A Clarion Call or Chicken Little’s Sky Is Falling

Well, in this holiday season, I was greeted by a rather pessimistic article – How the PR business is changed forever (And why you might not be in it) – posted in PROpenMic by Steven Silvers. Below is my response, based upon reading the article three times.

Yeah, I know it could well be a link bait post … but, I’m responding anyway.  It is just too easy to make wild claims when people are already scared, but if you’re going to start screaming “The sky is falling” ya’ better walk the walk with facts, not start writing screaming headlines or making unsubstantiated claims.

I’ve been waiting for these posts to start rolling in.  Yeah, the nah-sayers have a great opportunity.  All these dire financial conditions are ripe for “Danger, Will Robinson” posts galore.  Sure, there may be some truth to the predictions.  But, have you seen any evidence, yet?  I haven’t seen much either.  At least, I haven’t seen enough to claim the sky is falling.

Clarion Call?

OK, if Steven is going to scare the bee-gee-bees out of students, I’m going to give the flip side.  My apologies for the snark.  ;o)

Damn, Steven. Is this a clarion call or did you just get up on the wrong side of the bed?

OK, you make some sound points about the change of our information sharing / distribution world, the shrinking media outlets, and all those laid off journalists now seeking employment in public relations.  There are other ways to look at it all, though.  I don’t see any real evidence of all this gloom and doom taking place, so I’m a wee bit pessimistic about your predictions.

Contrary evidence is also being written that challenges your predictions. Survival by the numbersCommentary: Three budget figures tell which companies likely to do best by Irwin Kellner at WSJ’s MarketWatch. PR firms are also pitching the sanity of planned PR activities. It makes sense to me, but we’ll see if businesses bite. (Hat tip to Andy Russell on the PRMindShare listserv for the links.)

The changing information landscape (both distribution and consumption) is certainly in a major flux. Won’t argue with that. It has been documented. However, since this financial crisis is all still too new, I’m not ready to buy in to the doom talk.  Really, it is too soon in the financial fallout to make broad predictions … with any hope of accuracy, IMO.

Still, we talked in classes (and even had guest speakers) sharing the potential outcomes for our students. We stressed finding niches where they might prove their worth to future employers. Yes, those are sound strategies.

I do have a problem with your assertion that all this work “can be accomplished by one talented person with a laptop and Blackberry” is quite humorous, to me. Sure, if you don’t sleep and go at it 24/7 … you may get a great deal done (mileage will vary on quality), but you still can’t do it all by yourself.

Steven, can you point to one or two public (solid) presentations of a single practitioner doing all of this conversation mining, Web development, morphing of traditional practice with emerging digital media, evaluation and more … by one practitioner / “person with a laptop and Blackberry”? I’d love to see that.   Seriously, I mean solid and detailed examples / case studies, too.  Oh, we’ve all seen the claims … by many … but the proof?  That’s another story.

Speculation or Knowledge?  What is it?I believe everyone else would love to see such a case study, too. I have personal experiences with government, nonprofit and business efforts – even on a local level (small towns/cities) – where it still requires multiple people (and you can add in outsourcing there, too).  Please show me how it can be done by one person? Seriously.

If your examples include outsourcing, by the way, it isn’t being done by one person. Is it?

On the anecdotal front, I’ve recently been asked to help one educational institution, one nonprofit and one business develop job descriptions for new positions. There are jobs out there. Even in Alabama, where proration has hit us hard – 9% reduction in funding – for all state and educational institutions, there are still new positions in PR.

You see, to me, the broad brush you’ve used neglects the really big area of PR practice – the place where most PR is being done – and it isn’t in agencies, Steven. It hasn’t been for years. I’ve written about this many times, but many practitioners and observers fail to do the counting – fail to recognize the landscape.  Most PR is being done in small state, local and county/parish governmental and NGO offices.   They outnumber agency and in-house people easily.  Those jobs are still there and will likely continue to be there, although there may be a brief stagnation (maybe even a brief drop) due to the financial crisis.  (Note:  This post has many of the details on practitioner numbers.)

Now, in that last graph, we do have a combination of facts and my opinions, I will admit. Predictions are not my forte, but history says I’m likely right. The last economic downturn did see some stagnation, but the total number of practitioners (in my small sphere) is actually up. That’s right, more jobs.  So, it may happen in some places, Steven, but not necessarily everywhere.

This morning, I just got my usual Chronicle of Higher Education job announcements e-mail.  Still a lot of jobs, and I’m not just talking faculty, either.  Schools are still hiring entry level and management level PR people.  Again, anecdotal to the area of higher education, but a good example.

Your views on the what the “Project for Excellence in Journalism called ‘the new paradox of journalism… more outlets covering fewer stories'” is interesting. It is the journalism institutions that still, to this day, have not figured out how to adapt. I have not agreed with that idea of more outlets covering fewer stories idea. Instead, it is more outlets addressing the niche stories that most journalism establishments continually ignored.

Further, since they failed to embrace the digital world and let others capture the territory, their feeble attempts these days are their own fault. We may very well see that when one large media outlet dies, 10 or 20 niche outlets (digital) may rise up. Again, anecdotal, but in our own county a new newspaper has launched within the last month. Another half dozen digital-only outlets popped up, too. They are all commercial endeavors.  I get the feeling this type of thing is happening elsewhere, but I don’t have the data to support it.

If we’re going to use the Project for Excellence, let’s also consider something that may well be a future source of new jobs.  The recent study states, “News is shifting from being a product — today’s newspaper, Web site or newscast — to becoming a service — how can you help me, even empower me?” As these outlets learn how to do just that, we will see more opportunities, or replacement opportunities, for those castaways from the failed traditional outlets.

Of course, I think we’ll both agree, those new jobs will likely go to young recent grads willing to take the lower paying jobs. A journalist with as little as 10 years won’t want the jobs because they won’t pay their mortgage … if they haven’t lost their house already.

So, as to the journalists flooding PR firms looking for jobs, I really doubt that worries many recent college grads to the degree you claim. Those jobs are not likely the ones these journalists are seeking, except for the young ones that have recently graduated themselves and now see a pink slip after only one or two years of service. Still, the influx of laid off workers is a good point. The talent pool is getting larger, because of layoffs.

Yes, the economy is bad. There may be a slow time for a year or two, but to claim the whole landscape is changing without anything but personal opinion to back it up is quite a bit too alarmist, in my opinion.

As for students changing their majors, ok … what should they change it to, Steven? At most universities, a PR degree is a general PR / business hybrid degree. That’s what employers want and I have yet to see them tell us otherwise. Yes, we have adapted and added specialized areas, like emerging digital media, but a graduate needs that broad knowledge base – plus the critical thinking and problem solving abilities. And, we have always (and still do) emphasize writing. I have my students writing three times a week on assignments, aside from their outside work, every week of every semester. That’s regardless of what class I’m teaching, too.

Ghost of Christmas Future?So, come on, Steven. What should they change it to, if PR is not the right discipline for their chosen path?

Look, you may be right. But, when someone wants to scream, “The sky is falling”, I’d really like to see some evidence. Is the economy in the tank? Yes. Is the future of PR in flux? Yes. Is much of traditional journalism on weak knees as a business model? Yes. All that is true. But, can you point out solid examples that say you’re right (on a broad national scale)? I doubt it.  Local papers, especially in those cities just under SMSA status, are doing quite well.

If you’ve had a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Future, then share it all.

Could it all turn ugly?  Yes.  The reality could well be that I’m not teaching soon and looking for a job. I’m not foolish enough to think that the words, “You want fries with that” can’t be coming out of my mouth soon, either. Anything can happen. Am I running around screaming doom? No. There isn’t sufficient evidence to make it sensible. And, I don’t tend to see it as being productive (absent quantifiable evidence) either.

Look, I don’t mean to be harsh or mean in my rebuttal, but the tone of your post is – I believe – too over the top for students.  Sure, I want them to hear all sides, but I have yet to see evidence of total doom and gloom for PR and communication jobs.  We’ll both see what the horizon delivers in the months to come, but I refuse to go negative when there are positive signs around me.

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