Public Relations Then and Now: Perspective and Predictions From Richard Laermer

Full Frontal PRMy former PR professor, Karen Olson, retired from The College at Brockport last year. She gave me a few of her books while I was helping her move some things out of her office, explaining that I would get more out of reading them as a young student than she would.

Well, I finally got around to reading one of those books. Full Frontal PR, written by Richard Laermer, was published almost a decade ago in 2004. Today, in a time where articles are published on the Internet and considered “old news” in a matter of days (if not hours), a decade seems more like a lifetime. Despite the constant evolution of modern technology, the vast majority of Laermer’s book is still relevant to PR professionals today.

I was fortunate enough to get Laermer’s take on the state of the industry today as well as where he sees it ending up ten years from now. Below, hear perspectives on public relations from a veteran who has survived and thrived through one communications revolution and anticipates another.

When you were writing Full Frontal PR, would you have ever guessed how different things would be ten years later?

When I was writing the book, all I kept thinking was “gosh the texts out there right now are dull and useless. All about ‘the press release.'” I wanted to change that. A lot of kids coming out of college were telling me about these dusty collections of nonsense they were reading!  I remember a Swiss reporter colleague coming into my office and asking me what I was up to. I’d done a book on “future trends” and now wanted to “do one on PR.” He said “What about PR?” I said “PR. All of it.” The dude laughed. “You can’t do that.” Well you can. As long as you make it funny…

Now, 10  years later, it still sells healthily  — particularly on Kindle, where I updated it a year and a half ago and through a two-hour audiobook via Audible where I spoke the darn thing with hilarious ad libs in 2010. And via a performance art piece I do at Greenwich Village’s Village Gate… Just Kidding!

But really, are things that different? Those PR people who say they are no longer pitching content providers are wrong. They may just see it more like sidling up to folks as a commenter inside a blog post or via video posted on a client’s dusty press page. And yes, I get that “media” has changed. But our job — no, PR in general — is about taking an idea that is a lump of clay and molding it into a sell-able, believable and trustworthy story that you feel great about.

Has the PR business changed?  Well, thankfully most of my competitors are dead (I’m talking firms, not people, unless you’re counting wishes). Today it is unbearably hard to get anyone to sit still. My Grandma would say, “They have no sitz·fleisch!” Before Facebook–which I want out of business, because reading about people’s gross food habits ruined my appetite–that attention span we had, man, it was a device we all possessed. We didn’t have to multi-task because we FOCUSED on what we were doing and it satisfied us. We didn’t NEED to be in a Starbucks or have Matt Lauer on in the background or wear Dr. Dre’s Beats to get us in the mood to work. We owned it in spades.  Now it’s like we left it on the bus.

I can’t get my own employees to finish sentences.

What I like about 2010s Public Relations (a coupling of words as insensible now as Radio Shack or Car Warehouse) is precisely what I despised about it the 1990s. In those Caligula-like days, everyone was a “journalist” at a well-funded but forgettable magazine.

The Story Way Back: These people were not into it, they just wanted to write because it seemed like a good way not to sit at a desk. Everyone was being clever and insightful to reach these nice people, but in the end whatever they wrote ended up in the trash anyway.

The Story On This Day: Every blogger, podcaster, Tumblr-er, chat runner–and those pesky reporters, editors and producers who wants access to information or data in my hands, is still being sought out, but now it’s worth finding them! Finally, I am glad to report the days of PR people against journalists (“Hacks V. Flacks”) died in its sleep during The Grate (sic) Recession. From ‘07 on I got more so-called reporters calling me for a job at RLM PR than actual PR people.

Sign of The Times, baby.

What advancement in technology has changed PR most significantly?

The final acceptance of the smartphone as a device you can have with you everywhere.

I used to walk around in the mid 90s with a RIM pager, the precursor to the BlackBerry. People of all types (even high flying business guys and women) made fun of me. “Look at Richard and his Game Boy!” They could not understand why I wouldn’t want to just sit at my desk to get email. Imagine!

It’s hard for me to imagine anything else coming close. I guess the pen that writes upside down, but…

No, Seriously. The iPhone is how most people in the PR business work now, and I don’t have to explain why. “Think Different” is more than a slogan. Kicking or screaming, we’ll all be there. It’s like kids with the Disney channel.

Has journalism, and in turn media relations, gotten less important now that organizations can publish their own information on blogs and share it on networks like Twitter?

Journalism does not exist; Journalism is everywhere.

I never thought of journalism as the quote-unquote be-all. I think if someone writes a tremendous story that gives me knowledge, it has been reported. Journalism is the big umbrella over all the crap — I mean, for Christ’s sake, the National Enquirer is journalism!  The rules of journalism are laughable. The snooty idea that somehow there is an enforceable wall between the big J and the big A (“advertising”) seemed kind of stupid to me. A good story is a good bla-bla-bla.  Newspapers would still be living the high life if they had loosened those rules.

Back to reporting.

Anyone can report. If you hear valuable gossip (gossip was the original “news,” after all) and transport that gossip to a collection of men who eat it up…you’re a reporter. Do that exponentially and you have today’s news bringers. I love it when a guy in his undershorts beats The New York Times to news of a groundbreaking feature in a gaming console. This reaches millions in a heartbeat. (I was at a major corporation last year where the PR person said “Oh, it’s 5 PM, got to see if any of the papers need anything by deadline.” I spit out my coffee.)

In terms of Twitter, just recently the world learned about the Asiana flight first from odd tweets from people who wondered about crazy flight patterns. When it crashed, burned and twirled — Twitter first. Then, David Euen deplaned and ran all the while going all Twittery. So who was the reporter in this case? Mostly it was David’s followers. (And those of the others who freely tweeted live.)

I had to laugh that day because CNN still devoted its homepage to that prove-nothing Zimmerman trial (an extremely cynical show of hands proving cable news hates its audience) with a front banner stating: BREAKING NEWS!  So, you had to click to find out about the crash–away from the page.  A banner ad is thus selling the biggest story of the day?  I would not call that journalism.

CNN is slick. With this strange hybrid, they offer its biggest customers the opportunity of a lifetime: pay through the nose to reach biggest numbers we’ll likely get this year!  It was a premium, I can guarantee.  And DISASTER ON THE RUNWAY became a big hit for CNN.

What will communications be like ten years from now?

I have a feeling in 10 years every person making a living will want to be his own corporation. I can’t imagine the current generation coming out of college and spending their lives working for a single boss. It doesn’t compute, doesn’t use their exceptional digital skills or, yeah, ability to multitask like a genius octopus.  No one in this demo is going to be trained to be a freelancer or a consultant, it will happen naturally.

I wrote about it a little in my book 2011: Trendspotting. Consulting is the wave coming at us–even if you work for one client. It makes insurance easier, flex hours are your decision and you get to balance home and work lives however you want.

For guys like me there is no balance. I didn’t choose it… like my forefathers, my habits crept up on me.

The coolest concept about the future is that our upcoming workforce will be able to ethically start their own companies while working for another. They’re not on payroll! They may choose the office life, or they may want to be closer to the Sony PlayStation XBox (didn’t I tell you? BloombergMicrosoft has merged with Sony at this point!) and be at home.

Choices. We always say we got ‘em.  “I could leave here tomorrow.” That sounds like a slogan. If your ideology from day one is you gotta work to pay the bills. then that’s how you do it.

Ask most people and they will tell you, if they’re being honest, they fell into their careers and stayed kaput.  The new worker-bee has none of these notions and has the chance to jump around at will.

And they may be forced to!

Richard LaermerRichard Laermer is the CEO of RLMpr and an often-quoted source on media and marketing trends. His titles include author, blogger, lecturer, trainer and TV show host, among others.

Follow him on his BadPitchBlog or on Twitter.


About Jim Mignano

Jim Mignano is a young professional practicing and learning Public Relations in Rochester, NY. He is passionate about the possibilities that digital media provide and loves utilizing new platforms for a variety of functions. James' blog is about people and the technology they use. It's about communication and persuasion... the old and the new ways of doing things... the struggle between sticking to the tried, true recipes and experimenting with intuitive, innovative ideas. It's an extension and reflection of James himself: the convergence of ambition & ability.
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