Getting the ‘Public’ back in Public Relations

Although the exact date public relations was born is widely debated, one thing that remains true is the public engagement element of this profession. PR pros thrive on immersing themselves in the industry in which they operate. In the last year, however, being out in public or physically present anywhere outside of one’s home has been challenging. This makes us wonder if the in-person and public aspects of public relations are a thing of the past.

PR is a collaborative profession that has traditionally relied on in-person brainstorms, deskside meetings with journalists, media tours and conferences. These were foundational components of the public relations “lifeblood” and things that I personally enjoyed being involved in until they were halted in March 2020. The question now remains if and when we’ll see them again.

The virtual normalcy

Many boutique PR firms like Paragon have opted to rid themselves of the traditional brick-and-mortar office setting and have employees work remotely long-term. With today’s technology and virtual capabilities, this is perfectly feasible and – aside from setting up a computer in a home office – requires minimal technology lift.

However, one of the biggest changes to the PR landscape has been building relationships with industry colleagues, journalists, clients, and analysts in a face-to-face setting. Strategy sessions, new client pitches and even weekly catch-up meetings almost always took place within the confines of an office. 

Today, we’re more reliant on Zoom, Teams and Google Meet than we are on our own cars. While it was quite an adjustment at first, it is now the norm. 

One aspect I always loved about working in public relations was being embedded in the public sphere and meeting new people. Going into NYC for an in-person pitch at a prospect’s office or attending major industry events in Chicago or Boca Raton were just a few of the PR facets that now feel like distant memories. Even going out for a drink after work with journalists to discuss story ideas is something we now view with such reverence.

While I hope we can return to these practices soon, one of the adjustments we’ve made to ensure we continue to engage with the media is scheduling 15-minute virtual coffee meetings. It’s a small amount of time out of someone’s day that can offer great returns for both the journalist and the PR pro.

Is PR easier or harder now?

I’ve been asked several times over the last year, “Is your job easier or harder now?” 

There are certain elements of public relations that are now more convenient and others that have become more challenging. Overall, it’s been a total routine change, and one that most people have settled into by now.

Where the pandemic has instilled change is the speed at which PR professionals and journalists work. The news cycle nowadays is furiously rapid and both media and PRs have been outspoken about how much content and news they’ve had to keep up with. It can be somewhat exhausting at times but it has opened up new opportunities to illustrate how new technologies are changing working dynamics and reshaping industries.

Journalist’s beats have also shifted. It was never uncommon for journalists to change their coverage focus, but now we’re seeing certain publications, especially top-tier news outlets, assigning journalists to things specifically focused on COVID or how collaboration has changed between vendors and clients.

Public relations of the future

What we’re seeing is not necessarily an argument of better or worse or good or bad. It’s a shift in the overall working dynamic that has been accelerated by a global pandemic. 

When email became a central part of the daily workflow, phone pitching began to diminish. That was obviously a more gradual shift but thanks to great advancements in technology, we now have the ability to work from anywhere. These capabilities have allowed us to continue to operate efficiently, engage with the media and still generate impactful results for clients.

I have no doubt that we’ll return to some of the practices that many of us were used to in years past. However, due to the increased reliance and overall availability of virtual tools, we may see a diminished appetite for “deskside” journalist meetings and even media tours.

That being said, I look forward to re-immersing myself into the public outings that comprised the traditional PR model. While working from home and the ubiquity of the virtual environment have their benefits, the events of the last 13 months have made me reminisce about what shaped my enthusiasm for the public relations sector when I first started 13 years ago. 

As Andy Bernard says in the final episode of The Office, “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.”

If you have any thoughts about how you think the public relations landscape will change in the months and years ahead, please share them with us.

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