Last week I attended the Mobile First Look conference in lower Manhattan and came away wondering why other communications disciplines seem to have embraced the technology more rapidly and produced more results than PR has.

Bob McEwen
By Robert McEwen
Granted, the conference was sponsored by Mobile Marketer, and marketing usually focuses attention on a single constituency – the customer – as opposed to the many different audiences PR typically seeks to engage.

Still, I was struck both by the apparent dearth of PR pros in attendance and the virtual absence of PR strategies or tactics in any of the excellent presentations by Macy's, Coca-Cola, Office Max, The Weather Channel, MTV, Walgreen's and Sears.

These companies are using mobile communications to great effect, and no wonder given the 2011 Thanksgiving Weekend statistics provided by Insight Express:

• 65 percent of smart phone owners looked for a coupon on their phones
• 55 percent used their phones to find better prices
• 50 percent scanned a barcode with their phones
• 50 percent used their phones to take and send a photo
• 40 percent used their phone to sign up for a store loyalty program
• 35 percent used their phone to search for an item to find reviews
• 30 percent used their phones to tweet about their experiences in stores

Again, these are all marketing numbers with a heavy emphasis on retail but the implications for PR are worth pondering. 

One of the conference sponsors, Appcelerator, asserts that the mobile revolution will be more transformative than the web because mobile devices are always with consumers and mobile is going to evolve at a much faster pace. In fact, according to the same source, mobile shipments outpaced desktop/laptop shipments last year.

If indeed mobile is going to eclipse predecessor technologies as desktops did mainframes and tablets have laptops, how ought the wise PR practitioner counsel a client trying to the discern impact mobile will have on his business?

For starters, imagine the efficiencies of communicating via mobile to:

• Quickly disseminate news of a food or drug recall to known users
• Activate crisis protocols instantaneously when disasters strike
• Conduct in-the-field opinion sampling of people who don't work in offices
• Get news to employees before they read it online or in print
• Reach rank and file union members in the midst of a labor negotiation
• Respond immediately to influential reporters while they're out covering stories
• Alert stakeholders to pending legislation that requires their immediate action
• Update members of a class action to major developments in their case

Skeptics may say, "We're already doing that. We send e-mails and people read them on their mobile devices." Fair enough. But what situations might merit more urgent SMS communication and how might that impact crisis preparedness plans?

It would be inaccurate to suggest that PR is wholly ignoring mobile. Online reconnaissance reveals some large agencies are conducting surveys about the growing use of mobile and others are developing customized Apps, although most still are created by technology boutiques or self-identifying digital agencies.

There also are instances of PR agencies and their clients beginning to exploit the potential of mobile in sectors such as healthcare, banking, broadcasting and gaming.

Healthcare, in particular, is a sector in which PR has made some mobile headway. PR Newswire and PRSA are listed as sponsors of the Mobile Healthcare Communications conference in New York today, and at least two PR execs are on the roster as speakers or moderators.

Still, anyone attending the First Look conference last week could not be blamed for concluding that mobile communication is the province of marketers. If mobile is the future, and marketing controls mobile, who's going to shape the future? None of us want to regress to an era when PR had no voice at the management table. 

It's high time we all picked up the phone.

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Robert McEwen is president & CEO of Zing USA.

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