Monday, March 31, 2008

Has Technology Lived Up to Its Promise in the Workplace

Businesses and workers alike generally laud technology improvements, both using examples such as e-mail and the Blackberry in pointing out how technology has allowed businesses to operate more efficiently. However, when the issue is more closely examined, it's really not that clear cut.

According to a new survey issued by The Radicati Group, e-mail volume has increased a whopping 55 percent since 2004, with the average corporate e-mail user receiving 126 messages daily. The report goes on to say that if growth in e-mail volume continues at its current pace, workers will spend almost half their days managing messages by 2009.

While most bloggers who picked on this study stuck to the main issue, I thought I'd expand it a bit to examine the basic premise of technology and its promise of bringing efficiency to a variety of processes. There are countless examples of promises that were issued when new technologies emerged that haven't really lived up to reality. For example, I can remember businesses using videoconferencing over ISDN connections as early as 1993 and even then, equipment providers were touting how they would replace meetings and make business travel much less frequent. And of course, e-mail was supposed to cut down on the need for meetings, allow problems to be solved faster, etc.

Before going any further, I want to emphasize that I'm not saying these things haven't occurred in some cases, but it's fair to say they haven't occurred across the business world at large. In theory, if technology were making our lives more efficient, shouldn't we be able to accomplish more in a shorter amount of time, either getting more done in a standard workday or having a shorter workday?

Obviously, at least in the U.S., neither has happened; and rather than blame the technology, I suggest the reason these radical changes haven't happened is we've failed to adjust our attitudes, the way we think about work and the way we think about what we should get done in a formal work setting. Simply put, unless you change what a worker does during their day, the presence of technology won't necessarily enable you to get more done.

To bring this back to the PR world, I suggest we haven't done enough to change the PR business model through technology in a way that makes it possible for the ever-growing number of small and mid-size businesses with limited marketing budgets to engage a PR counselor. For example, a company with a limited budget could be presented with an account option that includes limited meetings, phone calls and other time-consuming (e.g. expensive) options for one that features mostly electronic client communication. That would enable the PR counselor to spend more of the company's billable time on actual program initiatives, greatly increasing the productivity that can be expected from limited budgets.

When thinking about technology and its impact on the business world, we'd do well to develop a plan that will allow the technology to reach its full potential and that focus should include just as much on the workday structure and the way we think about work as what the technology promises to do.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Pew Study Illustrates Difficulty in Determining Social Media Impact

Proponents of social media have generally highlighted its biggest advantage as being the potential to "upend" the media landscape by shifting the power from a few large, established players to a more decentralized environment that delivers a broader perspective, free of biases. However, a new study by the Pew Center paints a much more complicated picture.

The study says that despite social media's potential to create a more diverse media culture, the reality is that even when it comes to new media, most consumers typically turn to the ventures of the established media companies that have dominated the media world for decades, if not longer. The research shows that blogs and other social media outlets are attracting a smaller than expected audience and that rather than creating a culture devoid of elitism, all that's happened is the elites now come from a broader class consisting of more than just individuals with media backgrounds. In other words, the barons still rule, just not the media barons of old.

The biggest trend, according to the study, is that news today is thought of not so much as a product, but as a service. Consumers are changing their preferences when it comes to consuming news by opting for everything from traditional, full-form news stories to 40-character briefs sent via e-mail.

As far back as 2006, I was saying that we've been in a "blog bubble" of sorts that is causing us to avoid fully examining the potential impact of social media and keeping us from using it in the right way. Unfortunately this latest study seems to say loud and clear that while social media has value, PR pros and others advocating its use would be well advised to give it a more thorough examination than has been done in the past. Frankly, we owe it to our clients and to the reputation of our industry as a whole.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Edelman's Take on PR's Validity

Richard Edelman, CEO of the nation's largest independent PR firm, had a great take on the impact the current economic downturn will have on PR that I urge everyone to read.

He believes that PR will be better equipped to weather the downturn than during the tech bubble of the 90s, when some tech-focused PR firms suffered dramatically, but says the industry could do a better job of promoting its own value proposition. Edelman goes on to list several key contributions PR makes to a business and its bottom line, including getting multiple stakeholders involved in a company's success -- not just consumers and serving as a unique accelerator for a company and its brand. That aspect stems from the fact that PR involves a communications approach that leads consumers of a company's PR message to become active participants that help companies shape their products and services.

Finally, Edelman argues that PR offers a credibility advantage because information is thoroughly vetted and examined by the media, bloggers and independent third-parties.

I agree with all the above and also with the fact that it's the industry's job to communicate these advantages through the selling process. Anyone who's in PR and has ever talked to someone who's never before met anyone else from the industry knows how little the average person understands exactly what we do. In a sense, that disconnect is causing us to miss out on a great opportunity, since at least a portion of these people might be potential PR consumers if they better understood the industry.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Does Recession-Proof PR Exist?

In a recent op-ed for The Bulldog Reporter, GolinHarris CEO Al Golin takes a turn at the microphone in the debate over the impact the current economic downturn will have on public relations.

In the article, Golin maintains that much has changed in the PR landscape in recent years. As a result of what he terms PR's "coming of age," Golin says businesses understand much more about what PR firms do for them and how important they are to their success. He goes on to say that PR can now make a good case about its necessity and has gone beyond merely an industry specializing in getting clients ink to one that includes firms that are valued business partners.

As proof of the change, Golin sites the growth of his own firm, which he maintains had a banner year last year. While I don't think Golin would have a reason to overstate his firm's state, that stat was impossible to verify since GolinHarris is part of the Interpublic Group, which doesn't readily make available stats on its various subsidiaries.

Overall, I think articles such as this perfectly illustrate the wide disconnect between large and small firms. Large firms, as is the case with large companies in many other industries, often enjoy many benefits by virtue of their size. Chief among them is the fact that large businesses often patronize businesses of their same size; so Golin Harris has a number of large, publicly-held clients as companies. I suspect an examination of smaller, independently-held firms would yield a much different picture since competition is even more fierce at that level.

If there are any owners/managers of mid-size or small independent shops, I'd love to hear your comments on this issue. Is Golin's enthusiasm overstated?