PR in the Digital Arenas

January 27, 2013

I don’t know zip about public relations. First, I don’t do much “public” work. The connotation of “relations” remains mildly distasteful to me. I suppose that is a consequence of a high school English teacher who did not permit certain words to be used in class. If a student were to encounter a word on the banned list, he or she had to skip it when reading aloud. The notion of “public relations” gives me the willies.

You can check out the best in PR and real journalism in the scary “Microsoft: Google Blames Us for All Its Problems.” I thought I was jaded with corporate slickness. One is never too old to learn how the big guys handle communications.

I had a client ask me about a company which could post messages to LinkedIn and other social media. I motioned that the work was getting difficult. For example, Instagram wants a person who posts a picture to register with a government issued ID card. Now that is interesting because I use a passport for identification, and I am not too keen on having that information in the hands of a 20 something engineer working from a drafty apartment in a country to which the data processing has been outsourced. Also, LinkedIn has a number of groups which are managed by those who start the groups. LinkedIn wants anyone who found the group interesting to participate or the “member” is kicked out of the group. Some groups are lax about advertising. Other groups are not. LinkedIn has turned into a job hunting and marketing service, so its utility to me has declined. I find the “expert” commentary sent to me by LinkedIn employees annoying tool. Facebook is a wild and crazy place. I am not sure how the new Facebook search will work when a person posting can be linked to “interesting” topics and “friends.” The Google Plus thing is mandatory with each post linked to a “real” person. Maybe Google will just issue official ID cards and skip the government angle. Google’s mission to North Korea was fascinating, and I hope no one draws a connection between the Google visit and the increasingly hostile rhetoric from that country toward the United States.

So what about public relations.

I did a quick check online and found that a consulting and publishing company called O’Dwyer Company, Inc. publishes a list of the PR firms ranked by revenue. After all, what could be more important than revenue in today’s economic climate. (Do I hear a tiny voice saying, “Quality and integrity”? No, not here in Harrod’s Creek.

The list exists in a couple of different forms. The dates covered by the list are not clear to me. But the PR league table I reviewed contained 118 firms. Of these 118, the total revenue reported by O’Dwyer was $1,776,859,523, slightly more than the revenues for the enterprise search market which I wrote about here. The top 10 firms generated $1,120,706,215 or 63 percent of the total revenue in the O’Dwyer report. What’s interesting is that this concentration of money is similar to the concentration of revenues in enterprise search prior to the consolidation craze which peaked in 2012. Once a search vendor is absorbed into a giant new owner like Microsoft or Oracle, the revenues from search related deals disappears into the accounting miasma. Become too open about enterprise search revenues and an Autonomy type of situation may unfold.

What I found interesting was that of the top ten firms, two were flat with no significant increase in revenue and one new entrant was able to pump out $21 million quickly. Whoa, Nelly.

Another point I found interesting is that I recognized the “name” of these firms of the 118:

  • Edelman, not sure why
  • Waggener Ekstrom, the Microsoft PR outfit
  • Ruder Finn, not sure why.

Several observations:

  1. PR seems to be a low profile business. I am confident that the big dogs know how to market, but I am quite certain that most of the firms do not build a “brand” nor do they play a role in my world as “thought leaders.” I presume the reason is that the PR firms are so focused on their clients that any visibility for the PR firm would be a big no no.
  2. The revenues for PR are almost identical to those reported for enterprise search by Forrester. Does this mean that PR is a better business from a revenue point of view that search or content processing. Presumably the search vendors hire PR firms so the cash available for search marketing helps pump up the PR revenues. Interesting, particularly at a time when it is difficult to track sales to PR. (After all, if PR worked, wouldn’t the firms showing flat and declining revenue use their own tools to get those sales going?)
  3. PR, like enterprise search, generates one of those nifty long tale graphs which are so popular in today’s learned discussions about “concentration,” “oligopolies,” and “market forces.”

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I told the client to take the O’Dwyer list and pick a firm close to home. The challenge is that the biggest firms are in the big cities; for example, Manhattan boasts 31 firms on the list, more if I include New Jersey and Connecticut. A quick check of Louisville, Kentucky’s PR density revealed 18 firms. More were listed if I tossed in marketing communications, social media, and similarly nebulous terms. PR advisors are as plentiful as consultants it seems. The swelling ranks of the unemployed creates a fertile ground for advisors, wizards, mavens, and poobahs in search, business consulting, and public relations.

My big finding is that the vast majority of public relations firms are likely to be struggling to generate revenue. What’s new in today’s economy? Is PR a discipline? Don’t know. Don’t care. I do know I tell those who write me PR spam that I am not a journalist. I get pretty frisky when people ignore my about page and assume I am, at age 69, a real journalist. Heaven forbid that I should be confused with a real journalist, a PR person, or an effective marketer. I am none of those things. Never will be.

Stephen E Arnold, January 26, 2013

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