Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube: it’s a whole new landscape for public- relations professionals, and steering the message is increasingly hard. But is social media really to blame for the death of Wilcox PR, one of Vancouver’s top agencies?
Mat Wilcox is a veritable poster child for social media.
My requests to the corporate-crisis guru for an interview? Real-time replies sent from her workhorse BlackBerry’s Twitter account. The 48-year-old’s thoughts on my questions? Snappily tweeted to her followers, or what she dubs her “3,000-person family.” Even the photo shoot for this story was tweeted, with running commentary and accompanying behind-the-scenes TweetPhotos (“Photog says, ‘We are going with your part.’ I think he meant hair part?”).
Perhaps the self-styled “rock star” of public relations – whose Wilcox Group, with offices in Vancouver and Toronto, developed a sterling reputation for its handling of a maelstrom of issues, from avian flu to labour disputes to product tampering – believes she was made for social media? “I believe I am!” Wilcox, dressed in a sleek Ports 1961 dress, diamond earrings and high-octane Christian Dior shoes, guffaws, widening her eyes and arms and tilting back her head. “I love it. Out of 15 years of dealing with every type of crisis, the past two years have been the most fascinating of all of them, by far, because of this.”
So the news in early June that Wilcox’s multimillion-dollar firm was to close its doors on August 31 because there was no longer a business model for what she did, given “the emergence and influence of social media,” caught the tight-knit public-relations industry off guard. (Wilcox’s much-documented hard-core treatment for life-threatening parotid gland cancer over the past two years did not, she insists, factor in her decision. “I didn’t have some revelation [during that time],” she says, “but it has made me more irreverent.”)
Her valedictory address came, of course, in the form of a blog entry.
Although company-to-company comparisons can be fatuous – PR encompasses a smorgasbord of different specialties, from Wilcox’s type of crisis-and-issues management to special events, marketing, public affairs or government relations – viewed as a whole, the industry has been on the rise. Operating revenues across the country grew 13.8 per cent between 2006 and 2008, according to the latest data available from Statistics Canada. Even during the past two years – amid a global recession and the intrusion of social media upon the established communications triangle of PR, advertising and newspapers-magazines-TV – there is anecdotal evidence of solid growth from many B.C. firms.
“There’s never been a more exciting time to be in the profession,” enthuses Paul Welsh, the 46-year-old general manager of Edelman Vancouver (formerly Karyo Communications Inc.), a Yaletown PR firm that grosses $5 million annually. PR, he sanguinely points out, is now encroaching on the market share of advertising agencies. “Money once spent on advertising is coming to us to create digital programs, and we are not just about public relations anymore; we’re about public engagement,” he adds. “We are moving from what was a silo in the marketing-communications operations of organizations right to a seat with the senior decision-makers.”
Paul Cubbon, a marketing instructor at UBC’s Sauder School of Business who studies branding and reputation, agrees. PR and social media can be a seamless fit, he says, and once you move on from the traditional PR model as a “one-way megaphone blasting things out” – while still maintaining the old ethos of being proactive – social media can be a great asset. “It allows PR firms to listen much earlier to, and be much more in tune with, the conversations that people are having about your brands all the time,” he says.