Last year, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that there were approximately 57,000 PR managers and 208,000 PR specialists in America. On the opposing side, there were only 46,500 journalists according to the report.
Do the math.
That means there are roughly 5.7 PR professionals for every one journalist. That’s like the equivalent of having six crying babies with only one babysitter to try and simultaneously get them bottles to quench their “thirst.”
Not exactly ideal.
Unfortunately, instead of minding the gap, most PR people proceed to inundate the outnumbered journalists with massive amounts of form pitch emails, unwarranted phone calls, and embargoed press releases in an attempt to serve their own personal needs. Former journalist Ed Zitron, who has parlayed his knowledge of the PR industry into a burgeoning business, didn’t hold back when I asked him about why this happens:
The problem is manifold. People are walking into this industry, educated by college or culture or textbooks to think this is a super important and very impressive industry. PR people are so dedicated to feeling important and impressive that they’ve changed their own dialect, their own identity (both offline and online) like the Untalented Mr. or Ms. Ripley. Many of them simply don’t care if they spam reporters, or don’t care if they have to attack media relations people to make themselves feel better about not being able to make a human relationship. And unfortunately there is a large contingency of these people that just don’t want, or have the capacity, to learn about their respective industries – or anything much for that matter.
So what is really happening here? What is the source of the issue? Why is it getting worse?
Uncovering the Real Problem
I have spent the last several months trying to get to the root of the problem. I’ve attended PR meet-ups all over Silicon Valley, participated in VC-sponsored PR sessions in San Francisco, traveled to numerous industry events, read countless amounts of contributed content from a wide range of outlets and have had many, many conversations with both in-house and agency PR people.
Once common theme continues to reveal itself: terrible leadership.
The PR industry has become an environment where the blind are leading the blind. PR leaders are operating off playbooks with invalid precedents, outdated policies and misguided principles. With the evolution of the Internet, technology, and social media, PR does not function today the same way it did 5-10 years ago, let alone 20-30 years ago.
Work lives and personal lives are blending. Twitter acts as a real-time news feed; big companies are leveraging their blogs to make news announcements; and Medium is an acceptable place for people to announce job changes. Gone are the days of the “Tuesday Newsday”, formal press release distribution lists and awkward cold calls.
Unfortunately, an unhealthy proportion of senior leaders continue to leverage their traditional PR practices, which are then proliferated by their employees and the surrounding industry, setting everyone up for failure. At one session, I watched a veteran vice president from a prominent Silicon Valley PR agency tell a crowded room that:
In the world of PR, journalists are NOT your friends, and you should act accordingly. You need to maintain a professional relationship and operate in a manner that benefits both parties equally. It doesn’t matter how buddy-buddy you think you are with Sam Biddle on social media, you will still end up in ValleyWag.
Really? How is that approach working?
The reality of our modern world of media is that many outlets are just trying to survive – let alone monetize. For the most part, journalists are the ones on the losing end of the PR/reporter relationship. They are forced to deal with absurd pitches that drown out any actual meaningful pitches that gets lots among 350 spam emails before lunch.
That’s one of the major reasons I like to spend time with some of my journalist cohorts over coffee, a meal, or a drink or two. I like to connect on multiple levels and learn how I can be a helpful partner versus a “crying baby”. We discuss THEIR lives, THEIR challenges, and what THEY are working on. Believe it or not PR people, the journalist’s time is always more valuable than yours (see 5.7 to 1 ratio above).
Think about that next time you got upset about a journalist sounding off on you via social media for wasting his or her time. Or when you try to be funny and parody Jimmy Kimmel’s “Celebrities Read Mean Tweets” segment like the folks at The Hodges Partnership. They actually ended up proving the journalists’ point about the PR industry’s incompetence at 2:28 into the video.
PR Needs a Reality Check
By definition, public relations is “the activity or job of providing information about a particular person or organization to the public so that people will regard that person or organization in a favorable way.” Nowhere in there is anything about attracting leads, converting sales, reducing churn or anything remotely close to getting a company acquired.
While the pressure to deliver these KPIs may be a result of pressure from other executives or board members, it is unacceptable to mandate PR to be the primary driver to achieve these objectives. One gentleman who actually had his head on straight and from whom I was able to learn something from was Sean Garrett, former head of comms at Twitter and now co-founder of The Pramana Collective. He said:
A major mistake made by the present day CEOs and founders is confusing the role of Marketing with the role of PR. Marketing is used as a conversion tool to increase customer acquisition and improve sales. PR is used to mold your image, create a favorable reputation and support your company’s strategy.
Instead of just trying to get their name placed in the most visible publications for the sake of KPIs, PR has the opportunity to shift its image as an industry if its execs can actually prioritize quality engagements and tell a story that has real value to readers on both micro and macro levels. This strategy is the mantra of another gentlemen I’ve had the chance to work closely with, the founder of Treble, Ethan Parker. He has utilized this approach to successfully elevate early-stage startups:
Especially with startups, quality PR results are not going to be delivered by leading with your company and its product news on the latest feature set. Conversely, it’s about talking about what’s going on in the world around you and how your company fits into that industry landscape. Sometimes your clients belong in the conversation and sometimes they don’t – you differentiate yourself as a true PR ‘professional’ when you can understand the difference and execute accordingly.
In order to get better, the industry must accept its faults and it must change. By bringing focus back to the real roles of PR, things like creating a positive reputation, managing image, and supporting company strategy, there is a chance for the industry to find its way again. If not, the industry will continue to wander aimlessly down a path filled with ridicule and shame.
Colin Jordan is senior communications manager at enterprise software company Egnyte.