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Embracing the Evolution of the PR Industry

As we approach Sterling’s 20th anniversary at the end of August (BTW, how did THAT happen?), I’ve been reflecting on how PR has changed in the past two decades. For your reading enjoyment, here’s a quick look at the stark differences between PR in 1989 and PR in 2009:


  • Press releases were printed by the hundreds and sent via US Postal Service or FedEx'd to media/analysts. (We used to have “envelope stuffing” parties in the conference room. Paper cuts and glue highs!)
  • News was often released in the US first, and in other markets 1-2 weeks later (or not at all).
  • Bacon’s was the only media reference guide and it was a bound paper document with content that was updated quarterly.
  • Clipping services sent manually clipped pieces of coverage, sometimes months after it occurred.
  • FAX machines used thermal paper (shiny paper that curls and eventually the print on it fades to nothing).
  • Press kits were all paper-based.
  • Sterling's PR professionals did client work on disks we inserted into three shared Mac SEs.
  • All trade and business press news outlets were print-based.
  • Precious few PR folks had email accounts (yes, Sterling did).
  • All pitches were phone-based because very few media folks had email accounts.
  • Cell phones were sighted only rarely, and they were about the the size and weight of a brick.
  • Home networks did not exist.
  • The Web did not yet exist (outside of a CERN project, that is. The Web didn’t become a publicly available service on the Internet until 1991.)
  • Comdex was 2nd largest tech trade show in the world (behind Germany’s CeBIT), and was by far the largest show in the US


  • Press releases are distributed electronically, to targeted outlets around the globe, and put on corporate websites at the same time. (Far fewer dead trees.)
  • Media directories/resources are all online, no print.
  • Sterling no longer employs a clipping service. We get coverage pushed to us in near real-time and/or we do Google searches.
  • Most people under 30 have never used a FAX machine and none of them have even seen thermal paper.
  • Everyone at Sterling has his/her own laptop, and some have a desktop, to boot.
  • Even revered top-tier news outlets are struggling due to plummeting ad revenues and faster-moving online sites.
  • Print publications of all ilk are being killed right and left.
  • Citizen journalists are popping up everywhere and “personal brands” are replacing corporate brands in the blogosphere.
  • Thanks in large part to social media, public relations is about having meaningful, transparent conversations vs. broadcasting key messages and controlling perception.
  • Not only do PR people use email to do their work, they make daily use of IM, text messages, and various social media tools to connect with key influencers.
  • The majority of working professionals are “connected” 24/7…it’s almost impossible to find any adult (or teen) who doesn’t have a cell phone.
  • A company website is expected, regardless of industry.
  • Internet access is a given in the workplace and at home.
  • Google has become a verb, and YouTube is familiar to just about every person between the ages of 10 and 60.
  • Thanks to advances in telecommunications and networking, virtual teams and even virtual companies are cropping up.
  • Comdex no longer exists, and most “physical” tradeshows are hurting badly; virtual tradeshows and webinars are on the rise.

This all got me to thinking that Darwin was right. We either adapt or we die. And the rate of required adaptation continues to accelerate. This is NO time to get lazy or complacent.

As recently as 2007, getting positive media “hits” and positive analyst coverage was the primary way everyone measured PR success.  While I don’t mean to  imply that those things are no longer relevant, we all know that they are table stakes these days. They’re necessary, but not sufficient.

Today, public relations is about many-to-many conversations, not broadcast-only monologues. Given this, it is the Agency professional's job to help clients create content and start conversations that not just inform, but really engage, their target audiences. We must tell our clients’ stories in a way that has legs over time, across multiple channels, reaching the people who should care. Coverage is an important first step, but we must extend our clients’ reach by fostering conversations across all the available venues that will contribute to people buying our clients’ products/services (or their stock) and/or recommending that others do so.

With recent proliferation of new social media tools and services on the market, it is incumbent on all PR professionals to get out there and regularly try new tools and experiment with different approaches. What lies ahead of us demands that we do exactly that, with alacrity.

Fair warning to communications agencies that don't see the need to change "tried and true" ways of doing business:  someone else will be serving your current clients in the not-too-distant future.