The use of public relations, or PR, has been around for more than 100 years. But the profession really developed and flourished during the second half of the 20th century.
From the era of Don Draper until just before the publication of The Cluetrain Manifesto, companies had, for the most part, two ways of communicating with large numbers of potential customers through the broadcast or print media: advertising (paid media) or PR (“free” earned media, i.e., getting journalists to write about your company and/or quote your executives).
Then the Internet came along.
The Emergence of Owned Media…
The opening of the Internet and adoption of standards for the worldwide web created a new category—owned media—to supplement paid and earned media. Companies now had a low-cost way to communicate directly with customers, prospects, and stakeholders. The local, industry, and business publications that PR professionals had been dealing with for decades had a new delivery channel with far more immediacy and reach than print for their reporting, directories, and product reviews.
PR pros, being smart and resourceful, adapted to these changes. They moved news release distribution online, coached clients on messaging and web content development, and worked with journalists on suitable story ideas for print and online channels.
Within five years of the emergence of the worldwide web, blogging platforms began to catch on. Industry and financial analysts, as well as trade association leaders—who had always been part of the B2B PR world but played a much smaller role than the media—suddenly had much larger audiences.
More disruptively, blogging gave everyone the chance to be a publisher: middle managers and product experts, customers, industry watchers, anyone with an opinion and a keyboard, could impact the perceptions and fortunes of companies.
…And the Spread of Shared Media
Within ten years of the opening of the Internet, social media platforms were launched and began attracting huge numbers of members. Social media amplified and extended the reach of bloggers and other online content producers, adding another category to the mix: shared media.
As the number of blogs exploded, traditional business media—particularly print—shrank. There were fewer traditional journalists to pitch, and more new media writers. But bloggers for the most part aren’t journalists, and don’t respond to the same outreach messages.
Once again, PR pros adapted, modified their tactics, and continued to play a vital role in all media channels outside of advertising.
These shifts have been documented over time in books like The New Rules of Marketing & PR by David Meerman Scott (originally published in 2007 and now in its fifth edition) and websites like Ragans PR Daily.
Today, the importance of quality content and “earned” backlinks as organic search ranking factors give PR pros a crucial role to play in SEO efforts.
So there’s no question the work PR professionals do, in its evolved form, continues to play a significant role in B2B company success. Given all of the evolution in tactics, targets, and types of content, however, a larger question has emerged: does it make sense to keep calling this “PR”?
The Case for a New Label
Even in the pre-Internet era the term PR was a misnomer, certainly on the B2B side. PR professionals rarely communicated with the public directly, and seldom even tried to influence the general public. They communicated directly with the media (and to a much smaller extent audiences like industry analysts and investment bankers) and were ultimately seeking to reach customers, prospects, investors, other firms in the industry’s supply chain, and potential business partners.
Today the label is even less accurate. 99% of the actual “public” neither knows nor cares what corporate PR departments or B2B agency PR practitioners have to say, and 99% of the communication PR professionals have isn’t actually with the public.
The people we call “PR” pros actually spend most of their time communicating with some mix of local/business/financial/industry media, bloggers, industry and financial analysts, channel and technology partners, industry associations or trade groups, internal staff, universities, and community groups. In short, with influencers. So why not call it “influencer relations”?
The term much better defines what these professionals do. It avoids confusion with “PR” referring to “press release.” It nicely encompasses all the sub-genres of the profession: media relations, analyst relations, investor relations, employee relations, community relations, etc.. And it’s much more straightforward and accurate: the work of today’s “PR” pros is really about building relationships with key influencers across an industry, who work in an expanded variety of roles.
What do you think—is it time to ditch PR (the term, not the people)and embrace a new, more accurate term for this profession in a new era?