If a public relations firm declares a certain type of PR dead, does that automatically make it so?

January 11 - lawyers-13200 The fine folks at Jaffe PR sent me a press release the other day declaring an end to law firm public relations and replacing it, instead, with law firm reputation management. I found the release intriguing, to say the least. So, with the help of Jaffe PR staffer Kathy O’Brien, I decided to dig a little deeper to find out exactly what agency president & CEO Jay M. Jaffe had in mind.

Here’s our back-and-forth:

1) Why declare law firm PR dead now?
It is time. With the dramatic changes in the news media and the economy, along with the explosion of online content and social networking media, public relations no longer adequately defines how law firms effectively build, communicate and extend their brands. Today’s business realities call for a broader and more integrated approach to media relations, marketing and communications that incorporates a complete blend of marketing disciplines including advertising, media relations, face- to-face and social networking, optimized content, Web sites, Internet marketing, crisis communications, legal rankings, speaking engagements, research, strategic planning, and more. Traditional public relations is about building relationships and while we don’t deny that is still important, it is no longer enough.
2) Do your law firm clients and prospects agree with your premise that reputation management trumps PR?
Last year was one of the most difficult years for law firms since the great depression. Firms were plagued by a changing business paradigm, record layoffs, deep salary cuts and an overall decline in profitability. This is a fresh, bold approach that is necessary to remain competitive and we are simply putting a name to what we are doing for our clients and what we feel firms must be doing in this changed industry.

3) Does your declaration extend to other types of law firm marketing? Is law firm advertising dead as well, etc?
Think of it this way – public reputation management encompasses many aspects of marketing. Again, it is just putting a name to the way law firms need to think about positioning themselves. You asked specifically about advertising and in fact, the way law firms advertise is indeed changing. Online content is becoming far more important as print media is rapidly becoming less critical and influential. An online presence, complete with video, offers a more immediate and intimate connection with target audiences, and for law firms, that is groundbreaking.

4) Does your declaration extend to professional services firms in general? Should all professional services firms abandon the term PR and, instead, embrace reputation management?
After a 23-year run, PepsiCo decided to pull its Super Bowl ads in favor of focusing marketing efforts on an online campaign. It could be seen by some as a bold public “relations” move, but it really comes down to how PepsiCo chose to manage its “reputation.” Companies and professional businesses across all industry sectors need to carefully consider new and exciting ways to reach their audiences. It’s more than the single focus of building relationships.

5) I'm a huge proponent of PR agency marketing and have always considered Peppercom to be one of Peppercom's most important clients. That said, your announcement could be seen by some as publicity for the sake of publicity. How would you respond?
This is not about us. It’s about the PR needs of the legal industry. We are reacting to the sea change that is happening in the legal marketplace as well as the rest of the economy. Legal marketing has been virtually stagnant for the past 100 years and public reputation management is the right catalyst at the right time to move law firms up in the reputation curve. It's no longer about sending out a few press releases and calling it PR or marketing. It's about building or growing a brand on many fronts with the right 2010 marketing mix, using a wide range of tools for specific aspects of managing a firm's reputation: media relations, crisis communications, Web 2.0, creative, advertising, etc. These are still all important elements but they can’t be viewed or used in a vacuum – they must be part of a much bigger plan if they want to succeed in this competitive environment.

Thanks, Jay. I must say, I really like the idea of PR firms declaring certain things dead and have decided to add to your list. Here’s what I’d like to declare dead:

The ‘new sheriff in town’ syndrome. This occurs when a new CMO or VP of corporate communications is hired and, regardless of the excellent work done by the incumbent firm, immediately cleans house. I’d like to see an ‘incumbent agency protection clause’ added to PR industry bylaws that reads, in part, ‘Give the damn incumbent half a chance before yanking the plug.’

The ‘tell us what you think it will cost’ cop-out. Too many prospective clients refuse to provide budget parameters and, instead, ask the agency to spin their wheels and submit various scenarios at various price points. By-laws clause number two: ‘Tell the agency what your budget is. Period.’

The black hole of non-response. This occurs when big corporations hold an intense new business search, invite agencies to travel to their faraway headquarters and make a pitch (all within an extremely tight time frame). Then, the prospect never returns calls or provides a status on what the hell happened. By-laws addendum number three: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’

Bait-and-switch. We continue to benefit from the fallout that occurs after a large agency trots in former White House press secretaries and other big-time superstars to a new business pitch, promises the prospect these heavyweights will be part of the ongoing team and, then, after being selected, instead staffs the business instead with a bunch of 24-year-old junior executives (no offense intended towards any 24-year-old junior executives, btw). Bait-and-switch hurts the image and reputation of the entire agency world and should be abolished. Final bylaw: Agencies agree to conclude all new business meetings by promising the prospective client, ‘What you see is what you get.’

7 thoughts on “If a public relations firm declares a certain type of PR dead, does that automatically make it so?

  1. I’d be curious to see if Jack O’Dwyer covers this announcement. He does not like it all when public relations practitioners don’t use the words public relations to describe what they do. It’s a bit of a cause caliber for him.

  2. Not the first declaration of change from an agency of what PR is and certainly not the last, but still an interesting perspective.

  3. My pleasure, Jay. And, I totally agree with your POV. Actually, I don’t think it’s about either our perspective or the client’s. It’s the end user/audience who will decide how, when and where she or he will engage with the brand: whether that brand is a law firm or a retailer.

  4. Thanks RepMan for fair handling of my reputation. One other point I would like to add is that the lines between public relations, advertising, creative, interactive media and business development have all been blurring for the past 30 years or so. Ad agencies buy PR firms, PR firms buy ad agencies and we thought it was time to shift the paradigm from the service provider to the client and not have them have to think about what they want or need but be able to think about clearly defining how they want to be perceived. This means that advertising will not be the only solution they will get from an agency while the Public Relations firm says that Public Relations is the answer. The right answer has always been about the mix and we just wanted to strengthen that concept. We thought long and hard before we made our proclamation.

  5. Thanks Lunch. I like to play nice with other PR firms. Unless, of course, they haven’t played nice with me in the past.

  6. Good post here with plenty of thoughtful ideas and themes. Nice to see you play nice with Jay, too.