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PRSA 2019 Conference Takeaways

This past weekend I attended my first Public Relations Society of American ICON Conference, in sunny (and even hot) San Diego. Below I’ve gathered some initial takeaways, many of which could probably use deeper examination.

Newcomer thoughts: As a first-time attendee, the conference impressed me. The sessions began promptly at 8 a.m. and ran both of the full days until almost 6 p.m. Most session blocks had a dozen or more options, and I almost always had three or four sessions during each block I wanted to attend. By the time I finished Tuesday afternoon, I had a notebook full of notes and a head full of ideas.

The Communicator’s Role: Battle disinformation. Drive strategy (or even product development). Build community. Bridge cultural chasms. Reinforce reputation. Protect principles. As the worlds of public relations, marketing, advertising, and journalism shift, PR professionals need to do more than write press releases, manage events, or script speeches. While many people tackled this subject, I particularly enjoyed Frank Shaw’s keynote speech on the topic.

PR vs Marketing: This came up repeatedly, and while many people seemed to want a bright line between the two professions, such a clear delineation doesn’t exist. The clearest difference seemed to be in goals instead of actual tactics. In many ways, it felt like issues surrounding journalism in the early 2000s, when reporters and editors struggled with the changes wrought by the Internet. I have certainly struggled with the boundaries of advertising, communications, public relations, and marketing, so I took comfort in the many others struggling with similar questions. At the same time, it wasn’t lost on me that many industry veterans seemed weary of this debate.

The Press Release Is…: not really a topic of conversation. The “is it dead” question came up a couple of times, but it seems most people consider the traditional release a tool of minimal value. Yes, it’s still necessary for informational purposes (such as earnings reports), but even those few who discussed press releases argued for their value beyond information. However, it should be noted the largest vendors at the conference were press release distribution services. So people must still see value, because those services aren’t cheap.

Social Media, Agnostically: Five years ago, these types of conferences featured a bevy of sessions focused on the best way to use specific social media platforms. Now, few dispute the overall value of social media for public relations, but I didn’t hear any arguments in favor of specific platforms.

Hug A Journalist: Maybe it’s the number of ex-journalists working in public relations or a response to the “fake news” attacks, but the overall tone was very supportive of journalists. Two keynotes (Bob Woodward, Laura Ling) were working journalists who got huge applause for their work. That’s encouraging, especially considering how many conferences I’ve attended where I spent far too much time defending the media. The fact is, most reporters consider their work an important public service, and as communications professionals, we should respect and protect their important role.

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