Last Thursday, I was on a panel at a "TurnPRon event on "Communication 2.0 - The Convergence of PR, Advertising, Media and the Consumer". The title question of the evening was "PR vs. Advertisers: Can't We All Just Get Along?". The venue is worth a mention, too. It was on the 47th floor of Times Square Tower at the offices of law firm Brown Rudnick providing a truly gorgeous view on Manhattan. I could almost become a lawyer to work in an office like this :-). Thanks to Diane Katz of ExcitePR for organizing it! I also enjoyed the exchange with an interesting mix of co-panelists. There were Tom Burg (Marketing Director, DoubleClick), Sarah Skerik (VP Distribution Services, PR Newswire), Larry Thomas (COO, Medialink), Bob Fitzgerald (VP Sales and Marketing, BizBash), Jiyan Wei (Product Manager, Vocus) and Miranda Tan (CEO, MyPRGenie). Heidi Cohen (Columnist at ClickZ and President, Riverside Marketing) was the moderator. It turned out to be an interesting evening, even if for different reasons than I had expected.
The panel didn't really discuss much of what the title of the event suggested. We spent most of the time on Heidi's opening questions "What is Web 2.0?" and "How does PR differ from marketing and/or advertising?". All panelists were pretty fluent in social media speak, so there was much agreement on the changes in our industry and that they needed to be addressed. You might expect that from service providers who ultimately hope to sell services in response to the change. After all, most of the panelists fell into this category and some of them made their points eloquently such as PR Newswire's Sarah Skerik. However, even the only potential buyer of these services on the panel, Doubleclick's Tom Burgan, not only concurred, but demanded that PR agencies still had a long way to go embracing the change and going beyond media relations. With so much agreement in the room I felt I needed to remind everyone that Tom is an exceptionally progressive marketing executive and that trends usually take longer to become mainstream than trend scouts would hope. For instance, "blog" was the word of the year 2004. Three years later, approx. 10 % of the Fortune 500 and approx. 19 % of the Inc. 500, the fastest growing companies in the US, have adopted corporate blogs. These are still impressive numbers, but they are certainly much lower than many would have expected during the blog hype. And media relations will continue to be a major part of our business for the foreseeable future.
While the panel didn't address much of the title question of the evening, the audience ended up doing it in a surprising way. It emerged from a part of the room where influential blogger and social media consultant B.L. Ochman was sitting between a couple of people from the advertising industry who obviously were fairly new to the world of social media. First, there was an attendee on B.L.'s left who struggled with the social media concept of transparency and authenticity. He felt his business was about "lying" (his word) in an efficient way, and he wondered how PR could comply with the idea of transparency. If transparency was the maxim, then PR either shouldn't filter what is coming out of an organization or become invisible which would mean that it wouldn't be transparent. From his perspective, it's a really good question. In short, I offered the argument that the role of PR would have to change from being a gatekeeper of corporate information to a facilitator of trusted relationships so as to solve the conflict. I'm not sure that this response helped him much, but it struck me that it obviously didn't occur to the questioner that the transparency maxim also presents a challenge to advertising, at least as long as you see it as the business of lying efficiently.
Next, a woman to B.L.'s right made her entry to the discussion with a statement like this: "Web 2.0 is good for advertising, and I'm in advertising, so I'm all for advertising and against PR." Here you go: can't we all just get along? She didn't provide evidence why Web 2.0 is good for advertising, but, of course, B.L. was quickly coming up with an example why it actually might be pretty bad for advertising: the story of the South African winery Stormhoek. This case is pretty well known in the PR and marketing blogosphere, but it certainly was very pertinent to this situation. Ex-advertising copywriter turned marketing blogger Hugh McLeod has helped this winery to increase their sales fivefold since mid-2006, without any advertising, but engaging with a lot with of bloggers! UPDATE: In case you are interested, B.L. provides more background on the Stormhoek story here.
Unfortunately, the advertising lady wasn't impressed with the example and probably didn't know that B.L. was a blogger, so she went on to share her perceptions of bloggers and blog readers such as "people who read blogs aren't very educated". B.L. wasn't very pleased, and rightly so. By the way, 63.9 m people in the US read blogs. (I reported about this and many other facts on the global adoption of social media as researched by Universal McCann here.)
We can't assume that the attendees of this event were representative of the advertising industry, but the discussion provided enough validation for the question of the evening. I also believe that we still should have other parts of the discussion we didn't have that evening, such as: Do we have to redefine the relationship between advertising and PR? Advertising is the source of life for the media industry. Google already revolutionized the advertising model. With the recent news on Facebook's ad platform and Google's OpenSocial Web initiative the next revolution is on the horizon. What does that mean for advertising and PR? I will write more posts about this and do invite the panelists to continue our conversation here.
PS: Just found that Jiyan also shared some thoughts on his blog following the event.