The business of public relations: Agency leaders convene to discuss state of the profession

November 23, 2009

(From left) Kathy Bloomgarden, Mark J. Penn. Matthew Bishop and Steven Rubenstein
(From left) Kathy Bloomgarden, Mark J. Penn. Matthew Bishop and Steven Rubenstein

Leading PR agency executives gathered for a panel discussion titled “The Business of PR” presented by The Economist and 92YTribeca on Nov. 12 in New York City.  The panelists were Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO, Ruder Finn, Mark J. Penn, worldwide CEO, Burson-Marsteller and Steven Rubenstein, president, Rubenstein Communications. Matthew Bishop, The Economist’s American business editor and New York bureau chief served as moderator.

The session started with a discussion of the state of public relations and noticeable changes in the profession and then went on to cover the blurring lines between the advertising and PR professions, the decline of print journalism and the new rules of media engagement.

The changing face of the profession
Bloomgarden said that public relations is no longer the “soft skill” that it once was.

She noted that PR professionals’ actions are heavily scrutinized and that while public relations used to be more local and domestic, social media, videos and Flip cams have ensured that “there is no corner really small enough to hide in, and everything we’ve done has become global.”

Rubenstein commented on how news travels much further now than it used to, and agreed that public relations has become an international business. He also attributed this mostly to social media and said that professionals must be able to tell stories in different ways. He referred the rise of bloggers and the shift to the 24-hour news cycle, saying, “the news angle is like your life on steroids.”

He also mentioned an example of someone who had blogged about a company executive being laid off before the employee actually knew that the company was laying him off.  Rubenstein advised professionals to protect themselves, adding, “information lives in a way that it used to not live.”  Whereas PR professionals commonly told reporters about their news to have it distributed, now redistribution and Google news exist. So PR professionals are “primary content providers” who are looking for the distribution themselves.

Penn, who served as chief strategist for Sen. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, has also noticed recent changes: “Newspapers may be shrinking in demand,” he said, “but news [and information] demand is skyrocketing.”

The blurring communication lines
There is a “space between advertising and PR agencies,” Penn said, also noting that most campaigns have very strong Web and social media elements. But professionals must “reclaim that space as genuinely as possible.” As print moves online, he sees a need “for more experts in understanding social media and the blogosphere” and “the ability to bridge” across multiple mediums rather than just utilize a singular outlet. He said that 15 to 20 percent of his company’s revenue is digitally related and 7 percent of its advertising is online, but it “will become fifty-fifty eventually.”

Bishop commented on how the lines are blurring between advertising and public relations, to which Bloomgarden said: “the advertising model is changing much more than the PR model” and mentioned that transformations in e-mail and social media are happening faster than the corporate world can respond. “Twitter is geometrically exploding,” she said. “Young people want engagement.”

Bloomgarden added, “A lot comes down to performance and delivering on promises.” She also encouraged professionals to think about the fundamentals of performance and how they can add value to an organization’s bottom line.

“There is a greater push toward transparency and dealing with crisis,” Penn said. Rubenstein echoed this and added that professionals need to be more honest with themselves.

The waning of print journalism
Bishop wondered if PR professionals are “pleased at the demise of print?” Bloomgarden answered, “It’s a painful time.  We need to understand better what specific journalists are interested in.”

She added that PR professionals should put on a different lens and appeal to each type of media specifically, rather than just distributing a press release and seeing how many hits that it garners.

“If journalism is facing a whole new set of standards, then [there is] concern that more information will be found [through search engines] than reporting,” Penn said. “People turn to sources that they recognize.”

Which information consumers choose to believe is an emerging problem, but new online-only models like the Huffington Post are restoring trust and providing reliable information, he added. “We will see more creations of totally online products who will set new standards for non-opinionated news,” Penn said, adding that the Huffington Post will continue to stay competitive with more traditional news outlets.

The new rules of engagement
Bishop asked the panel if the rules of engagement are changing. He also remarked that he has seen the emergence of a new meaning for the term “off the record.” Bishop mentioned a time when he was not permitted to go into a private company meeting, only to discover that a CEO was tweeting during it — making the information public knowledge, but through a different channel than many people are used to.

At Ruder Finn, “we have a landscape analysis of bloggers,” Bloomgarden said. She listed four types of bloggers and how the company views them: those who are always trustworthy, those who want to inform, those for monitoring and those that you must ignore — these are “the vendetta type, who are out to kill.”

Referring to the last group, she said, “More interaction will generate more negatives, so you really should not engage with them.”

Rubenstein stated that crisis management is still very important and he also believes that traditional journalism rules still apply to all mediums.

It’s no different online or offline, said Penn, while adding that there are several changes he has seen recently.

“Your life is becoming more and more on the record,” which he said is a fact of life; anyone can be a publisher of information and “there is much more engagement than ever before.”


Amy Jacques

Amy Jacques is the managing editor of publications for PRSA. A native of Greenville, S.C., she holds a master’s degree in arts journalism from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in advertising from the University of Georgia’s Grady College and a certificate in magazine and website publishing from New York University.


Sean Williams says:

"Bishop commented on how the lines are blurring between advertising and public relations, to which Bloomgarden said: “the advertising model is changing much more than the PR model” and mentioned that transformations in e-mail and social media are happening faster than the corporate world can respond." I'm not sanguine about the blurring of the lines between adv and PR, nor should anyone be. When all speech is commercial speech, "caveat emptor" takes on an urgency we haven't seen in a long time. Also, distilling our profession to publicity is insulting -- most of the strategic gains for PR in the last 10 years have been less about press agentry and more about acting as the expert on communication matters of reputation, employee leadership and counsel. The model that this article seems to report upon ignores these facts and makes PR equal to advertising.

Nov. 24, 2009

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