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April 23, 2009
Could It Be? Is PR Becoming Unnecessary?
During the rainy late winter, I had a damning thought about the industry I spent these years backing in: Can it be that PR professionals aren't as necessary as we once were to the corporate culture? Uh-oh.
In years past, the "science" of PR was seen as a sham that we could put over on whoever contracted us. We did our jobs and, as long as we were charming and insouciant, most clients seemed to think we were in the way or a nuisance.
Don't look so shocked.
Keeping clients happy was once a cakewalk. Write up press releases with some good words in them, get the messages right, pick up some ink, pat yourself on the back...rinse and repeat.
Then poof! All of a sudden, everyone became aware of the capabilities and value of real PR. The media began to tell their readers and viewers how much spin they receive. That stopped the coasting of our PR colleagues: No one can do what was de rigueur, that "my report reads fine so I'm doing well" kind of PR. There is a need for fewer of us because so few can provide proof of the value-add for the profession.
Once those who employ us figure out they can do it themselves en masse, we might as well face facts: They'll find a way to get someone who's already being paid to do what we proclaimed only we could do. Or, to paraphrase Sandra Bernhard, without us, they're suddenly NOT nothing.
I remember 1990 like it was yesterday. My colleagues at Columbia Business School (I was PR Director) as well as the Stepfordish public-affairs director thought what I did was special and incomprehensible: "Richard got us on the front page of the Journal and the Times on the same day. However did he?"
No way any cynical businessperson would say that today. Our media friends write about how PR fit into their stories with such fervor it's hard to imagine why anyone who skims papers or half-watches the tube doesn't say, "Man, this PR thing sounds
pretty darn easy to me."
Another suggestion is that we start a new type of PR-speak that only the natives understand. Marketing speaks in a foreign language--why not us? But I'm trying to avoid doing something that can be undone.
We damaged ourselves by forgetting how much of our work is suspicious to the paper pushers in our lives, but I see a way we might live again: The best, or most sensible, manner in which we can jump back into the 'necessary' bin is to provide, just like PBS, education with the entertainment.
Maybe it's time for us pros to hold the hands of our employers and customers, and display our wares so that we are not only great to work with but we're also able to provide a learning experience in a subject everyone wants to learn more about.
Could we prove our worth by just not talking about 'found stats' all the time and, instead, spending our daydreams imagining what it's like to be the people we're promoting?
As we get more involved in the daily business happenings of C-level types, we ask tons of relevant questions and provide serious knowledge.
Here's a twofer: You find out more for your files and offer a more- than-cursory learning experience.
And now the business types get an acute whiff of what we do. The people who think they can "totally do" PR discover that our business successes are hard-won via thought and sweat; that is, we bring something to the proverbial table that only PR execs are knowledgeable about. We become the visionaries our elementary- school teachers wished for us.
Like a lot of you guys, I spent the last few years getting more involved in the business dealings of all clientele/managers. I say go one step further. Teach. Make the curious see for a change how you hold the keys to knowledge.
By providing education up and down the line, we can put a stop to the naysayers from assuming what we do is obvious. That's a step toward keeping our jobs, revenue, and clients engaged. It's nothing less than that newfound sense of urgency for the PR industry.  Aren’t you glad you’re a professional?
And then you won’t have a damning thought about how little we’re needed — ever again.
Twitter @laermer

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Richard Laermer is CEO of New York's RLM pr, representing, among others, e-Miles, Epic Advertising, Yodlee, Revolution Money, Group Commerce, Smith & Nephew, and HotChalk. He was host of TLC's cult program Taking Care of Business and speaks on trends and marketing for corporate groups. You can read Laermer on The Huffington Post and on the mischievous but all-too-necessary Bad Pitch Blog. For more like this, follow him on @laermer.

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