A PR revolution is upon us.
When I recently wanted to get publicity for a client, I sent news releases to the mainstream media as I normally would, because local clients still like to see themselves on the front page of the Winnipeg Free Press and on the CTV evening news.
But, at the same time, I also contacted my network of online friends - bloggers and tweeters. At the publicity event, the online media outnumbered the mainstream media by a fairly significant margin.
It makes sense: there is only a handful of mainstream media outlets in the city, but thousands of bloggers. In addition, mainstream media outlets don't have the resources or manpower they once did to cover "everything." In fact, it's a miracle that some are still covering "anything." And decreased ad revenues mean reduced space for publicity.
How much longer, I wondered, before PRs don't even need the mainstream media for publicity, and instead do it themselves through e-mails, blogs, tweets, buzz, and social networking?
Turns out, not very: the New York Times tackles that topic today in its long article "Spinning the Web, PR in Silicon Valley:"
"(Formerly) tools of the trade were largely limited to press releases and pitch letters, embargoes and exclusives and, of course, the legendary and often criticized parties.
"But the rise of blogs and social networks — and companies’ ability to post information on their own sites — transformed all this. Gradually, deadlines disappeared, as even monthly magazines offered Web sites that published stories by the minute.
“Now the best ideas bubble up, which is great for start-ups,” (PR person) Margit Wennmachers says. “It’s no longer, ‘if you can’t get so-and-so to do a story, you can’t make it.’ ”
"For new companies’ trying to get the word out, there’s a healthy measure of liberation in all of this. For publicists, the era of e-mail, blogs and Twitter has the potential to turn the entire idea of PR professionals as gatekeepers on its head."
The Sweet Smell of Publicity
I love the term "gatekeeper." Whenever I hear it, I always think of Rick Moranis in Ghostbusters: "I am the keymaster. Are you the gatekeeper?"
Historically, of course, PR was all about becoming the keymaster getting your news past the gatekeeper, like a newspaper editor, who would decide whether it was actually newsworthy. In order to do that, you'd send a news release or pitch letter and wait.
This setup, of course, made the PR beholden to the gatekeeper, which meant it was rife with abuse - as shown in the great movie, the Sweet Smell of Success (top of post).
In the film, PR Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) can't get his client mentioned in J.J. Hunsecker's (Burt Lancaster) newspaper column, because he's promised and failed to break up Hunsecker's sister and her boyfriend, a jazz musician.
So Falco hatches a plan: he will plant a story in a rival newspaper that the musician is a Communist, then get Hunsecker to redeem him in his column. The musician will then owe Hunsecker and break up with his sister himself. And he, Falco, will be back in Hunsecker's good books. (Rent the movie to find out what happens next - it's worth it.)
All in a day's work for the PR professional of yesterday.
It may seem far fetched by today's standards, but Hunsecker was based on Walter Winchell, the inventor of the gossip column and the first person who revealed intimate, behind-the-scenes details about public figures.
Winchell could define a person with a stroke of his pen, which meant that he had power over the powerful - "notoriously aiding or harming the careers of many entertainers," as it says on Wikipedia. Without him there'd be no TMZ or Perez Hilton.
What would Falco do today?
Today, it would be far less likely for one media outlet to have as much power as Winchell (or Hunsecker). And a guy like Falco could just eliminate the middleman and go straight to his audience online.
This is a double-edged sword:
On the upside, a hustler like Falco would probably have millions of friends on Facebook and Twitter; he could easily circumvent Hunsecker, who - as one of the more highly paid writers at the paper - would have already been laid off and be looking for a job in PR himself.
On the downside, there is no, one media outlet anymore that PR people can use to get their message seen and heard by "everyone." Except for maybe Oprah. For now.
Instead of putting all of his eggs in one basket, Falco would need to diversify and tailor his message to his thousands of media outlets. Or, even better, turn his clients into their own media outlets by showing them how to reach their publics directly online.
In this article, communications blogger Sarah Evans lists the top four new skills that all PR professionals must have: basic html, search engine optimization, social media releases, and an online presence.
This is where the new PR model meets the old: they're both about knowing your audience and how to reach it, conversing with it regularly, and nurturing it so that it grows.
So, the skills may have changed, but the song remains the same.