Fifty years of chronicling the growth of the PR industry is certainly a milestone worthy of reflection. Jack O’Dwyer was a financial journalist at two of the biggest daily newspapers in the U.S., the New York Journal-American and the Chicago Tribune. The creation of his signature off-white, typed weekly report in 1968, O’Dwyer’s Newsletter, quickly became a must-read for corporate and agency practitioners. By the time I graduated Brooklyn College with a degree in TV and radio in 1976, worked on-air in radio, served on a TV assignment desk and finally joined the PR industry in 1981, “O’Dwyer’s” had become one of a handful of legitimate publications serving our industry.
I met Jack in the late ’80s at the annual KCSA West Point football outing. Jack was a perennial attendee, joining Herb Corbin, Les Schupak, the late Les Aronow and the rest of the firm for the dining and liquid refreshment that preceded the afternoon in the grandstand. His distinct laugh, voice and presence dominated the group, and to this (then) young practitioner, he seemed a reporter’s reporter. And in many ways, he was. Jack pushed, probed and exposed and didn’t think twice about who he was writing about and who he might offend.
This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jul. '18 50th Anniversary Magazine
Over the decades, as my career unfolded, Jack was always inviting and magnanimous in coverage of stories I pitched. In later years, we often disagreed on various industry and PRSA issues, but we maintained an open dialogue and his publication’s doors were always open.
Reminiscences aside, O’Dwyer was there to report on our industry’s maturation and transformation into a serious management discipline (that despite the Aug. 2017 Gallup Poll depicting the profession as one of the least respected, with a just eight percent net positive rating).
Where is the PR industry headed?
Seeing we all have a good sense as to the current state of the profession, I thought it might be instructive to look at where PR is headed in the next 50 years. I turned to some industry friends and colleagues to weigh in. “Technology” and “societal changes” are two common themes I heard in many responses.
“PR is going to significantly move away from any kind of mass distribution since it is no longer going to be necessary,” said Natan Edelsburg, COO of the Muck Rack and Shorty Awards. “Journalism’s fragility and evolution is going to force more customization than ever before. Because of advancements in technology and social platforms, it will be easier to target the right journalists and get a brand’s message across in a sincere way. As a result, the PR industry is going to help boost a renaissance within a journalism industry that has been plagued by outdated business models and mass layoffs. The future is bright for those who take their time to build relationships and use technology to scale.”
According to Erik Deutsch, Principal of ExcelPR Group in Los Angeles and a former PRSA-LA President, “It’s difficult to predict what will happen next week let alone 50 years into the future, but the long horizon gives us freedom to think big. If the past is any indication, change will be manifest in new technologies and the democratization of content publishing and distribution. We may see artificial intelligence take on PR storytelling functions, as it is already beginning to do in journalism. It’s possible PR will take on a more scientific approach, given new forms of data and the ability to analyze it. Perhaps the most fundamental change will involve how the public perceives news sources. We already see a less clear delineation between editorial and branded content, and that’s likely to continue.”
Bill Doescher, President and CEO of the Doescher Group and past President of -PRSA-NY and the PRSA Foundation, thinks change will accelerate and that includes the language of our profession. “The short answer is in all kinds of directions with some indications that the words ‘public relations’ will be playing a lesser role and maybe even disappearing … in the next five-to-10 years.”
What else may disappear? Quite a bit according to Rick Anderson, Managing Director and head of Feintuch Communications’ financial practice, who shared a more cynical view of where the industry is headed.
“… to extinction. PR will be taken over by AI and bots which will crawl through our clients’ public and private information and effectively bypass our role as the middleman. It will be machine-to-machine since there will no longer be reporters but intelligent robots sifting through their expansive data bases looking for sources and data. It’s hard enough today to get reporters on the phone; robots won’t even have cell phones,” said Anderson.
Perhaps one of the most upbeat and analytical responses came from Kevin Akeroyd, CEO of Cision. “Public relations is headed toward becoming a heavily data-based profession within the next 50 years, in highly similar ways to how marketing, advertising and digital commerce have evolved. ‘Real’ data, analytics, and business results attribution and measurement will finally arrive (unlike the last 50 years) and will permeate the industry as the advancement and sophistication of available tools continues to increase.”
Where do I see the industry going? After watching technologies arrive and transform our business for more than 35 years, there’s no question that the volume and pace of innovation will only increase. From big data, AI, AR, social media and mobile to new, undreamed of tech, the only constant, as the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus is thought to have said, is change.
Regardless of the tools, it’s the people who use the tools and advocate for their firms and clients that are the constant. The technology allows us to be more thoughtful, to target better, interpret and free up our creativity. Tech will not replace us; it will empower us in ways previously unimaginable.
Cision’s Akeroyd similarly believes the best days are ahead. “PR, the fundamental keystone of earned media — will actually be recognized for what it is — the most influential, most effective, most impactful of the media mix.”
I couldn’t have said it better. Here’s to the next 50 with you all and with O’Dwyer’s. Fasten your seat belts!
Henry Feintuch is president of Feintuch Communications, a NYC-based PR firm focused on technology, financial services and start-ups. He is a past President of PRSA-NY.