Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Thoughts After Layoff

Update: Much of what I laid out in this post has been on my mind for the past several months. As of 10/7/09, I have teamed up with Todd Van Hoosear to create Fresh Ground Communications, a firm dedicated to changing how companies handle their PR.

As those of you who follow me on Twitter and Facebook know, I recently became a casualty of the economy. Yes, I was laid off from my job at Schwartz Communications.

I worked there for nearly 9 years, in various times as a Senior Account Executive, Supervisor, Director and New Media Strategist. I started during the last of the dot com boom, watched the fallout after a devastating round of layoffs, then saw business rise again as money flowed back into the technology sector.

So I thought I'd take this time to reflect both on my work, the industry and where I'm going. You'll probably see a theme emerging in my blog posts as I to through a bit of self-discovery.

While at Schwartz I started to lead the agency into the social media landscape, working with clients as far back as 2003 to get them blogging and participating in online discussions. While I often found myself presenting ideas that were nodded and smiled at but ultimately ignored, I achieved greater success internally getting people to try things out on their own.

I liked the teaching. I liked the discussions. I liked helping people think about new ways to approach getting their clients publicity with the right audience. Even if I couldn't get my specific clients to make the move, many other people could across many other accounts. The cool part is, I don't need to stop doing that, I just won't be doing it there.

I firmly believe that PR has a great future in the new media landscape. But traditional media relations is dead, as though you haven't noticed. Companies need to shift from being content pushers (pitching media) to content creators.

This raises a pretty basic question: can the same people to do that job? I come at this from a different perspective, having had a career as a print and broadcast journalist, plus being a decent photographer, but can agencies expect their current staffs to have or gain those same skills?

Interestingly enough, many people with those exact skills are scattered around the job market. A few weeks ago I watched layoffs at IDG play out over Twitter. Over the past few months a lot of great journalists have lost their jobs and a number of great publications have closed their doors.

Not only does this mean there is a lot of talent out there for the taking, but it also means that traditional media relations firms have to completely reverse their business model or face more cuts, just changing from pitching reporters to pitching bloggers is not enough. Basic fact: if you pitch to a channel and the channel dries up, then you're toast.

Smart companies know this has to change. But people still fall back on what's safe and known, so change will be slow.

As Kenneth Lerer pointed out in his speech to Columbia Journalism School students, the newspaper industry got caught in what Clayton Christensen calls "The Innovator's Dilemma." That is, they listen too closely to their customers in a time of change, only to find themselves overtaken by younger, nimbler and riskier companies. The PR industry currently faces the same problem.

In her survey, Jennifer Leggio points out that there is a gap between client social media and media relations needs and agency deliverables. It's a gap made more confusing when you consider that on the agency side, quite a number of people felt that their clients held them back from pursuing alternative media.

That is, customers want one thing but they're saying quite another when it comes to their PR firms. PR firms are meeting what their customers want, but are not meeting their needs.

I believe that while clients know that they need to change, they also want to see their names in print. They come to PR firms with certain expectations and that includes the ability to walk into a board meeting and put up a PowerPoint slide showing all the great "hits" they got that quarter.

But this is also what traditional media relations firms are comfortable doing. This isn't just about flipping a switch and saying "OK people, now we're going to get involved in conversations," but about changing the way that management rewards employees, how employees report to clients and how clients understand what their agency can do for them.

Part of the answer lies in measurement, but part lies in taking risks, trying new things and just seeing what works.

More importantly, clients and firms alike need to reward the risk and embrace the change, not look for quick fixes. Projects will fail, some experiments will work, others won't. But don't punish the failures.


Total Coach Joan said...

Dear Chuck,
Thanks for a very thoughtful blog post, which I intend to RT. (I found you on Twitter).

I thought you might be interested in a new project I'm working on with a college. It's a book called The New Handshake: Sales 2.0. We are under contract with Praeger Press.

I point this out because I liked your insights in your blog. I particularly liked your question pondering whether the same people can do the new work? I wonder about that with sales teams.

Would it be possible for us to interview you for our book? If you have such an interest, please contact me at joan@totalcommunicationscoach.com.

You might also like to look up my website http://www.totalcommunicationscoach.com

Thanks again for your excellent blog!

Stephanie said...

I enjoyed your post. I can sympathize, being recently laid off from an agency where I was a social media evangelist too.

Your statement about content generators really stayed with me. With my background in journalism, I think that's a place where I excelled. But I'm not finding too many job listings for that. Probably because as you point out, many organizations aren't realizing the need for it.

Good luck with your future endeavors!

Chuck Tanowitz said...

thank you both for your comments. Joan, sales is certainly an interesting area that's also being turned on its head. Though, even with all the social media the face-to-face interaction remains very important.

Stephanie: good luck to you as well. I do believe the market looks good for people like us who can bring a lot to the table.

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beantown55psu said...


Great post. Although I did not embrace the media shift while at Schwartz, I am firmly strapped into my seat on the social media bandwagon.

You are spot on with your observations here...clients, and agencies, need to understand that we are still in an important trial and error period here with these social technologies. From my perspective, I see the digital media and social media movement eventually lending itself to an ROI base on "quality leads;" numbers that will no doubt be much smaller than circulation counts of 100,000 but will certainly be more targeted.

But installing the right strategies here will take time, and discipline from both agencies and clients. I think we'll ultimately find that the next wave of effective PR/Social Media communicators will be those who can create/write engaging content, and understand why it is significant, but won't necessarily need to be to prove it by pushing it out with sales-y pitches. In essence, content will once again reign supreme, and not surprisingly, I already feel that reporters understand this and listen to and report on far fewer pitches. If it's that topical, they should be able to find it themselves, or so I think.

Good luck, and keep up the great blog!