Do PR Agencies Need Filters?

PR agencies need more than coffee filters.

Or more specifically do PR agencies need to build internal filtering systems for the content they create for clients?

This week Weber Shandwick CEO Harris Diamond swung by the Cambridge office of Weber Shandwick.

(Disclosure: I work at Weber Shandwick and Harris is my boss – although I do not report directly to him).

During the discussion part of his talk with the staff, Harris made a fascinating observation about PR agencies creating content  on behalf of their clients.  For example, Weber Shandwick provides video production, web design, application building and editorial services for clients and has been for several years.

Harris was quite eloquent in his description and I wish I had captured his comments verbatim.  However, I wasn’t smart enough to do so, so I’m forced to paraphrase.  So blame me if this doesn’t sound articulate.  But Harris’ basic observation hinged on the fact that PR agencies are paid advocates for their clients.  Other agencies might try to dilute this fact, but in essence that is what PR agencies do – advocate on behalf of clients and their products and services.

In the past, PR agencies pitched the ideas, stories, products and services of their clients to journalists (and other third-parties, but for the sake of simplicity let’s focus on journalists).  So there were no real consequences if a PR consultant pitched a reporter that a client’s product was “the best product ever made.”  Because the reporter would then take the information and filter it.

What does that mean and how does this filtering work?

Filtering is a vetting process.  Journalists work for news outlets with built in filters in the form of ethical codes, internal vetting processes, fact checking and an entire system operated by trained and professional editors and reporters.  So by the time the story about the “best product ever made” is published the story reports that the product was” the best in its category” (not the best ever) and needed a few bugs fixed.  And by the way, two other companies also offer similar products.

The advocacy of companies and PR firms were filtered and, as a result, that provided a safety net for PR agencies and their clients.

But those filters are now disappearing because of the internet.

In other words, the safety nets are coming down.

More companies are now publishing their own content directly to customers, prospects, employees, partners, etc.  PR agencies like Weber Shandwick are providing companies with the expertise and know-how on producing and publishing blogs, creating Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, building and maintaining microsites and filming YouTube videos.

This brings us back to the initial question: Do PR agencies need filters?

Or are filters even necessary?  Or even more crucial now than before?  Will it become the job of PR agencies to help companies with filtering?  Should PR agencies create filtering processes for their clients (and for themselves)?  Should these practices be standardized?

These are big questions for the industry and ones that Weber Shandwick will be active in exploring.

I’d love to get your feedback and thoughts on this topic.

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3 Responses to “Do PR Agencies Need Filters?”

  1. I like the points you bring up here, but I think the role of PR agencies is being generalized and simplified to an extent. Like any other industry, PR is changing as a direct result of new media. We have to tailor our services so that they continue to be relevant and effective for clients. Many out there don’t know the first thing about communication practices, content, media relations – and now – social media. We are trying to stay on the forefront of an Internet phenomenon that grows and changes faster than anyone can keep up with, and yes, mistakes will happen.

    However, due to the economy and the hit that print media has taken, it is becoming increasingly hard for them to do their job according to the journalistic standards that have been set in place for so long. We have started to see sloppy reporting, un-checked facts and ripped off material. If anything, the media filters are in danger due to a general lack of staffing. News outlets have reporters covering topics that they have no business writing about as a result of that field’s journalist being cut, along with much of the rest of the staff. So where is the filter mishap actually stemming from? It seems like a huge part of it is the internal problems developing among media outlets.

  2. Hi Kathleen:
    Good points about media filters fraying because of the state of the industry. But journalists still take the filtering process seriously – and have standards and protections in place. PR doesn’t.

    I don’t question why PR is moving into content creation – in fact, I’m an advocate of it. It’s what I do for a living. I’m simply exploring how we as an industry need to start thinking about content creation from a publishing perspective.

  3. I’d make the case that PR is as much about customer service as anything now. In an age where a bad customer service experience can wreck a company’s reputation (think “United, You Broke My Taylor Guitar” for one of the more entertaining examples), I believe that service in the moment is more valuable than a prepared (and therefore, supposedly less trustworthy) press release. Actions speak louder than words and all that.

    Not only that, but if you are in a position to handle consumer complaints, you can collate that information and hand it back to your client so they can make a better product, which in turn generates consumer trust if they see rapid response to their demands on their current suppliers.

    So in short, I respectfully submit you’re taking the wrong approach. I don’t think PR is about content creation any more, but about supplying direct supplier-consumer communication (and in that way, serves as a filter to both parties and of course to itself).

    Or maybe that’s unbalanced and both sides (content publication and communication) coexist and serve different purposes.

    To Kathleen’s concern about social media growing so fast, on one hand I agree as far as that goes, but I would submit that we only need to be intimately familiar with a handful of carefully selected channels which will vary depending on our target market (dominant social media networks vary by country). Don’t think of each network in itself, but think rather in terms of cultures.

    And just because two people use Facebook doesn’t mean they use it the same way. It’s all about clearly defining the psyche of your target(s). After that, you can work backwards to figure out the most effective way to use their network to reach them. But if you start without a specific end in sight, you’re guaranteed to get lost.

    I’m clearly an advocate of the narrowcasting approach. There are other schools of thought out there, but this is what I have found to be the most cost-effective in my own experience.

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