Is Digital Disruption Killing PR? No, But Times Are Changing.

If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make any sound? Yes, but only if there is a capable public relations (PR) advisor on hand to help amplify the noise. Perhaps this analogy is a bit corny, but it’s also true.

Chances are that a PR pro has had some hand in nearly every major story of note, most often behind the scenes counseling business leaders on messaging strategy or serving as a liaison between official and press. But make no mistake, the indelible imprint of the PR practitioner is being felt more often than not.

In recent years there have been widespread predictions about the demise of PR in the wake of the digital disruption. The traditional role of PR representative as primary advocate and independent voice for organizations to develop more favorable relationships with their publics seems to be falling out of favor.

If that is indeed the case, it’s too bad. Based on how divisive our society has become and how deeply entrenched we are in our own corners, building positive relationships and mutual understanding is needed now more than ever.

With the dizzying pace of change in technology, media and communications, I thought I would take a closer look at PR and its relevance in the current marketing mix. Does PR have a place at the table? Or as the communications industry becomes more complex and challenging, is the new order now data first, reputation second? Despite all the buzz around digital marketing, are the messages communicators sending really getting through? Or are consumers who are constantly bombarded by messages on every front experiencing information overload?

Thankfully, there are several recent studies that shed new light on the subject.

Sizing Up PR’s Role

To analyze emerging communications trends and come up with a more enlightened view of PR, the University of Southern California’s (USC) Center for Public Relations embarked on an extensive research study with the help of The Holmes Report, the Arthur W. Page Society, the Institute for Public Relations, the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, ICCO, the International Association for Measurement and Evaluation of Communication, the PR CouncilPRCA, the Worldcom PR Group, PRSSA and PRSA. Results are summarized in the 2017 Global Communications Report. A primary goal of the study was to clearly define the role of the PR profession and its value to business and society. Why was this necessary? PR has always been often maligned and usually misunderstood for its place among the advertising and marketing disciplines.

Much of the report deals with that question through the lens of the ongoing battle between marketers and PR pros for C-suite respect and command of the communications budget. Stakes in this battle are now higher than ever as brand marketers shift more dollars into digital marketing. Who wins and who loses depends on which profession is believed to have a better grasp of the digital marketplace.

Says USC Center for Public Relations Director Fred Cook about the study, “Sometimes research creates more questions than it answers, especially when the topic being researched is in such a state of change.” Amen to that.

Because of the frequent overlap in what PR and marketing people do and how we do it, a full 87 percent of PR executives surveyed by USC said they believe the term public relations won’t accurately describe the work they will be doing in five years. About half of them believe PR needs to be more broadly defined, while the rest think the name should be changed.

Seems a shame since so many in our industry fought so hard to get PR recognized as a bona fide practice in the 1970s and 80s. I graduated from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale with a PR specialty accreditation, the first in my home state and one of only a handful in the U.S. at the time. Although communicators, marketers and digital specialists share many skill sets and tactical tools, that must not negate the inherent need organizations have for PR strategies that help them to be better understood and respected by their key audiences.

The Rise of Influencer Marketing

In the mad chase for digital revenue, inflluencers have become the Holy Grail of marketing and PR. From YouTuber tastemakers to Snapchat superstars, these players have hit the marketing goldmine by building huge audiences across social media platforms. They are today’s equivalent of the young & the restless, building their online fame through humor, social activism and make-up tutorials (not necessarily in that order). And 70% or better expect to be handsomely paid for their influence.

One of the Top 10 darlings of the internet, popular personality and LGBT activist Tyler Oakley, was fifth on Forbes list of highest-paid YouTube stars for 2016, earning $6 million through that channel alone. The number one earner, PewDiePie, a prankster known for his video stunts, took home a cool $8 million. Then after landing mega-million dollar deals with Disney, YouTube and others, his irreverent humor took a dark turn after a prank using an anti-Semitic slogan went too far, leading to the cancellation of his YouTube reality show, premium ad deals and other contracts.


Yes, influence can be bought and paid for, but in an effort to earn the public’s trust, we all lose when the digital-first mindset puts us in a race to the bottom. In fact, influencer marketing was sixth in USC’s ranking by PR execs of the most important trends expected in the next five years. What were the top five? Digital storytelling, social listening, social purpose and big data. Fake news was second to last. Sadly, nothing was said about transparency, protecting the integrity of professional relationships through the free flow of information, or serving the public interest.

Setting those issues aside, personally I think if anyone can predict with any accuracy where communications will be five years from now they deserves a Nobel Prize.

The term fake news was barely a blip on the radar screen until fall 2016, says Forbes contributor Kalev Leetaru (he analyzed a full eight years of Internet Archive’s Television News). But during the last months of the presidential race it gathered steam. The surge in Artificial Intelligence (AI) applications is just beginning. Big data is increasingly under attack as more issues — including fraud — are uncovered with programmatic media buying. Constant retargeting of ads to consumers online and other digital annoyances are fueling growth in ad-blocking services, with one-quarter of internet users now subscribing. Concerns about online privacy are increasing. Cyber crime is rampant.

In an effort to reach, influence or persuade consumers, seems that no place is off limits. The more we try to slip past the banner ads, video pre-rolls, emails and other advertisements the harder they sell. Audiences deal with thousands of messages, ads, updates and information snippets every day. More content is uploaded to YouTube in 60 days than all three major U.S. networks generated in the last 60 years.

It may be just a matter of time before fewer people are tuning in and turning on and more are dropping out.

You Get What You Pay For — Or Do You?

Among the issues analyzed in the USC study, perhaps the most disturbing to those of us wearing the PR hat is this: more than half of PR executives surveyed believe the consumer of the future will not make a distinction between paid and earned media. This bold prediction comes as more content moves into the paid and owned media space, leaving earned media the forgotten orphan. PR experts like me have long argued that the third-party endorsement attached to earned media coverage (the result of an independent story by an impartial journalist or opinion leader versus a paid advertisement or sponsored campaign) builds more credibility for your message.

I would hazard a guess that most consumers don’t necessarily know or care about what we mean when we talk about earned, owned, shared and paid media. Nor are they as concerned about how this may factor into their opinions (favorable or unfavorable), buying decisions or purchase behavior.

What they increasingly DO care about is this: when they come across news and information–regardless of where or how they get it–can they believe it? Can they trust the source of the information? Is it being presented or shared out of pure self-interest or does it have real value? Is the person endorsing the company or product a true believer and brand advocate or simply being paid for the privilege? Are claims or headlines supported by provable facts?

Thanks in large part to coverage of the American presidential election, new Gallup and Pew Research studies reveal trust in mass media has hit new lows. In the Pew Research study, just 22% of Americans said they have a lot of trust in the information they get from local news organizations, whether online or offline, and 18% gave this response for national news groups. Gallup says Americans trust and confidence in the mass media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” has dropped to just 32%, eight points lower than last year and the lowest level in Gallup polling history. Yet, the Pew Research study also finds social media garners even less trust (just 4%) than either local news organizations, national news organizations, family, friends or acquaintances. It’s clear we all have a lot of work to do to preserve and regain trust.

Fake News & the Passive Consumer

These unnerving statistics owe much to the spread of fake news and growing online hoaxes developed to discredit an opponent or trick readers into visiting a malicious site used as a lure by cybercriminals. While nothing new, fake news hit unprecedented levels of influence in 2016. A new analysis by BuzzFeed finds that false election stories from hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs generated more social engagement than content from real news sites during the last three months of the presidential election. Craig Silverman of BuzzFeed discussed the impact that Facebook, in particular, had due to its size and the passive nature of users to easily share info without evaluating the content.

Says Silverman, “Humans do like to consume information that aligns with their existing beliefs. So, when we read something that goes along with what we already think or that we think might be true, we are inclined to believe it. We might also be inclined to share it. The stuff being shared can gain velocity and exposure very quickly. And since algorithms decide what shows in our news feeds, the more that we consume a certain type of information, the more the algorithms learn that we like that, and will serve us more of that.”

Cision sorts out this strange media environment for us in its 2017 State of the Media Report, a comprehensive look at new trends and challenges impacting everyone with a stake in traditional and digital media. Shrinking news teams and budgets have meant journalists have to do more with less, which some argue has driven down the quality of reporting work and a decline in professional standards. From failures to fact-check stories to a new trend of reporting news after another outlet breaks the story (without following up on its veracity), these challenges are contributing to the rise in misinformation and the spread of fake news, journalists surveyed say.

Journalists still need compelling story ideas from communications professionals and they need the credibility provided to them by organizations, executives and experts. – Cision

The reality is that this co-dependent relationship between PR professionals, news gathering organizations and advertising has been around since the invention of the print press, and marketers and PR consultants are merrily caught in the middle. Modern advertising owes its roots to the emergence of mass media in the 20th century — radio, cinema and eventually TV and the internet. As news and information outlets have grown, all have been dependent in one form or another on revenue sources tied to advertising. The same can be said for entertainment programs and venues.

Columbia University professor Tim Wu writes about this in his new book The Attention Merchants. In it he describes how the business model of an ad-supported media was born and where he thinks it is headed. In an interview in The Atlantic, he says that while the model once worked, it is unsustainable due to the proliferation of ads and their intrusion into every aspect of our lives. “There (once was) a covenant that, in exchange for free stuff, we expose ourselves to advertising.” But what was then restricted to a small area of our life is now invading every area, zapping our attention with a barrage of messaging, advertising enticements, branding, and sponsored social media.

Wu suggests that we’ve reached an inflection point in ad-supported media. We may be entering a phase that spells the long-term demise of this once robust business model. “Is this a golden age for advertising? Or the beginning of an Ice Age? Revolutions are confusing in real time. They’re often only clear in retrospect,” Wu adds.

Down for the Count, But Not Out

Perhaps it is because of (not in spite of) the many booms and busts I have experienced during a long PR career that I fail to see our profession being swept under the rug anytime soon. Yes, the industry is changing. Marketing and PR are becoming more closely aligned. Communications channels are evolving. The Internet of Things (IoT) has created such a vast network of connected devices that it’s sometimes hard to tell where the physical being ends and the inanimate object begins.

Who knows, maybe growth in AI will make us all obsolete. Facebook is apparently working on what it calls “silent communication,” things like typing directly from your brain and hearing through your skin. A Siri or Alexa version of PR power player Howard Bragman may be just what the doctor ordered.

No doubt, we now have more ways to communicate with each other than ever before even though fewer of us are paying much attention. The pace of change we are experiencing as technology becomes more central to everything we do is unprecedented. Sometimes these developments have unintended consequences. Technology addiction is now a thing (it must be, I Googled it on WebMD). Trust in the transparency of mass media is at new lows. As the players in the communications field grapple with these issues, where anyone will land–journalists, publishers, brand communicators, advertising and PR execs–remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, I’ll make a bold prediction. PR will always have a role in the marketplace as a voice for ideas, facts and viewpoints to aid informed public debate. No, I can’t take credit for these words. They are part of the Public Relations Society of America’s Code of Ethics. Regardless of what, how and where brands and organizations choose to communicate, PR folks like me will still be needed to help shape the strategy, craft the message, and communicate the story to influence public opinion as we carry out our responsibilities. Sure, like everyone else, we will adapt with the times.

For the times, they are changing.

The views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my current or former employers, my friends and colleagues, anyone I may have met in the past or may meet in the future.

About Mary Brophy

Mary has held leadership positions at the world’s largest independent PR agency, Edelman Worldwide, Cramer-Krasselt, Jacobson Rost and other leading agencies. Her background includes advising CEO-level executives on a variety of crisis communications and reputational issues.