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PR: Not rocket science

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| This Week's Cutting Edge Podcast with FeedBurner's Rick Klau ?

January 22, 2007

PR: Not rocket science

Stephen Baker

Shel Holtz defends the science of public relations after critics including Stowe Boyd and Robert Scoble lay into the concept of a social media press release.

He writes, "Public relations is a field in which scholars devote their lives to researching models and theories. You can earn a doctorate in PR." Later he adds: "To insist that the profession use a tool one way or another??r to abandon it altogether??s no different than me telling NASA engineers which tools to use to build their next-generation spacecraft."

Sorry Shel, but I have to part ways with you here. Those of us whose specialty is human communications, including journalists, shouldn't confuse ourselves with rocket scientists. Everyone who can read, write and/or talk is in a position to take our job away. No degrees or dissertations required. They just have to do it better than we do.

10:22 AM


Yes, I suppose that's true: If people can communicate "better than we do," our jobs are at risk. However, I think that proves Shel's point, rather than disprove it.

There is indeed a science behind communication. It might not look much like the science that goes into NASA-level engineering, but it's still a science. At the same time, rocket scientists' "art" or creativity - which I argue certainly exists - is quite different than the art or creativity communicators employ.

Stephen, you're a journalist, a writer, so you surely understand that there's a science that goes into that work. There's a soft science to the reporting you do; you could certainly put forth some ideas about what works consistently (or doesn't) in, say, getting info out of a tight-lipped source. Even more science-like are the rules of grammar, punctuation, sentence structure and the like. Not much different in mind from the rules that govern rocket propulsion or aerodynamics.

Ultimately, I think it's just as likely for someone to walk in off the street and threaten a NASA engineer's job as it is for a random Joe or Jane to stumble into BW's headquarters and do your job equally well (short of thinking through this issue with any level of depth).

Posted by: Mike Keliher at January 22, 2007 11:44 AM

Mike, I'm not saying that communications professions don't take skill or know-how. But it doesn't have to be formal. Each one of us is endowed with a near miraculous package of communications tools. And most of the skills that we put to use we develop naturally. The trade tools are just a thin veneer. I would not be surprised at all to find a lawyer, a film director, a marketer or a political consultant who with a couple weeks of training could handle a job in journalism or p.r.

Posted by: steve baker at January 22, 2007 06:38 PM

Shalom Stephen,

Public relations and advertising are extensions of sales skills, not communications skills. The function is not first to transmit information considered useful by the recipient, but rather information perceived as useful in achieving a goal by the sender.

PR and adverting degrees belong in the Business school, not the Journalism school, and neither is a science in any stretch of the word.


Jeff Hess

Posted by: Jeff Hess at January 23, 2007 12:00 AM

Right on Mike, Right on

referring to your last sentence.

(short of thinking through this issue with any level of depth)

Posted by: Doug Skoglund at January 23, 2007 09:52 AM

Two items for Heather Green:

(1) Just listened to your interview on THE CUTTING EDGE with Tim B. from Podcast & New Media Expo. Good. However, You should really be interviewing Paul Colligan ( is co-author of THE BUSINESS PODCASTING BIBLE, which is right on your target for this show and this audience.

(2) Also, you may want to check out IBM's entrance into rich media, including podcasting, video, webcasts and other media -- IBM TV. It is at and go to "Tune in" link at the bottom left.


Posted by: Fred Castaneda at January 23, 2007 01:02 PM

As Director of Communication for a small non-profit membership organization, someone who deals with our members'press releases regularly, I tend to think that the press release as a form has outlived its usefulness. As a delivery vehicle, they actually tend to communicate very little, being intended as either a marketing tease or a spin on some announcement. There's usually very little hard information included in the release and most of us know that the quotes included in a release are not the words of an executive but of his pr person.

Yes, the press release can be used as filler in a newsletter but it's very little substance. In such a case, wouldn't a new and/or different form be a better idea?

Posted by: Jill at January 23, 2007 01:10 PM

Keep in mind the role of technology. Just like thousands of engineers with slide rules were replaced by a few hundred engineers with computers at NASA, technology is beginning to play a big role in Public Relations.

Just had lunch with my own PR people today and we discussed how the front page on a Google search is going to become a much better placement than a mention in a traditional paper based publication. Technology is what will get that placement.

Posted by: Chris Baggott at January 23, 2007 02:19 PM

A bit of a red herring to call anything a science in the art of communications but there are fundamental conventions that you need to learn in order to become a serious practitioner. We've seen the output of numerous misguided business practitioners with no clue on how to practice PR. I agree with Jeff that PR belongs in Biz school, but it is a profession with principles to learn and implement.

Steve - I don't think you could plunk a marketer, much less a journalist, into a PR role with a couple of weeks' training.

Maybe the problem is the labelling that we attach to all this - PR, Advertising, Sales, Marketing - isn't it all part of delivering a message in concert with all your organization's moving parts so that your audience/consumer/user/voter/member understands how, why, how, when, who, what to interact and thereby achieve said organization's goals? That's art, science - it's effective communicating! If anyone could do it, then they would, but they can't.

Posted by: Derrick Hempel at January 23, 2007 03:54 PM

needs to study the meaning of the word "science". It does not mean knowledge or understanding.

Science requires you to be able to conduct repeatable experiments. That is where theories come from. A theory in science is not, despite what the creationistas claim, some flaky interpretation of how the world works. That's where astrology enters the picture.

Public relations is no more a science than writing opera. This is no criticism of either domain. I enjoy them both.

Both have within them some "science". But they also have lots of stuff that is not amenable to experiment.

The idea that "the rules of grammar, punctuation, sentence structure and the like" are science-like is dubious. Look no further than the differences between English English and American English. They have different grammars. Both are correct. Both are wrong. Depends where you stand.

Posted by: Michael Kenward at January 23, 2007 05:36 PM

Posting boiler-plate "PR" comments at targeted blogs is just another form of spam.

Using blogs as advertising billboards or message conveyors is exploitive, non-participatory old economy.

I delete all such comments, no matter how sincere the boiler-plater. Mass conducted blog commenting to influence a targeted segment of the blogosphere is not the most effective way to spread a message.

Anything related to mass messaging is out of synch with the cluetrain realm.

Posted by: vaspers the grate aka steven e. streight at January 23, 2007 09:04 PM

Derrick, re:

Steve - I don't think you could plunk a marketer, much less a journalist, into a PR role with a couple of weeks' training.

Journalists go into PR all the time. I could name 10 or 15 former colleagues of mine, at BW and elsewhere, who now are working in PR. They seem to fare OK. The skill sets line up.

Posted by: steve baker at January 24, 2007 10:27 AM

Okay, NASA scientist was a bad analogy.

How about a knitter and the appropriate needle? The point is that a press release is a tool. Most are terrible, but that's because they're misused. As Jeremy Pepper notes, some of the more effective press releases are hyperlocal in nature and delivered via one-to-one contact. That's one example of appropriate use of the tool that people who don't practice PR may not be aware of.

Posted by: Shel Holtz at January 25, 2007 10:39 AM

It seems a lot of this discussion is using the press release as a measure of whether PR is useful or not. As a practicing PR professional, I can say definitively that the press release is the least important part of what I do. It is a statement of record, a placeholder, an event and an excuse to communicate ideas with those folks whose job it is to disseminate them. The idea that a press release is all a PR person does is akin to saying a chef's primary purpose is to turn on the stove.

I'll be the first person to say there is a dearth of good, competent PR folks out there, but the profession has a host of skills (sales and writing among them) that can be studied and perfected over time. Less a science and more similar to music, in that there are many styles and methods that will lead to success.

Posted by: Jay Nichols at January 26, 2007 06:54 PM

Jay, good analogy to music. While only a small elite can design a rocket or perform brain surgery, everybody can sing. What distinguishes singers, writers, etc., is that a minority does it well.

Posted by: steve baker at January 29, 2007 09:39 AM

I've been doing tech PR for nearly 15 years now. In all that time, I've yet to find a PR practitioner who would want to defend the practice of a press release. Everyone sees the limitations of this. The problem is that nothing has emerged which will replace this tired practice.

I think both parties would agree: if PR people never had to write another press release, and journalists never had to read another one, our jobs would be that much better.

The best part about conversations such as those at the Third Thursday event in question are that they are FINALLY taking place.

From where I'm sitting, I believe blogs will ultimately replace press releases. It just won't happen overnight. My hope is that the PR community trying to come up with a new model for the press release - whether ingenious or misguided -- will help contribute to the demise of the traditional release. And I can't wait for that to happen.

Posted by: Tim Smith at January 29, 2007 05:19 PM

Hi Tim,

Good points. I don't see the press release vanishing as much as evolving. Right now, technology seems to be guiding that evolution. As professionals in the marketing communications business, it is our responsibility to be embrasive, proactive and accepting of the changes technology brings.

The role of the pr professional will never be completely erased. There's just far too many corporate executives out there that know how to type, but not how to write.

Great discussion!

Ed Delia

Posted by: Ed Delia at January 31, 2007 01:41 PM

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