Who Are You?

For readers who work in or with public relations, I have a question for you. A local agency’s recent declaration that it is no longer a public relation agency raises the question The Who’s Pete Townshend posed in 1978: Who are you?

Are you an “integrated consumer marketer,” as the agency formerly known as “Fast Horse public relations” proclaimed? Are you a reputation manager, or a brand manager? Are you just a good old-fashioned public relations gal or guy? Or are you a Prince-esque glyph? Who, who, who, who?

And what’s this renaming all about? Just an industry refreshing its image with new wordsmithing, or the sign of fundamental change in the industry?

Admittedly, I’m a dinosaur (see obscure Pete Townshend reference). But to me the business hasn’t changed enough to merit a trip to the thesaurus. Whether you’re delivering messages through news stories, trade publications, various types of ads, events, street marketing, websites, podcasts, blogs, vlogs, clogs, or next month’s on-line fad…its still just about persuading people.

Yes, I know the media landscape has changed. People are not consuming nearly as much mainstream media as they used to. They are getting their information from a long and ever-changing list of sources. The gatekeepers of information have changed, and in some media have evaporated. People face a bewildering amount of information clutter, and therefore messages need to be more brief, provocative, personal and engaging to get noticed and remembered. Yada, yada. We all give or view the same PowerPoint presentation.

And I find this has changed my job, in relatively superficial ways. These days, I find myself delivering messages through Facebook, YouTube, sidewalk chalking, street marketing crews, point-of-decision prompts (don’t ask), and other “new media.” And every time I do it, I pat myself on the back and feel oh so “bleeding edge.”

But, really, my job hasn’t changed that much.

I still face the same basic task of aligning the right message and media with the right audiences. As my media toolbox has gotten larger, it strikes me that my job has changed tactically, but not strategically.

Or am I missing something? And if I am missing something, what is the best new name for the industry formerly known as PR. Who are you?

— Joe Loveland

9 thoughts on “Who Are You?

  1. I, too, thought it was an “interesting” (in quotes because it’s not really interesting; I just don’t know what other word to use) bit of “news” (same logic for quotes) when that announcement was made.

    I heard something brilliant the other day. With this new technology and such, not much has changed, but now this is true: People in public relations can, much more easily, actually practice public relations, rather than just media relations. Imagine that — actually relating with a public or two. Wild!

    (Speaking of Wild, the Ducks had better watch out for the Boogeyman tonight!)

  2. Jorg Pierach says:

    Love the discussion. As expected, the reactions we’ve gotten to our repositioning have ranged from “so what” to “dead on.” Predictably, most of the “so what” reactions have come from PR people, while the most effusive support for the move has come from those outside of PR. Why? This move has very little to do with any changes in what PR people do, and everything to do with what has happened in the advertising industry over the past few years. Want proof? Read Pat Fallon’s “Juicing the Orange.” It’s a look at the 25-year history of a venerable advertising agency. Much of the work highlighted, however, is not what most would consider traditional advertising. Instead, Fallon goes on and on with “non-traditional advertising” case studies, such as the Holiday Inn’s Towel Amnesty Day. Here’s the deal, though, Pat. A program like Towel Amnesty Day is a classic PR program. We PR people have been doing that sort of “non-traditional” stuff for years. In fact, Holiday Inn’s PR firm came up with the Towel Amnesty idea. But as Fallon describes this “non-traditional” campaign, he limits the “public relations component” to media relations. Maddening. And par for the course, I’m afraid.

    We didn’t reposition because what we do has dramatically changed. We did this because the competitive landscape for a creative consumer-focused shop like Fast Horse has dramatically changed, and we can’t risk being pigeon-holed into media relations while ad agencies and others continue to carve out huge chunks of this “non-traditional” turf.

  3. jloveland says:

    Full disclosure: Jorg is a former colleague and we work together on an account.

    Good explanation, and I understand the thinking. You’re right that ad agencies have a hard time thinking about PR as anything other than media relations and events. This is particularly an issue for a consumer shop like Fast Horse.

    If I were trying this, what I would worry about is that the people who often purchase PR are people with backgrounds in or around PR, and that their reaction to the repackaging, once I leave the room, actually might be more worrisome than “so what.” Eye rolling, snickers or confusion. I have absolutely no sense that is or isn’t happening here, but that is what I would worry about.

    Occasionally, these kinds of issues arise in other industries — a car company insisting it be called a “mobile entertainment” enterprise or a garbage company insisting it be called a “hygienic enrichment” company. Stuff like that. As in this case, the suggested new description is plenty accurate. But sometimes people are used to the old term, resent being asked to change their comfortable label and therefore conclude it’s all a lot of BS.

    So, I guess my orientation would be to show (i.e. spotlight case studies of non-traditional successes) more than tell (i.e. proclaim reclassification), but I do support trying to convince people that PR is more than media relations and events.

  4. Jorg Pierach says:

    As Roberto Goizueta, the late CEO of The Coca-Cola Company, used to say, “You can’t stumble unless you’re moving.” If they only impression we’ve left with PR people after we’ve exited a room is that there’s very little substance to our approach, then they absolutely should have a hearty snicker at our expense and move on. But we’re honestly not concerned about that. The biggest concern for us, and any other agency for that matter, is that we don’t get invited into the room to begin with, by PR people or otherwise. We think the time is right to make a big bet on our ability to compete on ideas beyond traditional boundaries. To do that, we have to tear down some fences. We know this will cost us some opportunities short term. But we are confident it’s the right thing to do long term. We still have an opportunity to create a strong first impression among the vast majority of those who buy the kind of consumer marketing work we do best. Many of those people are in PR. Most are not. The good news is that we only need to convince a very, very small number that we know our stuff. If some of the rest roll their eyes and snicker, then so be it. Ya can’t win ‘em all.

  5. Dave Jackson says:

    I’ve always preferred to think of myself as a “stand-up philosopher.”

    Seriously, I think the term “public relations” is a great way to describe what we do, but so few understand it. They say things like: “So you talk to the press?” Or worse “So you spin things?” So I think doing good, solid work under any name will help our profession more than changing what we call it.

    DJ

  6. Carl Spackler says:

    PR itself has such a bad name, I’d do anything I could to distance myself from that appellation.

  7. I’ve never known what to call myself in 18 years in PR. As a former reporter and a college journalism teacher, I used to slam PR, because of its reputation for spin and, well, bullshit.

    I now coach people on giving interviews and speeches. I could say I’m a communicator — a lot of my clients call themselves communicators. But that’s so broad. I say I help people communicate with more clarity and passion. Is what I do teaching? Coaching? PR? I don’t care what it’s called — the best description of what I do comes from the results my clients get.

    So maybe what we call ourselves should come from the results of what we do more than from how we do whatever it is we do.

    I’ve heard Jorg say FastHorse helps organizations connect with consumers. That’s pretty clear. And it doesn’t mention the media, or ads, or sidewalk chalk. Because FastHorse will do all kinds of stuff to make the connection — and it’s the connection that matters, that sells, that moves people and products.

    (Full disclosure, Jorg’s a dear friend who occasionally gives me work, and, more importantly, often gives me rum.)

  8. jloveland says:

    I know what you mean about not knowing what to call yourself. Personally, I find myself torn between Spacecowboy, Gangster of Love and Maurice.

  9. Steve Conway says:

    In a past lifetime I worked in a few PR agencies and know Jorg from one of them. I divvy up agencies according to whether they are more client-centered or agency-centered. In my experience (especially as a client), more than a few agencies are mostly about themselves and maximizing profit at the expense of service. I myself think the Fast Horse reorg is not revolutionary (nihil novi sub sole), but I know Jorg and colleagues are on the side of the clients in attempting this. Good enough for me.

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