I had the opportunity to speak to the local chapter of PRSA this past week about how PR is changing from working with the press, to working with customers. After thinking about it in depth for the past couple of weeks, I am more and more convinced that the customer frontier is where most PR will happen in the future. Admittedly, there are others who are way out ahead of me on this—Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba are two. Still others have called this a "360 degree approach to PR."
One thought before I go on: today we are all in the PR business. So even if your title isn't PR specialist or something like it, if you engage with the public (press, customers, vendors, employees), the new PR applies to you too.
Here's it is in a nutshell: In the salad days, a public relations specialist spent most of their time working with the press—pitching story ideas, following up on requests for information, offering quotes for articles, etc. The really good PR people developed close relationships with reporters, in a true you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours fashion. When the press did a story and needed a quote from a customer, the PR specialist vetted the best customers and forwarded their names to the reporter for an interview—knowing that they would say only positive things. The reporter also relied on the PR staff to provide information about the company, because resources for finding it on their own were limited.
Things have changed. While good PR people still pitch stories and develop good relationships with the press, they've lost the control they once had over the process. Reporters are less inclined to take what the company says at face value (you can blame Tyco, Enron, and WorldCom for that). And when they want to talk to customers, they don't ask PR for a list of people who will only say nice things about you, they hit the search engines and read what customers are saying online. Good and bad.
So PR is changing to engage customers. Today, the best PR people are getting involved in crafting the customer experience, in beta testing products, and in talking to customers so they understand what customers are thinking and saying about their company and products. They are engaging not just the happy customers, but the detractors as well. And while they may not be able to fix every problem (or make every customer completely happy), they do understand why some interactions go bad and are working to fix those processes to prevent them from ruining other customer's experiences.
Today, the press frames their questions based on what they learn about you online—so you better know what people are saying and be able to talk with the press about what you are doing to fix or improve your product. This is the new PR.
Fortunately there are a lot of resources on the subject. Ben and Jackie's book, Creating Customer Evangelists is a good start. The Ultimate Question by Fred Reicheld is also good. Neither is about PR in the traditional sense, but both are about what PR must become to be successful.
Thanks Noelle for the invitation to speak.
UPDATE: Thanks to Brian who requested I post the presentation at SlideShare. If you want to see the slides, you'll find them here: The New PR.
What happens when a hotel gives away a guaranteed room and treats the customer as if it's their fault? This: Yours is a Very Bad Hotel. It's been floating around the Internet for a few years, but it's worth reading. Favorite slide: the front desk employee's career path. Another classic is Vincent Ferrari's call to cancel his AOL account.
Some very sobering statistics here and here.
The Perfect Customer Experience Blog is here.
Brian Oberkirk offers some great advice for PR people interacting with new media, here.
Have other links or thoughts on this subject? Leave them in the comments.