Mat Wilcox, in her own words, on why she decided to stun Vancouver PR by shutting her shop down.
When I closed my firm in August, many thought I was sounding the death knell for public relations.
What I said then was that PR firms and practitioners must evolve dramatically to meet the changing needs brought by social media. Old PR strategies aren't meeting clients' needs (by “clients” I mean the sponsors of large campaigns, not one-off marketing jags). Media and consumers expect to receive information at the speed of light, 24 hours a day, at their convenience. The upshot? Our industry needs to focus on connecting directly with the public more than ever before.
Social media engages enormous audiences in a short time and perception can harden into reality very quickly. Tweets and retweets reach as many people instantly as some radio stations reach in a quarter-hour. Companies need huge resources to react quickly and senior strategists to identify gaps and provide analysis. Full-service PR firms that use social media now need much bigger teams to handle a crisis. And it hardly needs saying, big teams cost big money.
The issues PR clients have with social media are two: that they don't know how to measure it and they are loath to pay for it. Traditional PR tactics can be measured – although there’s disagreement on measurement standards – but social media measurement tools are cumbersome and expensive. On top of it all, it takes an incredible amount of manpower to sift through all the information.
Many corporations are unprepared for the onslaught of social media and have reservations about how to manage it properly. Unfortunately, some choose not to manage it at all, feeling they lack the resources to engage in this new medium. Online comments may be baseless, based on pure rumour; of course, public companies won't and can't comment on rumours. On the obverse, many companies react too vigorously to online comments, overcompensating for small glitches rather than simply saying, "I am sorry you had a bad customer experience."
In a crisis, CEOs are now required to be actors on YouTube. Few are trained or prepared for that the medium. Another big problem are actors like "fake" BP Twitter channel. Hijacking brands is an especially knotty problem. In my opinion, JetBlue did a fantastic job with its communications responding to the flight attendant who made a dramatic job exit earlier this summer.
Today, companies are dealing with exponentially bigger audiences than ever before. And everyone is a critic. Wilcox would have needed a team at least triple the size to handle speed-of-light information broadcast via non-traditional channels like blogs, Facebook, YouTube and USTREAM. We lost the luxury of concise, well-planned communications, and there can be no waiting until the next day to address an issue.
How do you charge for social media in a crisis? And who wants to pay for something they can't really wrap their head around? Not many companies are prepared to give an open budget to deal with these issues without having an understanding of what the cost will be. Tricky. But the more important question is, What does it cost the brand if companies remain on the sidelines?
So, is PR dead? No. But taking place are tectonic shifts in the way PR professionals need to think.