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Airbnb and Uber are changing the public relations business

Uber for the agency sector is coming. In fact, many elements of the disruptive model already exist for the business of public relations.

If you work in public relations you need to understand how the profession is being impacted by technology and head for the high ground.

This conversation started last summer as a discussion, late one night in a hotel bar. Many of the best conversations do.

Could Uber, or something like it, disrupt the public relations agency sector in the way that it is overhauling the taxi business?

Now consumers hail a taxi using the Uber app and nearby drivers are alerted. Once a driver accepts a job their progress is plotted on a Google Map via a smartphone.

Airbnb has done the same for the holiday accommodation rental market.

These businesses use the Internet as a platform to connect buyers and sellers with ruthless efficiency. Any slack in capacity or pricing is eliminated. A review system provides public feedback for both buyer and seller.

It’s exactly as the Cluetrain Manifesto predicted in 1999.

Wherever these new models rub up against traditional markets or regulation there is tension.

Registered taxi drivers are undercut, car hire firms and holiday rental agencies struggle to adapt and fail, and tourist taxes fall. This is the pain of innovation.

I posed the ‘what does Uber for public relations look like’ question earlier this week on my Facebook page.

The responses were polarised between the people thinking hard about how they create value when areas of our business are commoditised or replaced by technology, and traditionalists who firmly reject the notion.

You may not be thinking of becoming an Uber driver or renting your home on Airbnb anytime soon, but my view is that these businesses are already impacting our business – and not always in a good way.

While there isn’t yet an Uber for public relations, lots of aspects of the business model already exist.

#1 On demand

Networks such as Elance and oDesk connect buyers of services with skilled service providers. Buyers post jobs for individual service providers to bid on. A rating system regulates both sides of the transaction.

If you sliced the core elements of the public relations process into discrete activities, from research to planning and insight, and strategy to content, engagement and measurement, you could find a numerous individuals worldwide bidding to deliver the work. The issue then becomes project management and scale.

The upside of this shift is that individuals can choose what they bid on and when they work; the downside is that they become a commodity with no security and very little profit margin.

#2 New markets

Second generation Elance and oDesk-type platforms are emerging. In the content business Contently connects creators with brands.

“It’s a technology platform that brokers between brands needing content and good writers. It could be a good model for the public relations industry – a way to match brands looking for a cost effective tactical public relations function and solid practitioners,” said Danny Whatmough (@dannywhatmough).

AirPR, a developer of tools and services, operates a technology solution that is doing this for the public relations sector in the US.

#3 Workflow

As a means of engagement between a brand and an organisation automation is lousy, but it should be welcomed when used as a way of bringing efficiencies and improvements to how an agency works.

Third-party tools enable us to work more efficiently, as well as better understand and engage with the audiences, or publics, of the organisations for which we work. #PRstack lists 150 tools and is growing.

#4 Transparency

Uber shows me when a driver has accepted a job and plots progress en route to me. The equivalent for a public relations agency is a common system of project management, data and files.

This technology is mature and can be accessed via any device connected to the Internet. Google has its Document suite and Microsoft has Office 365.

When you first start working on documents with multiple users, in multiple locations, it appears like magic. This level of transparency either improves a relationship or breaks it.

#5 Media disruption

As media fragments and publishers from The Guardian to Twitter shift their business models towards paid and sponsored content, the opportunity for earned content is diminished.

The role of the agency is helping to align audiences and content. The benefit for the client is greater control over outcomes.

If paid media supplants earned as a means of engagement, public relations is clearly under threat from advertising and digital agencies.

#6 Scoring system

A review system for agencies and individuals doesn’t exist but it is coming. Glassdoor and LinkedIn provide an indicator of how this will evolve. Glassdoor carries anonymous reviews of what it is like to be employed by an organisation while LinkedIn rates the performance of an individual.

Neither is perfect. Becky McMichael (@bmcmichael) suggested an open-platform such as TripAdvisor where clients and journalists could rate individuals and agencies.

#7 Accreditation

Accreditation schemes from organisations such as the CIPR provide a badge of authority but are far from being acknowledged industry-wide by buyers or sellers. Meanwhile agencies provide the promise of a standardised approach across teams, employees and different regions.

The answer to both the benefits and threat of technology on public relations came from my Ketchum colleague Jo-ann Roberton (@redrobertino) in her suggestion that individual practitioners head for the high ground.

“If we want public relations to move up the pecking order we need to maintain and enhance the human elements, the strategic elements, and the intellectual elements; at the same time as focusing on return on investment,” she said.

Airbnb and Uber are changing the business of public relations. What are you doing about it?

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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.

35 Comments

  1. Perhaps Stephen this hints at the age-old question of whether PR is a tactical or strategic management function?

    eLance and other collective consumption platforms create nano corporations. But, perfect markets will create a race to the bottom in terms of stripping profit to the bone.

    In terms of a view of the future I like the comment put forward by Jo-Anne Robertson: ““If we want public relations to move up the pecking order we need to maintain and enhance the human elements, the strategic elements, and the intellectual elements; at the same time as focusing on return on investment.”

  2. Your colleague @redrobertino has hit the nail on the head. This is coming and will be highly disruptive. The good news is it will drive a shift in demand for accreditation.

  3. What are the things that businesses dislike the most about dealing with PR agencies? Lack of transparency is definitely one. Slippery ROI is another. You might include something along the lines of “they brought all the impressive senior people to the pitch, now I have to deal with an account exec who has only been in the job two years.”
    Whatever that list looks like, therein lies the route to market disruption… find the customer’s pain points and do something about them.
    If you think about the typical response to Uber from incumbent taxi drivers, not just here in the UK but elsewhere in Europe (possibly the US, but I haven’t followed it that closely there), it has been to attempt to hide behind regulation, legislation and accreditation. Of the seven points you list in your article that’s the one that leaps out at me as being a weasel dressed up like a rabbit, to borrow a Wind in the Willows reference. That’s not really about being at the vanguard of disruption, it’s about erecting barriers to market entry. There’s not a great deal of evidence to suggest that approach works.

  4. Future trends usually follow a paradoxical pattern: on the one hand there will be greater fragmentation lending itself to greater commoditisation and assimilation by Über-like technologies. In contrast there will no doubt be a parallel intensification of high value personalised service providing social influence councel.The disruptive nature of change will however favour the practitioners who embrace disruptive change over those moving incrementally.

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