Talk to any public relations (PR) professional and they’ll admit that the advent of digital marketing and social media has changed their industry. Some will say they’ve adapted. And I truly believe that some have. But not all.
Some still don’t fully understand this new form of marketing, in particular Facebook as a social media and advertising platform, from the client’s perspective. Without understanding that they’ll never understand what they’re up against, so let me share my perspective as a fairly steady PR client since 2004. I’ve co-founded two consumer products companies. During the past year we’ve been using PR for my current company, Thread Experiment, which sells home bedding designed for men. I’ve noticed a significant change in the impact of PR since 12 years ago when I founded my first company.
In its most basic function, PR gets brands placed in various media sources. Whether it be magazine, TV or blog, a mention of your brand, a product photo, or a full write-up on your business often creates fantastic exposure to readers/viewers of that medium. Implied in that placement is a form of unbiased endorsement of the brand. As a result, readers or viewers are likelier to shop and/or purchase the brand’s products. That’s the goal of PR, anyway.
Even when PR placement doesn’t directly result in a sale, it still has an ancillary benefit -- branding. One exposure may not make a sale but repeated exposures, at a minimum sharpen brand recognition that may ultimately cause a consumer to order products. Hiring a PR firm (or someone in-house) is not inexpensive. Costs ranging between $35,000-$120,000 per year are typical, depending on the firm, the brand and the work involved. What a PR firm provided for you was irreplaceable with results incomparable to basic advertising. For obvious reasons, it is always more influential for a third-party to endorse your brand (PR) rather than for you to boast about how great your brand is (advertising).
In my opinion, however, Facebook has reduced the positive impact of PR and is challenging whether PR is "irreplaceable" or "incomparable" anymore. This has occurred in two completely different ways.
1. Lack of loyalty to news sources diminishes their influence.
The internet boasts a seemingly limitless number of media outlets and blogs covering topics ranging from politics to fashion. These media publish articles and distribute them through their own Facebook accounts. Facebook users then read and share these articles on Facebook all day and all night. It never seems to stop.
The result? More people are reading articles from more news sources than ever before. In the good ol’ days, people typically had one or two newspapers delivered to them each morning and received three to five magazines each week. Throw in a couple of regular TV news programs and that made up the full extent of media sources a person would consume.
Nowadays, with Facebook, readers are exposed to more news stories from more news outlets than ever before. The news they consume does not just come from the media they follow but also from the 300 to 3,000 friends on Facebook who spend all day sharing stories from their own personal news feeds. (On a side note, what’s up with these people who have 3,000 Facebook friends?)
With so much news to consume from so many different media outlets, readers are no longer getting their information from a few news sources. This means that their loyalty has diminished which, in effect, means that those media outlets’ influence has diminished as well. For example, for someone who follows women’s fashion, Vogue and Glamour have long been the top sources for advice and endorsements on brands and products. Now non-fashion news sources such as Time or Business Insider delve into topics like women’s fashion. And, of course, you can find thousands of blogs on women’s fashion that offer some solid advice/endorsements as well.
With Facebook’s platform, this type of news can now reach the same level of distribution as a glossy Vogue or Glamour magazine. That was never possible before Facebook. As a result, traditional forms of media are arguably becoming less influential. Indeed, the diversity of media out there has effectively caused all of the media to be less influential than it used to be.
This affects the power of PR. With the dilution of influence out there in the media, a placement in any one of the media has a lot less impact on its readers than it used to. Which means that if your company’s marketing plan was to get multiple PR placements in the media, the impact of those placements just is not what it used to be.
2. Facebook Advertising and the new branding.
One of the great things about PR is getting repeated placements to make consumers familiar with a brand’s name, logos and/or products, creating familiarity and trust in that brand. However, Facebook Advertising puts multiple exposures of the brand in front of target consumers with a very specific demographic, multiple times a day. The ads seem not to bother Facebook users, as Facebook has now conditioned its users to viewing ads in their feed that fit their personal interests. And it is precisely that which makes Facebook Advertising a new competitor to PR. With Facebook Advertising, companies can effectively brand themselves, likely with far less effort and money than through PR.
By way of example, the most successful PR campaigns yield five to seven placements in a month. As mentioned above, that cost could be between $3,000 - $10,000 per month in PR fees. However, for the same amount of money, a brand can launch numerous Facebook campaigns to reach the same (or even greater) number of consumers. And not just any consumers - consumers that the brand chooses to target. Yes, it’s true, a Facebook Advertising campaign may have a lesser influential effect for the same “advertising vs PR” reasoning I identified earlier. However, given the greater and more targeted reach, Facebook Advertising is unquestionably the more cost efficient route for branding your company.
So, is PR dead?
First, I hope all my PR friends don’t hate me. I certainly don’t believe that PR is a dead industry and there is still certainly a need for media placements. I’m simply suggesting that those placements no longer have the powerful effect they once had.
PR professionals can still survive (and thrive) by offering clients more than just placement services. With many of them being brilliant creative marketers, they have to also offer strategic marketing campaigns that help their clients get noticed in all the noise that social media has created. This can be through traditional or digital marketing. But to get there, PR professionals need to first acknowledge that some of what they do is now threatened by Facebook news and advertising. Only then will they succeed in surviving and thriving in this new era of marketing and branding.