Exit: Stage SHIFT, and the State of Public Relations


First off, a piece of personal news: today marks my last day at SHIFT Communications. It has been a great ride and I am leaving some friends, particularly a great team, behind, What’s next? It is too early to tell tales, but my next move is sure to include explicit responsibilities relating to social media. I believe social media is only going to take more and more of our time, attention and resources- whether “we” toil in PR, marketing, advertising, or numerous other departments.  In fact, that thinking leads me to the meat of this post; rather than talk about my own moves (though I will be sure to update here once I have decided on my next step), I thought I would take a gander at where public relations is and how I think it, and its related disciplines, are changing.

Isn’t this a better idea than an “End of Year” list or “2010 Predictions” post? I



think so. Even if you don’t, let me have it in comments.

Where Public Relations Has Come in the Last Five Years and How It is Changing

I’ll start by saying that I am making no declarations or writing a manifesto here- but stating my observations. If you think that’s the same thing, cheers.

  • Public Relations as Media Relations Mill is Coming to an End

Public relations agencies have actually made progress in scaling down the mass-spamming of media targets, at least in my experience (that’s not the same as saying it’s gone, of course). However, the reliance on media relations as the backbone of PR agency work seems to be getting its oxygen only from client demands to be in this or that publication.  When clients deprive us of that oxygen, we will be freer (or forced) to pitch our talents in other areas: strategy, social media, content creation and other more creative, effective pursuits. I can say from experience that clients are already clamoring for more strategic counsel vs. more of the same ol’ media relations. That’s a great, early sign of what may come.

  • PR Agencies Must Catch Up to Each Other in Social Media Know-How

Some agencies “got it” early, and I have been lucky enough to work for two–SHIFT Communications and Topaz Partners– over the last several years. Other agencies, including larger ones, have caught up (have they?). Is the next step that the early leaders dart out ahead on the Next Big Thing? Or do larger agencies scale up their social media services to the point where it’s a standard discipline? I would love to see the former- and I think we are already seeing the latter (witness Edelman, no slouch in social media awareness anyway, and its recent hire of David Armano).

The opportunities to teach social media and create more awareness among clients, agency talent, and the industry at large is still there. If anything, the audience has increased and is hungrier.

  • We Won’t Figure Out Measurement, or Will We?

I am fond of saying that PR should own social media because we have had decades of practice in not being able to figure out measurement. Social media was made for us? Of course, we can figure out measurement- the only question is do we want to, and do we want to do it in a way that will show clear benefits to clients? I will continue to pay attention to the likes of Katie Paine to try and stay on top of this important, untamed aspect of the PR industry. I will definitely be working harder on measurement in 2010.

  • “Personal Brand” Should be Recognized for What it Is: a Networking and Reputation Boon for Companies

Here in Boston, when I go to events, I am used to the fact that typically, very few PR agencies are represented at the events. Good old-fashioned face-to-face networking is a must– and the people that use social media to build up their own “brand” or whatever you want to call it would be foolish  to squander that on online pursuits only.  I’m not talking about traveling to conferences if you don’t have the budget- but I can’t say enough about the value of that- I am talking even more about what you can do without a big budget: impromptu “Tweet-ups” and other gatherings- especially to greet visitors from out-of-town; local industry events, whether they be for PR/Marketing groups or for clients’ vertical industries.

The most visible agencies will win that battle in each city. In Boston, I would argue that mantle is up for grabs. Looking back to my earlier paragraph, many PR folks know more about PR than others know. Time to stop hiding that light under a bushel.

  • Will PR, Marketing, Advertising and other Functions Merge?

That’s a fascinating question. I watch to see if companies look at “full-service” agencies, or if social media becomes a set of tool fitting the needs of the separate disciplines (include customer service and even sales in that group), which remain distinct. I lean toward the latter. PR and advertising, in particular, want to hold on to their at times diametrically opposed views on earned vs. paid attention, and how social media serves that. I continue to be entertained and educated by the stories of PR efforts that strike a wrong chord- or even anger customers, as well as advertising efforts upended by creative that is too clever for its own good, at the expense of relevance and engagement.

Who will win? I don’t think we need a winner.

On to 2010

Will I stay in PR? I think there is a lot of unfinished work I could attend to, whether at agencies or in-house. On the other hand, it is also an opportunity to redefine what I do- does it make sense to pursue positions that have more specific social media responsibilities? I think so- now is the time. What form that takes is a matter of time, people and opportunity- and there is a lot of that right now. 2010 is going to be a great and fascinating year.


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  1. Doug, best of luck with your next move!

    Your point about face-to-face networking is spot on. Only so much brand-building can be done online – meeting people in real life makes a huge difference (both personally and professionally).

    Keep on the bike!

  2. Great, thoughtful post, Doug, and I’m really looking forward to your next move! Wherever you decide to apply your capabilities and talents, I’m cheering you on. Your observations pinpoint the key issues right now for PR’s relationship (and integration with) social media practices.

    In a risky move, I decided not to call myself primarily a PR firm a few years ago, after many years of running a successful PR business. Now, I’m not even calling myself a “social media specialist” as a primary identity because (1), there are so many making that claim now; and (2), it’s about where we are going with the social media tools—as you mentioned, there are so many uses and creative applications possible across organizational silos. Social media is no longer completely owned by PR and marketing, although certainly, all practitioners in those fields should be trained in social media strategy and integration, in my opinion. Measurement and metrics—how to obtain them, analyze and evaluate them—needs to be a required part of that training.

    Now, I think we are moving quickly toward integration of overall business strategy, innovation, collaboration and social media, social networking and uses of both external and internal communities, so my own business focus has moved to discovering and facilitating new opportunities at that crossroad. We’re already seeing exciting new business opportunities there, as well as world-changing opportunities for nonprofits, social entrepreneurs and social innovation. These trends excite me more than anything else and will redefine some of the labels we have taken for granted in the past. Ooh…I feel some blog posts coming on…Happy New Year, and keep us posted on what you’re up to! Best to you in taking your next steps.

  3. Todd- Thanks, and I am flattered to rate “hombre” rather than “amigo.” Don’t think I don’t catch those little things :)

    Tim – “Meating” it is. Look for it in the next Word of the Year announcement.

    Amy- Thanks, and I can;t wait to get back on the bike– soon!

    Jon- Thanks for the well-wishes.

    Mark – At the risk of sounding not-humble, I share your confidence. There is a lot of interesting opportunity out there.

  4. Cathryn- Thanks! Comments like yours are what really make a blog post sing. You reinforce the idea that for me, “PR” does not have to be my designation- or, that what “PR” is is changing, and I want to stay at the forefront of those changes.

    Now; I’m looking forward to your blog posts!

  5. I hope you wont ever stop! This is one of the better blogs Ive ever understand. Youve got some angry skill here, man. I just hope you dont lose your style because youre definitely among the many coolest bloggers out truth be told there. Please keep it up because of the internet needs someone as you spreading the word.

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