The Public Relations Strategist

Conference preview: Bob Garfield on PR's role in the post mass-media world

September 11, 2009

Copyright © 2009 PRSA. All rights reserved.

By Kyra Auffermann

Bob Garfield, columnist for AdAge’s weekly “Ad Review” and co-host of NPR’s On the Media, is the General Session speaker on Nov. 10 at PRSA’s International Conference in San Diego. He regularly provides commentary and criticism on the communications industry and recently released his latest book, “The Chaos Scenario” about the state of traditional media.

Here, Garfield speaks with Tactics and The Strategist Online about aggregating relationships in the digital age, what the future holds for PR professionals and what he will be speak about at the upcoming Conference.

In your new book, “The Chaos Scenario,” you mention that the digital age will be ideal for marketing. With all the issues regarding monetizing these different Web sites, why do you believe this?

Because the Internet allows you to have real data about individual users — or at least the location of their browsers. You get to have something close to an intimate relationship with individuals as opposed to taking wild guesses as to their interests and predilections. And, once you’ve got someone’s business, it’s much easier to get an up-sell and up-sells typically are more profitable.

So, if you can open lines of communication with an individual, then it’s going to be a lot easier to get their attention and it’ll be easier to keep their loyalty. Furthermore, you will get value from them because they’re going to tell you stuff that you need to know, the world’s largest focus group and all that. And, you will just know more about their purchasing behavior and their likes and dislikes because between the data that people voluntarily surrender and the data they produce by their [Internet] surfing behavior and their purchasing behavior online, you can figure out not only what they tell you, but also what their behavior tells you about them.

That is data that has never been available to marketers before. I mean, there’s still some guesswork involved, still some extrapolation and imputation. But, much less than has been done historically—when you’re making gigantic multi-hundred-million dollar decisions based on vague notions of prism clusters and other very broad demographics.

The audiences that communicators are trying to reach are becoming more fragmented and niche specific. How can practitioners reach these people most effectively?

Efficiency was great — we all loved it. It sustained mass media and we’re all going to miss it. We’ve had it for about 350 years — the ability to efficiently reach large audience while underwriting mass media. But, it was kind of an accident of history and it’s gone.

What we have in front of us is the tedious, painstaking job of aggregating relationships one at a time, understanding that every relationship that you win is far more valuable than an anonymous set of eyeballs that you used to have.

I don’t know what the factor is, maybe it’s 10 times more valuable, maybe it’s 100 times more valuable, but the fact is that it’s going to be harder, and harder and harder to get ‘em in clusters. You’re going to have to get ‘em one at a time. Now, that doesn’t mean that mass media entirely disappears and it doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to get your message out, but it’s increasingly difficult because the fragments are getting smaller, and smaller and smaller.

Another advantage for advertising in the digital world that I shouldn’t gloss over is that you can target better than you ever could before, especially online. You have the benefit of people’s stated preferences and their online behavior to help you target better. But one of the really sad things about losing this fantastic symbiosis is that even with the greatest digital tools, you have to start singling people out and putting them together one by one as I’m experiencing right now with trying to market a book — ‘cause we were using mainly social media as our marketing platform.

What are you planning to discuss at the 2009 PRSA International Conference?

I’m going to [talk] about how the mass media–mass marketing symbiosis is dead and here’s what you have to do to work in the brave new world. And, more specifically, I think public relations as an industry is better positioned than most. I think the set of skills has to change.

The set of skills has to change because you won’t have the mass media to depend on much longer. You will have to get much better at identifying influential bloggers and Web sites and trying to learn the mechanisms of virality through Twitter and other things in order to do what you’ve been doing all along for clients. I mean, a nice, big media hit is good, but when there’s no Wall Street Journal left you’re not going to be able to get whatever it is, [say] two million business readers, in one really good placement.

So, unlike advertising, whose entire business model is in jeopardy, public relations’ business model isn’t at all in jeopardy. Unlike advertising, in which there is no transition or adaptation to the new world that will save their business, public relations can adapt to the new realities and should flourish.

The full interview will be available in the Fall 2009 issue of The Strategist.

Kyra Auffermann is the editorial assistant for Tactics and The Strategist Online. E-mail:


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