A new spin for PR

Social media level the field in tough times

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Print this page by Christina Couch

A flight attendant serves coffee, baggage handlers move luggage and two pilots saunter through the gate. Nothing surprising about this airport scene except the employees’ attire — they appear to be wearing nothing more than body paint.

Richmond-based CRT/tanaka produced the 45-second YouTube clip for Air New Zealand to promote its policy of corporate transparency. The airline wants to show that, like the employees in the spot, it has nothing to hide. The clip garnered 1.2 million hits in the first 10 days of its release, offering a prime example of how the public relations industry is learning to take advantage of social media.

“I think that the clip did so well because it was quirky, it really captures the humorous spirit of the brand, and we got it out in a very nontraditional way,” says Mark Raper, CEO of CRT/tanaka, the state’s largest PR firm. “We put it up for free instead of paying for a television spot and reached thousands of international viewers. That’s just the way the industry is heading.”

Sally Witzky is proof of the growing power of social media outlets like YouTube, Facebook, Myspace and Twitter. The CEO of Richmond-based Traction Group LLC — a one-person public relations firm launched this past April — Witzky credits social media for the rapid growth of her company at a time when many PR firms are hurting.

“I know a lot of people in PR are struggling, but I’ve built a business in the middle of the recession,” she says. In fact, business has ramped up so fast that she’s contracting out work and currently looking for one or two employees. “There’s plenty of business for us all.”

Some might debate that statement. A study by the Public Relations Center at the University of Southern California found that PR budgets nationwide dropped by just over 11 percent in 2008. More than half of the 200 companies surveyed reported additional cuts this year. In Virginia, rural regions have been hit harder than urban areas, says Barbara Burfeind, president of the Public Relations Society of America’s National Capital Chapter in Northern Virginia, the largest chapter in the nation with just over 1,400 members.

“Government public relations jobs are holding strong, so areas like Northern Virginia and Norfolk are generally doing well,” she says. “It’s smaller towns and smaller companies that have to contend with competitors coming out of journalism and into PR that are really taking a hit.”

The reason for the sharp PR downturn is two-fold, says David Rourk, CEO of Virginia Beach-based Rourk Public Relations. First, companies frequently slash marketing and communications budgets during a recession to avoid laying off employees. Secondly, PR reps are scrambling to find new avenues to promote their clients as many print publications continue to decline.  The Audit Bureau of Circulations in Schaumburg, Ill., reports that newspaper circulation nationwide is down 7.4 percent for October 2008 through March of 2009, compared with the same six months in 2007-08 while newsstand magazine sales have dropped 12.4 percent.

“You’re seeing a fork in the road,” says Rourk. “There are a lot of public relations professionals that are slow to get on board with new technologies, and they’re really suffering. The ones that have a few more tools in their bag when it comes to media coverage — those are the ones that haven’t been hit too badly.”

Rourk says his firm has lowered fees about 20 percent while remaining a strong player in search-engine optimization and online branding. Those are two areas of PR that are gaining rather than losing money.

“I have clients that love me even though I’ve never generated a media placement for them because, due to search-engine optimization, they’re No. 1 on Google,” says Rourk. While he believes media relations are still important, Roark says PR firms must put an emphasis on Web sites as 24/7 tools for promoting products, issues, causes and services. “I think a PR practitioner has to be the lead on that,” he says.

More players in the game
A side effect of the switch to free Web tools is that it lets more PR players in the game. The low financial barrier allows one- and two-person startups like Witzky’s Traction Group to compete with major companies for online business. “We recently went to a [pitch] meeting for a mid-sized account and there were 37 agencies in attendance that ranged from one- and two-person shops to the third-largest PR firm in the world,” says Raper. “Freelancers are doing well in this economy, and they’re driving down prices. It goes to show that everybody’s chasing everything.”

Some firms, however, such as Rubin Communications Group in Virginia Beach, still believe that social media will never overshadow the value of professional connections in public relations.  Joel Rubin, the company’s president, says the company hasn’t lost any money in the recession nor has it jumped on the social media bandwagon.  Instead it is working to diversify its clientele base and strengthen grass-roots relationships in the Hampton Roads region.

“We’re one of the few places that knows every editor in the area, we know how to pitch almost every publication with good stories, and we’re very aware of what other companies are doing to maintain their image.” Rubin says. “We’ve put more money into our video production, but our main strength is the fact that we staked a claim here and haven’t ventured too far outside.”

Rubin acknowledges that his model won’t work for many firms.  Most will have to take a two-pronged approach — catching a larger, nationwide audience with low-cost online tools while working to personally further local connections.

No matter which approach a firm takes, success in public relations version 2.0, says Sally Witzky, boils down to how well firms can identify their target audience and relate to them using the most accessible tools. “Redefining that whole customer relationship management idea, that’s where PR is headed in the next five to 10 years. That’s really how the business is evolving.”

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