations? 

PR deserves criticism in its press agentry form (the one night stand) but it doesn't seem far-fetched to claim relationships for an area that's known as public relations. This is a definitional problem that has been around for a long time: certainly, it's one of the crticisms of the Al Ries and Laura Ries book from a PR perspective. They view PR simply as publicity.

This new book cites the great exception to the prevailing narrative: Apple. The computer company that became a brand capable of extension into new product areas. The company that keeps control of the message, that makes heavy use of conventional advertising. The company that is fervently worshipped by its followers. David Brain and Martin Thomas addressed the paradox of Apple in Crowd Surfing, concluding that this company is 'the exception that proves the rule'.

I applaud the author's assault on fakery. 'The time is over when advertising can fake brands into becoming real… In today's transparent market, faking doesn't work, even if you have the budget to buy all the media in the world. The reason is that the truth can spread for free on the Internet.'

Stockholm-based Stefan Engeseth has written an interesting book on marketing and branding – but he doesn't have anything new to say about public relations. Turf wars over the rightful domains of marketing, advertising and PR are beginning to look very twentieth century. Meanwhile, we're still looking for a 21st century paradigm for marketing. This book proposes authenticity; I'd suggest legitimacy as the ultimate goal of public relations activity.

Note how the old-fashioned PR stunt of making third parties aware of the new product has worked in this case: how could a PR blogger fail to rise to the bait of a book called The Fall of PR and the Rise of Advertising?

2 Responses to “Now for The Fall of PR”

  1. Richard Bailey 23/06/2009 at 11:02 am #

    Here’s the problem.
    The Tourism Queensland ‘Best Job in the World’ campaign, called ‘the world’s greatest PR stunt’ has now picked up an advertising award in Cannes.
    Is it public relations or is it advertising? And does anyone not in PR consultancies or ad agencies care?
    My suggestion? To distinguish between corporate consultancies and creative/consumer agencies.

  2. Caroline 25/06/2009 at 9:14 pm #

    “They view PR simply as publicity” – and there’s the rub. Ask most people in the street and they’d agree. Trouble is, ask most people in related professional jobs like marketing and they’d also agree. Often because they’ve had contact with an agency and based their experience on that reality.
    That’s why nearly everyone thinks it’s open season on handling relationships. Your suggestion for splitting the two appears to hit the natural divide.

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