PR Today vs. 20 Years Ago: A Personal Reflection

Vu Chung  Follow

When I accepted my first PR job, I didn’t think I would continue to be in this profession 20 years later in the middle of a pandemic. It wasn’t because I didn’t love my first job; it was because I started my tech PR career at the peak of the dot-com bubble, which burst soon after my first day. I’m glad I didn’t quit and change careers because I absolutely love what I do. From the various PR campaigns that I’ve been a part of, to the clients and people I’ve met along the way, my journey has been unexpected, fun, educational and imaginative. When my colleagues learned of this milestone, they asked me many questions about doing PR today versus 20 years ago. So, I thought, why not blog about it? That’s what we do in the year 2020, right?

Some of the frequently asked questions have to do with managing the routine day-to-day tasks at a PR agency 20 years ago. Questions like how I built and maintained media lists, created coverage reports without digital media databases and how I pitched and cultivated relationships with reporters. I love these questions because the answers really show how far we’ve come as an industry.

  • Media Lists – Building and maintaining media lists was an art that required patience and thick skin. We relied on a book called Bacon’s, which was a media contact directory for newspapers, magazines, broadcast, etc. These books were updated every six months, which wasn’t ideal because reporters changed beats or publications far more frequently. We were required to have patience to build media lists because we literally had to flip through these books to find the contact details and manually type each entry into an Excel sheet. Thick skin was needed because the only way for us to be sure that the contact information was up-to-date, was to call the reporters directly and ask for confirmation, or to call an editorial assistant and pray that they would be willing to help out. I was hung up on and yelled at many times. The exercise really prepared me for actual telephone pitching, and we certainly spent a lot of time on the phone back then.
  • Coverage Reports – Creating coverage reports was a lot of fun. It was the only time in the business world that we could do arts and crafts without being judged. You see, most articles were printed. On paper! The Internet was available, but digital content was still in its infancy. That said, even if a client was included in an article online, we still had to print it out, clip and glue it to the company’s letterhead. My Friday afternoons were typically slower, so I designated them as my clipping days. I flipped through piles of magazines and newspapers for coverage of my clients. My agency at the time also subscribed to BurrellesLuce clipping service, so I had to go through piles of clippings sent by the company to ensure accuracy. If they were accurate, I snipped with a scissor and I pasted it with glue onto the letterhead and then added it to a physical clip binder for reporting.
  • Pitching and Relationship Building – There are three communications technologies we used to pitch reporters – phone, email and fax. Most reporters preferred a press release to be faxed and then followed up with a phone call. Email existed, but it wasn’t widely used by all reporters. I typically used to call reporters first and ask how they’d like to receive the information. This was an acceptable practice back then. Overall, I think the fundamental approach for cultivating a good working relationship with reporters and the dynamic between reporters and PR professionals remains the same – be helpful, be respectful of the reporter’s time and follow through with your deliverables.

Another set of frequently asked questions has to do with the evolution of the media industry and how PR pros are adapting to shifts from print to online, and now, the emergence of pithy digital newsletters. This change has called for PR pros to be speedier, in my opinion. Twenty years ago, we had a very good sense of media publishing deadlines as they were often fixed, which helped tremendously when planning a media outreach campaign. I don’t think we have this luxury today because the news cycle is much faster, and news can be broken almost immediately with a tweet. Readers no longer need to wait until the evening or the next day for news. This means that PR folks also need to disseminate news faster, while ensuring our spokespeople are accessible at any given time. That said, this evolving and expanding media landscape does offer PR teams more channels to disseminate their clients’ thought leadership. For example, one thing that we do more of today than 20 years ago is thought leadership contribution in the form of bylined articles. I think there are more publications accepting contributed content and there are a lot more media outlets available today than two decades ago.

And finally, the one question that all of my colleagues have asked me, and I have even asked myself now and again, is what advice would I give to my younger PR self? I think this is a great question to wrap up this blog post via a top 5 listicle because, again, this is what we do in the year 2020:

  1. Show up and follow through. If you’re going to show up for an opportunity, you must follow through till the end. This is how you build credibility and earn trust with not just reporters, but clients and colleagues.
  2. In the next 20 years, many technologies will be invented to make your job easier, but keep in mind that you control the technologies; they don’t control you. It is important to take breaks and step away from devices to re-center yourself, because you can’t show up and follow through, if you’re burned out.
  3. PR is a relationship business. To build meaningful relationships – whether with your colleagues, clients, or reporters – you must be your authentic self and bring your whole self to the table.
  4. Be kind, especially to yourself. There will be many hard days ahead so learn to let go of the uncontrollable. You want to be your very best but beating yourself up and dwelling on the uncontrollable will just hinder your growth.
  5. Call your parents. 

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