Post-Millennial PR Apocalypse

WE Communications Blog: Alan VanderMolen

— Alan VanderMolen 

This post is dedicated to my good friend and former colleague, David Brain. May your next endeavor result in us pulling a cork or two. AV

Marketing services is heading for a Post-Millennial PR Apocalypse.  A world where tax-paying robots and other instruments of machine learning fill a decreasing pool of lesser-valued PR jobs currently held by millennials.

It would be easy to blame soulless machines and technological progress for the looming meltdown.  It is more likely, however, the fault of Baby Boomer and Gen X industry leaders who have foisted upon us the twin phenomena of Acute Agency Personality Disorder (AAPD) and Specialist Generalization (SG).

As a quick review, AAPD is diagnosed as agencies having the strong desire to play in disciplines not historically in their domain.  SG is taking separate and distinct disciplines and putting them under one banner, thereby discounting the value of each discipline.  Omnicom's folding of specialist agency Cone Communications into generalist agency Porter Novelli is the latest example of SG.

The unintended consequence of AAPD and SG is setting adrift a generation of public relations professionals to search for the value they bring the industry.  What else is this generation to do when the message they receive from large agency ownership and many in-house departments is that the skills of advertising agency veterans and the promise of robot-generated copy hold greater value than public relations skills?

I speak with public relations professionals all over the world.  One thing I have noticed is the disappearance of the words 'public relations' when PR pros describe what they do.  Largely, they call themselves communicators, which I get. In fact, many agencies including mine, use communications to describe a broader group of services that transcend earned media.  At the same time, however, we need to continue to embrace our PR roots and sensibilities.  Another thing I have noticed is the ubiquitous comparison PR pros make of themselves to 'marketers' or 'creatives'...most times discounting the value that PR brings to the marketing services table.

I have started charting what I hear in a simple, 2x2 diagram.  On the X-Axis, we have 'communications' on one end and 'marketing' on the other.  On the Y-Axis, we have 'analog' at the bottom and 'digital' at the top.  Nearly every pro I speak with can map themselves to one of the corresponding quadrants:

  • Analog Communicators (aka, Home Town Hitters):  Harkening back to the days of writing hometown press releases to promote employees with friends and neighbors in their local newspapers, today's Home Town Hitters are mostly identified with top tier media relations professionals.  They are still needed, but in smaller numbers and held in lower regard than their 'creative' colleagues.
  • Analog Marketers (aka, Sandwich Boarders):  Likened to high school kids standing on busy street corners with signs promoting the local car wash, today's Sandwich Boarders are media event professionals who are deemed not to have kept pace with their 'experiential marketing' colleagues.
  • Digital Communicators (aka, The Participation Trophy Crew):  These are the digital native PR pros or the baby boomers (ugh, me) who have learned the basics of navigating the modern media ecosystem with perfunctory search and paid skills.
  • Digital Marketers (aka, The Chosen Ones):  These are the pros being recruited in droves into PR agencies and departments to 'evolve' skills sets into those dominated by paid and paid creative.

The pseudo-value assessed quadrants and corresponding labels attached to them are not particularly motivating for PR pros.  I do believe, however, that the rapidly changing public relations industry can provide growth and leadership in marketing services and long-term career opportunities for practitioners.  The key is for brands, agencies and pros to embrace the changes necessary to serve the needs of organizations and their stakeholders across an ever-evolving media ecosystem.

Baby Boomer and Gen X leadership in the public relations industry can work with millennials to stave off a PR Apocalypse with these three steps:

  1. Embrace the Spirit of Public Relations and its Heritage:  Public relations is what we do.  It was born of quality editorial and third-party validation.  The hallmarks remain in today's media and social ecosystems.  Embrace the spirit of public relations and the values for which it stands.
  2. Invest in Skills Modernization:  Analytics, search, creative and the art and science of story telling across a living media ecosystem require investment in upgrading the skills of existing practitioners as well as introducing new skill sets through hiring.  We must not value one over the other or the resulting clash of cultures will doom the public relations industry.
  3. Play Big:  I am hard-pressed to name another time in my 30 years' (holy crap!) in this business when classic PR skills were more needed by business, government and NGOs alike.  Armed with modern skills, a real knowledge of stakeholder expectations and media ecosystem mastery, PR pros and the PR industry is ready to play big in boardrooms and beyond.

Written by Alan VanderMolen (LinkedIn and Twitter)