Looking back at PR companies of yesteryear, I see companies who were fantastic at creating compelling messages that consumers would identify with. That was difficult work, but the nice thing was once it was done, you could inundate people with the message through mass media, including TV, radio, and print.
In some ways, PR was like the Wizard in the Wizard of Oz. A small group – in that case, one man – managed to create a huge message.
This also worked well for many businesses since it made PR pretty darn simple. Just throw money at a smart firm who’ll create and spread a message on your behalf.
But now we live in a world where the waters have been muddied. Consumers are often turning to the web first for information on products of services they’re considering purchasing, and they’re not turning to the web to seek out messages created by PR firms. Instead, they’re looking for information from other people who have already used the same product. People who will give you an authentic take on whether a product is valuable.
This appears to be the biggest challenge for companies who sell commodity products who – up through now – have relied on brand dominance to sell their products. For example, if you think of disposable baby diapers, there are probably only a handful of brands that come to mind, and that’s the way those brands like it.
But what happens when people start caring more about the environmental impact of disposable diapers? Perhaps they’re reading a blog on a daily basis about environmental issues and the topic of diapers comes up. The blogger, or perhaps a respected commenter, praises a brand of diapers the eco-friendly shopper hasn’t heard of in the past, but decided to hop on Amazon and order a case after hearing about how much less damaging they are to the environment.
In one blog post, the thousands and thousands of diaper commercials from a major brand are thrown out the window and they’re now on the defensive. A new brand has snuck up on them through word of mouth endorsements.
The mega-diaper company sees what’s happening, goes to their PR firm, and says, “you have to do something about this.” But what?
This is where PR is evolving today. PR firms are used to being the wizard who works behind the scene to create and distribute messages on behalf of their clients. But in today’s world, people are looking for authentic relationships with brands, which means they want to talk to people working for the company they’re buying from. And they want those people to sound like humans rather than company line regurgitators.
It seems like the evolutionary path here will be a disintermediation of PR firms with more direct relationships between businesses and their customers. If customers tell businesses directly what they like and don’t like about the company’s services or products, there is a good chance they’ll be able to create new niche products to meet their needs rather than losing market share to new companies fulfilling unmet customer requests.
Disasters will happen when PR teams are asked to front for companies. It’s already been happening and will continue to happen as long as companies think throwing money at PR firms is a better option than talking to their customers directly.
PR firms will move from their current player/coach role to more of a coach/consultant role where they teach companies how to talk to people, help them set up teams to do so, and work through difficult situations with them.
The Wizard’s role is shrinking but is still very valuable.