HighTalking: Steve Rubel on PR’s Future


Steve Rubel, senior vice president and director of insights for Edelman Digital, has become a strong voice for public relations on the web. His blog Micro Persuasion explores the intersection of communications and the social web – and is a must read for PR professionals. I recently had the chance to interview Steve about his views on the PR industry and where he sees PR going. I don’t agree with some of his answers (for example, I think he’s nuts to believe that PR agencies of the future will look like they do now or his take on the importance of media relations in the age of user generated content). But Steve is one of those smart, thoughtful PR consultants and you’d be crazy not to listen to when he talks.

Edelmans Steve Rubel

Edelman's Steve Rubel

HighTalk: What is the role of PR agencies in the age of social media?

Steve: The role of PR agencies in the age of social media is no different than it was before. It’s our job to serve as the eyes and ears of the client and to use this information to help them build relationships with third parties who can tell their story to a broader audience than they can themselves. These third parties carry more credibility than advertising messages the company may put out themselves.

What is different now is that many of these third parties are individuals (bloggers, Twitterati, etc.) as opposed to trained journalists who work for large media companies. This necessitates that PR agencies take great care in how they work in the new social landscape.

HighTalk: How important is media relations to a PR program these days?

Steve: Media relations remains the bread and butter of most PR programs these days. However, increasingly, more companies are turning toward creating their own media since it allows them to tell their story in a more complete way than the media rarely has the space to offer – especially in these economic times.

HighTalk: What do you think is the biggest mistake PR agencies are making these days?

Steve: The biggest mistake PR agencies can make is not understanding people, specifically their clients and the media (in the broad context outlined above). It’s key that PR pros know the culture, personality, needs/wants, issues and concerns of both their clients and the media. So much of what makes PR agencies successful is psychology.

HighTalk: What can PR agencies do to improve?

Steve: PR agencies need to always be asking if they are good listeners. The best PR professionals know how to be active listeners both on a a micro and on a macro level. On a micro level, this means having good interpersonal communication skills (in person, on the phone and virtually). On a macro level, listening means knowing the media and/or the online community inside and out.

HighTalk: What do you think a PR agency of the future will look like?

Steve: The PR agency of the future will look much like it does today. The difference is that the most successful agencies will have digital natives who understand the online ecosytem and are regularly visible there – and not just when they have a client story to tell.

HighTalk: What social media platforms do you show the most promise for PR/marketing?

Steve: Really the answer is all of them. What we’ve seen is that you need to first find your community and where they spend time. Once you’ve done that (and listened) then there are lots of options, no matter if it’s Facebook, Twitter or the next big thing. As an industry we can’t get too weded to any one site or venue. Change is constant. Let’s remember Second Life. It’s Web 2.0’s Vietnam.

HighTalk: Any nascent technologies on the market that bear watching?

Steve: The technology that bears the most watching isn’t that nascent. It’s search. There’s no greater influence on public opinion than search engines and PR pros are starting to get clued in that the content they create and the content they generate can sway the results in an ethical way.

5 Responses to “HighTalking: Steve Rubel on PR’s Future”

  1. In a fast-changing environment such as web 2.0 it’s difficult to sum up the future of an industry, especially when the present is ever-changing. However, I think Steve does a good job here.

    I trust that “digital naives” is a typo that should be “digital natives”, as naive is what you don’t need to be in the “online ecosystem”!

  2. I suspect that PR agencies will be slimmer than the current crop. There may be a lot more freelance one-man PR operations and a major difference will be in the tools they use for online PR and how they deal with clients

  3. Nice catch, Jon. Fixed.

    Hi Jim:
    My take on the future of agencies:

    http://tinyurl.com/bf8eu6

    The short version: PR firms are structured for monthly retainers $20K and above. With the new economic realities driving retainers down to $10K and below – large agencies can’t survive. I predict the PR firm of the future looks more like a law firm – lots of senior partners working in conjunction with a smaller group of junior consultants.

  4. I think PR will become more important as the communications industry completes its transition from offline to online.

    I believe this because display advertising is going to get less and less effective: there is less print media every week and TIVO, Sky+, digital radio and podcasting are diminishing the reach of broadcast advertising daily.

    Online display advertising has been shown not to work very well – the clickthrough rates on facebook ads are tiny / how highly would you value a banner ad?

    So where will the marketing budget go? A chunk of it will go on search advertising, but the smart spend is going to be in product placement and public/media relations – which requires more thought and is more work intensive than ever.

    My take is that it is ad agencies who should be quaking in their boots right now – they need to start focus on producting quality content for PRs to put out there – but most PRs will want to do this for themselves.

    I think the future for PR/Integrated marketing agencies is very bright – I’m staking my career on it.

  5. I don’t doubt that PR is going to be important in the age of the social web. I just believe the large agency structure is going to be challenged by it.

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