The other day I had lunch with Ray Kotcher, the global CEO of Ketchum PR, and a leading light in the public relations industry. From our extremely interesting and diverse conversation I’ll touch on just one topic: whether the PR industry (or any of its participants) will grasp – or leave lying – the opportunity that lies before it. As I discuss in my recent article on the future of PR, the issue today is about reaching people who are awash in a sea of messages, coming from friends, acquaintances, traditional media, online sources, advertising, and the world at large. Advertising – which is how companies have traditionally spent money to reach their targets – is waning in influence among the flood of messages. In addition, advertising is just what it is – an isolated message to a consumer – and as such is immensely less influential than a dialogue or interaction. So, in the vast space that involves playing in the totality of the flow and interplay of information and influencing people, who will create the most value?
On the face of it, the PR industry is the best positioned to do so. Traditional media will always provide a central (though gradually smaller) share of the messages people are exposed to, and no industry other than PR has the expertise to work with the media industry effectively. As Ray put it, dealing with the media is “heavy lifting” – somethng the other disciplines don’t have the expertise to do well, don’t know how to make money at and often see beneath them. “New” media in fact has many similar characteristics to traditional media. Certainly many grievous mistakes have been made by PR firms in dealing with blogs and bloggers, but they are learning, and prominent bloggers, as key influencers in the emerging world of media, need to be communicated with in a very similar fashion to journalists. However public relations is still caught – certainly in perception and to some degree in reality – in the world of “spin”. It is difficult to get out of the habit – and clients’ expectations – of pitching stories and hype. To move from PR to encompassing the entire domain of how people are touched with information, and the sum of the influence networks, is an enormous leap. The structure of the global communications conglomerates also stymies innovation by segmenting specialties among different firms, and often discouraging direct competition. Can any of the current players in media, advertising, marketing, and PR shift into the encompassing space of meme propagation? Perhaps. The reinvention of the advertising, PR, and communications industries will happen apace over the next years. There are golden opportunities to be seized.
Since our conversation, Ray has pointed me to the commencement address he made at Boston University College of Communications, titled Join the Conversation. It’s a great piece, well worth reading, that shows that Ray really understands the forces at play here. His clearly deeply-felt admonition to “join the conversation” is the antithesis of the attitudes of corporate leaders clinging on to the rapidly disintegrating, rigid structures of yesteryear. He finishes his speech with personal advice to the students, including:
Engage your curiosity
Never forget your integrity and credibility
Develop your voice
Foster your creativity
Take with you passion