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May 24, 2010
No Matter How PR Evolves, Message Remains King

One of the things business is fond of doing is spending endless hours debating what the future will be like and how it will threaten the way things have been done over the recent past. PR is no exception to this, with the debate largely focusing on the evolving media landscape and the increasing importance of online publications/mediums over print. However, there are some simple things that, if kept in mind, will ensure future success.

Unfortunately, one thing we've lost appreciation for in American society is the art of writing. Sure, we all claim to do it with varying regularity, but its role has changed just as the way we've “digested” information has changed. While at one point in time, it was very common for the average American to receive a daily or weekly newspaper, newspaper circulation has continued to drop -- first with the increasing influence of television and then in the mid-'90s with the proliferation of the Internet.

That trend has slowly taken us away from long-form journalism typically found in newspapers and news magazines toward shorter-form narratives on television, blogs, and other online publications. Interestingly, I would posit that most didn't notice the trend when it first started, since you don't usually time broadcast news pieces or count the words in an online news article or blog posting. It's been happening for a while, and I would put it as one of the big reasons that newspapers have run into so much trouble. Simply put, we don't really have much of an attention span anymore.

For PR pros, this trend has brought an interesting challenge. On one hand, the number of overall outlets actually has increased if you count online venues like The Huffington Post and other blogs and e-zines that actually practice journalism. On the other hand, it's required PR pros to get much more serious about something many are uncomfortable with, which is writing.

Jack O'Dwyer and others who write about the PR profession have long lamented that many people's impression of PR is basically a “smile and dial” approach where 20-somethings are unleashed on the phone, given scripts, and told to sound friendly when they pitch reporters. That approach basically made PR a “numbers game,” in that PR execs believed that if you called enough people, surely a few of them were bound to say yes to your idea. Needless to say, that approach is a tougher sale in an age where the number of potential targets is shrinking. Now more than ever, a message has to be targeted, with the right subject matching the right person for success to be found.

Rather than continually debating what the future of PR will be like and how the status quo can be maintained, I urge everyone getting into the business, and even those practicing now, to think more about what you're saying than ever before. Success comes from articulating a value proposition, along with anticipating questions and skepticisms about your story idea or pitch. Answering those even before you get very far down the road in your dialog with a particular reporter and editor will do a lot to favor your cause.

Many PR pros can also serve as valuable resources to reporters, especially those working in fields that are dominated by legal and legislative developments. In an era of shrinking newsroom budgets, reporters simply don't have the same amount of time that they once did to research stories and ideas. Therefore, PR pros who send well-researched pitches backed up with details on how the story suggestions will have a quantifiable impact will still find success.

Of course, many of the “old rules” will still apply. For example, when picking media targets, you still want to make sure that you're reaching the highest number of potential customers and clients for your client as possible. Also, try to think of quality over quantity when it comes to placements and other results. Finally, before embarking on any tactics, make sure everything's guided by a plan detailing how your efforts will further a client's goals.

While change is never easy and the evolution will certainly be unsettling, following some time-tested, common sense rules will greatly enhance the chances of a successful evolution.

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Cyrus Afzali is president of Astoria Communications, a New York City-based PR consultancy serving clients in financial/professional services, technology and real estate. Before opening his PR consultancy in 2004, Afzali worked at several New York agencies managing accounts for real estate, technology and legal clients. He started his career as a journalist, working as an editor and writer for nine years at outlets ranging from small, daily newspapers to CNN Financial News.

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