PR’s Role as the Mainstream Media Fades: “There is a serious disconnect here.”

Tom Foremski, who blogs as SiliconValleyWatcher, asks a question I’ve been pondering for months: What happens to PR if the mainstream media’s relevance continues to shrink amid competition from niche content publishers like bloggers, from content aggregators like Instapundit or LA Observed, or from the news source talking directly to its consumers via its own blog?

No matter how fancy (fancily?) you wrap the package with synergies and branding strategies, most clients hire PR agents to get stories placed in the media. When I was active in the business, that was true 90 percent of the time–at least. The clients tolerated PR people talking to them about “messaging” because they assumed that underneath all the yada-yada someone on the PR team knew a reporter, a producer, an editor, and could use that relationship to get the client’s product a mention, or their point of view included.

As of now, the decline in circulation and viewership hasn’t had any effect on the PR business, Foremski admits. Both 2004 and 2005 were good years for the industry. But “it’s coming,” he says.

On the one hand, companies recognize that the mainstream media is not an efficient advertising vehicle to help increase revenues; yet on the other hand they believe that being mentioned in the mainstream media, via PR spending, is an efficient vehicle to help them increase their revenues.

At some point companies will realize that the ROI on being mentioned in a story in the Wall Street Journal or New York Times, or in trade publications, makes little difference to their bottom line. Press coverage might boost the egos of company senior executives but it doesn’t do much for overall sales.

Foremski predicts a “widespread disruption in the mainstream PR industry” which will “give way to a new communications industry in the same way that the mainstream media will give way to a new media communications industry.”

Richard Edelman respectfully, and strongly, disagrees.

PR is much more (than media relations). Good public relations counselors help companies and organizations build critical relationships with key constituencies such as non-governmental organizations, influential consumers, empowered employees and academic experts. We help clients listen and inform company policy. Today PR is not simply hyping the product. Word of month really means-companies engaging with audiences on the brand/product process so that they deliver something that’s truly worth talking about.

Edelman asserts that the shrinkage of mainstream media is more than offset by the multiplying choices on cable and Internet TV, satellite radio like Sirius, consumer magazines and websites, and that PR pros can demonstrate added value in facilitating “peer-to-peer, horizontal communications.”

Such communications possess the same value today and in the future that segments on “Today” or articles in the Wall Street Journal have had in the past. Compared with advertising — or blowing your horn on your own website — a third party has more credibility. Foremski, a former journalist, makes the mistake many journalists make, not seeing this fundamental difference between PR and advertising.

To me, the problem with Edelman’s side of the argument is he underestimates the credibility problem PR people already have with third parties they try to influence. It is tough enough to get a reporter to take a PR person seriously. Begrudgingly, most reporters understand the role PR people play in facilitating their work. But rare is the respected reporter who hangs up after a call and says, “that PR guy really made a lot of sense.” It’s something reporters are loathe to admit (not even to themselves). You get more high-fives in the newsroom mocking flacks than defending them. The credibility of PR outreach has always been on the thinnest of thin ice.

But if you think a cynical journalist is a tough audience, try a blogger. A blogger who knows a given industry better than a corresponding reporter does. A blogger who is inspired by passion and not bound by those little rules of journalism about being fair to both sides. A blogger who knows readers can smell PR-speak through steel walls, and will go out of their way to avoid it.Stern.jpg

Yes, there is a proliferation of niche media. But who is the symbol for the new, niche media today, in January 2006? Of course: It’s Howard Stern! Wanna draw straws for who gets to pitch him on your client’s story? Or ask him for a correction?

Both Foremski and Edelman are well worth reading — on this topic and generally. Their debate is far from over, and will engage many more people in 2006.

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