Saturday, December 3, 2011


"Watch it, fella!!
You're about to run
right into a faith-
shaking agonizing
History’s highway is littered with the wreckage of blue chippers who ignored the "paradigm shift ahead" signs posted whenever a game-changing technology alters the landscape.

Talkies killed the silent screen. Video killed the radio star. (Then Napster bankrupted the entire music industry and was soon after cannibalized by Rhapsody.) Netflix killed Blockbuster before attempting to kill itself
And that was just the start of the Internet killing spree. The dead and dying include record stores, travel agents, newspapers, the Yellow Pages, the White Pages, books with pages, and very soon ... the PR industry.

"Lil snookims! You're
so cute I could
just eat you up!!"

"Back atcha, sister."
While demonstrably false, legend has it that silent-screen star Marie Provost was so despondent about flopping in the talkies that she drank herself to death, dying alone and penniless in a rundown apartment. According to the legend, her pet dachshund survived for weeks on her corpse until the cops discovered her remaining remains.
Clark, Lytle, Geduldig & Cranford should be so lucky.
 Ignoring every warning that we are actually in the Internet Age, "issue advocacy" firm CLG&C proposed "construct[ing] fact-based negative narratives" of the Occupy Wall Street participants and their funders by digging up "civil and criminal information, litigation history, tax liens, bankruptcies, judgments, and other associations." The unsolicited proposal was leaked. Hilarity ensued.

 While CLG&C knew that the Internet makes it more difficult to conceal stupidity--"The transparency of social media platforms offers an excellent opportunity to ... identify extreme language and ideas that put [OWS'] most ardent supporters at odds with mainstream Americans"--they apparently didn't realize that the Internet doesn't choose sides. It works for, and against, everyone.
When worlds collide.
(You can find anything
on the Internet.)
And they didn't seem to get that the Internet had already dramatically shifted the power of persuasion from Mad Men to grumpy bloggers, suggesting that "the cost and reach [of paid advertising] makes it a potential strategic advantage for you in a message war against the grassroots movement like OWS." Guess they hadn't seen all the UC Davis Sgt. Pepper memes.  
Perhaps the most fascinating element of the memo was the price tag. At $850,000 for two months work, these Masters of the 20th Century Universe were going to bill their prospective client $14,166 per day (assuming they'd be working seven days a week ... which ain't gonna happen). Pretty ballsy stuff.
It's interesting to note that their daily rate is just $334 shy of the gross annual income of a full-time minimum-wage worker.  
Of course, CLG&C was not the first advocacy firm to lose an eye rough-housing with the Internet. The PR industry is lighting up more exploding cigars than an arsonist in a novelty-store warehouse. Here are a few doozies:

Killed by a buildup of toxic
gasses in K Cole's mind?.
Twitter Twaddle: Even before Rep. Anthony Weiner got booted from Congress for inappropriate twitillation, designer Kenneth Cole tested Twitter's boundaries with an astoundingly tone-deaf tweet linking the Cairo uprising and his new Spring line. He failed the test.

Duick T-Bones Toyota: Hoping to generate buzz for Toyota's Matrix, Saatchi & Saatchi LA created an online "stalking" promotion that frightened unwitting "participant" Amanda Duick so thoroughly that she sued Toyota for $10 million.

RedFacebook: Threatened by Google's growth, Facebook hired Burson-Marsteller to gin up negative stories about their rival. Being hip, Burson asked an influential blogger to write a Google-bashing op-ed which they would be "happy to place." Being clueless, they refused to tell him whom they represented. Imagine Burson's surprise when the blogger posted their entire email exchange.

NetFlakes: Moments before crying "uncle," Netflix CEO Reed Hastings made a last-ditch effort to convince Wall Street and his customers that destroying Netflix was a savvy business move. He went all-out, employing the failsafe Youtube-ready CEO mea culpa. Open-collared pastel shirt? Check. Casual outdoor setting? Check. Occasional empathetic gaze? Check. Actual empathy? Not a whiff. 

Bad news: Netflix' stock tanked. Good news: "Hastings on the Hustings" was the most popular Netflix video that month.

The Internet has so vexed old-school PR flacks that the Public Relations Society of America just launched their "Public Relations Defined" campaign. Modeled on RCA's unsuccessful "Rewinding the Victrola" campaign, "PR Defined" is an "international effort in collaboration with multiple industry partners, to modernize the definition of public relations. In a small way, we seek to rebrand the profession."

And in a very small way they did.

Despite an aggressive online promotion with their "multiple industry partners," PRSA received a paltry 900 submissions from the field. Compare that to the 200,000 people who signed a petition to "Save Thanksgiving" that was kickstarted by a part-time cart jockey working at an Omaha Target.

The PRSA's miniscule turnout "rebranded" the profession as out of touch and fading fast.

Here's the lesson: Traditional PR is as useless as the "check engine" light on a rental car. Exorbitantly priced campaigns do not create buzz on the Internet. Compelling stories do. If there is a role for PR practitioners in the future, it will be as communication artists who can divine gripping narratives from the many elements that comprise their client's story and their client's challenge.

Good PR is about finding the most compelling story. Teaching your clients how to tell it. And connecting them with the audiences they need to share their story with. It's easy ... if you're an artist.


  1. Wow! Spot on. I've believed, and shared, since my first days in PR that it's all about finding the most compelling story. I've worked at some of the places you mention here and it's insane that companies will still pay for "traditional" pr. Not all traditions deserve to persevere...storytelling is an ancient art and I'm happy to do my part to keep it alive! Best wishes for a great 2012! Storyteller, Jeri Cohen

  2. PR has ALWAYS been about finding and telling the most compelling story. Sounds like you're not very familiar with the field of PR.