Putting ‘Public’ Back in Public Relations

The following is an excerpt from The New Influencers: A Marketer’s Guide to the New Social Media by Paul Gillin. The book is scheduled to be published in March, 2007. For more information, visit the book website.

The holidays are typically a slow time in the public relations business. But David Meerman Scott isn’t the type of guy to take it easy. Scott, a former bond trader and content marketing specialist who launched his own marketing consulting company in 2002, took advantage of the 2005-2006 holiday season to write down some ideas that he been kicking around in his head for some time.

What Scott did over the next three weeks would change his career and his life.

It would launch his business in a new direction and make him an internationally recognized authority on content marketing. And it started with a blog.

David Meerman Scott had a beef with the PR business. He had long believed that the public relations profession was too focused on the media. His epiphany came in 1995, when Yahoo! made the decision to start including press releases along with mainstream media coverage on its financial news wires. When you searched on a company name, a press release was just as likely to appear in the search results as a Reuters story. Anyone could now read a press release. So why were PR agencies so focused on the media? And why did they call them “press” releases in the first place?

On December 20, 2005, Scott began to write down his thoughts. He came up with the idea for an electronic book called The New Rules of PR: How to create a press release strategy for reaching buyers directly. In it, he proposed to blow up the old rules of PR. Stop writing press releases only when news happened. Find reasons to send them all the time. Stop writing just for the media. Address the public directly. Make releases rich with searchable keywords and URLs that lead to landing pages on your website. Optimize them for searching and browsing.

It was very Web 2.0 and Scott’s timing was impeccable. He invested a couple of thousand dollars in professional design and, on January 16, 2006, posted the 21-page document on his Web site. Then he fired off e-mails to about 30 friends and waited to see what happened.

“I was hoping for a couple of thousand downloads and maybe three or four mentions from bloggers,” he says. He didn’t have to wait very long.

Viral traffic got news of the book out to a few bloggers, who posted links. Downloads jumped immediately to over 1,000 a day. Then marketing guru Seth Godin posted a link on his blog, praising Scott’s ideas. So did PR super-blogger Steve Rubel, only Rubel was critical of the proposal. It didn’t matter. Traffic skyrocketed.

Between January 19 and 22, more than 15,000 people downloaded the e-book. The blogosphere was swarming. Dozens of bloggers were now commenting on and linking to Scott’s book. The media picked up on the thread. The Toronto Globe and Mail called. Then the Associated Press and Reuters. The Marketing Profs website asked for a bylined article, then an online seminar. Speaking invitations started coming in.

Six months after publication of New Rules, the e-book had been downloaded more than 75,000 times. A Google search on “new rules of PR,” which had returned only one result in January, 2006, yielded 42,000 hits. Scott was under contract with Wiley to turn the e-book into a bound book. And his business was increasingly about advising clients on how to rethink their press releases.

Drinking the Kool-Aid
No profession stands to influence social media more than public relations. And while most corporate marketers remain leery of the new frontier, some PR people are diving in with bold viral marketing campaigns and using the tools of social media to advance their own businesses. David Meerman Scott’s success was almost accidental, though he worked the basics very well. But as marketers come to understand the fundamentals of social media marketing, they’re turning the new forum to their clients’ advantage and to their own.

PR people intuitively understand the value of relationship marketing, with social media simply being another way to build relationships. PR pros have flocked to social media because it plays so naturally to their strengths as relationship managers. PR has long been the neglected stepchild of corporate marketing departments hooked on lead generation and advertising metrics. Social media is its turn to shine.

“The irony of the New PR is that it’s not anything new, it’s just the industry adapting to new forms of communications – which is something that our industry has always been able to do,” wrote Jeremy Pepper, a prominent PR blogger, in a Global PR Blog Week article in late 2005. “PR firms out there do get it, there is an understanding of blogs, and an understanding that PR needs to be involved with blogs – whether tracking, pitching or blogging.”

There are hundreds of PR blogs and quite a few compelling podcasts. Blogger Constantin Basturea maintains a list of PR bloggers that numbered more than 500 by mid-2006. It includes writers from 29 countries and is growing by about 100 listings every six months.

In late 2004, Basturea started the New PR Wiki, an exhaustive resource of interviews, articles, blogs and discussions devoted to the evolution of public relations. It now has more than 60 contributors. There’s also a conference, Global PR Blog Week.

PR professionals see social media as both an opportunity and a threat. The opportunity is to raise the profession’s visibility at a time when market trends are clearly headed their way. The threat is that no one really knows how to deal with all these new influencers.

Consider how complex the public relations profession has become. In 1990, the number of media outlets that were important to any given business probably numbered in the double digits. If you got a hit in the Wall Street Journal, you could take the rest of the month off.

By the late nineties, the Internet had perhaps doubled the size of that list to include a number of special interest websites and a few new syndication services.

Social media has completely disrupted this model. With mainstream media losing readers, listeners and viewers, the growth areas have shifted to special-interest electronic media, including cable channels, satellite radio, and personal blogs. Some product categories, such as consumer electronics, support literally hundreds of bloggers.

Not only has the list of influencers grown, but the dynamics by which they are influenced has changed. In the old days, a company got media coverage by courting a reporter. Today, a news story in a major newspaper may begin as a blog discussion or a viral e-mail thread that takes on a life of its own.

Corporate and agency PR professionals are scrambling to get out in front of this trend and leaders in their field are trying to show the way. So far, it’s largely been a matter of the blind leading the blind. But patterns are emerging that are spawning new companies and taking existing firms in new directions.

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