The Advertising vs. PR Debate Won’t Exist in 30 Years

Scott Blackmun, Katie Ledecky, Missy Franklin, Heather O'Reilly, Christine Brennan
USOC Chair and Olympic Gold Medal Winners Scott Blackmun, Katie Ledecky, Missy Franklin and Heather O’Reilly are interviewed by Christine Brennan.

Last Thursday night, USA Today celebrated its 30th birthday in grand fashion at the National Portrait Gallery. Media and Washington luminaries gathered to witness the introduction of the new multimedia USA Today, and discuss the future of media 30 years from now.

Olympians, politicians and even a budding rock star took the stage and weighed in from each of their profession’s perspective. Many focused on how technology was blurring the lines between in home and mobile, between small and large screen, and print and multimedia.

The conversation continued in a special section called USA Tomorrow with luminaries like Twitter and Square Founder Jack Dorsey discussing convergence of media and technology.

That was the big take-away for me, how convergence will force more fluid communication between people through media, even in politics. As this great discussion continued, I could not help but think about our side of the business, the dark side. Marketing.

In my mind, the whole advertising versus public relations, and sometimes interactive (or social media, if you prefer) debate about which discipline owns what will not exist.

Why the Debate Will End

Matthew Koma Listens to Elysa Gardner
Musician Matthew Koma listens to Entertainment Editor Elysa Gardner

Convergence will end this argument, and fittingly so.

The ad versus PR debate grounds itself in past industrial approaches to mass communications. Our future blended media environment requires a much nimbler communications strategist, one who can navigate the basic principles of most specialties.

Instead of looking at communications from a discipline perspective, the strategist will weigh costs, and whether they need to “pay to play,” earn presence through pitching, or can simply create their own media. Paid, earned and owned as the bubbling concept says.

To some extent, many CMO level strategists make decisions in this fashion already.

Yes, fine debates can be waged about which type of media garners the most trust (earned) and which garners more ROI (paid), but increasingly most customers don’t trust any type of communication from a company. Instead, they need to hear a corporate statement verified by 3-5 peers before they believe it.

In the future, if you work in or are contracting with a company you’ll consider yourself a marketer. If your works are with/for a government body, NGO or a nonprofit, you’ll see yourself as a public affairs officer or a communicator.

People will gravitate to the area where their greatest strengths lie, but the debate over turf won’t matter anymore.

You’ll be part of a department, and either a strategist or a specialist of some sort. The marketing department will need all three general skill sets; visualization and/or design, wordsmithing, and/or relationship building.

Other Key Takeaways

Gracia Martore and Larry Kramer

I walked away from the USA Today event with two other critical points.

The first was that mobility drives convergence. The ability to comment across platforms, across devices, and just about anywhere in the physical world changes everything.

Anyone who wants to be serious about publishing information today must have a cross-platform strategy with a definitive mobile experience. Yes, I know that’s cliched, but if you don’t have a mobile strategy you’re really hurting yourself.

Second were the remarks from Gannett President and CEO Gracia Martore and USA Today President and Publisher Larry Kramer on crowdsourced news. In essence, the crowd determines which news is most relevant by sharing it with their friends.

That dramatically shifts the power away from editors who used to choose “front page” news. Now we have an immediate future where editors and reporters create a series of stories, and then feature the most read and shared topics on the electronic front page.

Talk about dynamic feedback and media for people!

Where do you think the advertising, PR, interactive debate will be in 30 years? Or just media in general.


  • Dead on. I like the paid, earned, owned matrix, and the notion that front page is based on most read and shared. The only real issue I have as a former journalist is verifiability or “fact checking” as it’s called now. How does “most read” and “most shared” square with credibility? Does popularity have any basis in accuracy or context? Where does Truth lie, or is Truth whatever we want it to be just because it’s on the Internet? To my mind we still need gatekeepers somewhere in the process.

    • LOL, perception is reality? Yikes!

      The beauty of the crowd is it chooses what it finds relevant. The danger of the crowd is that it usually leads us off a cliff at some point (e.g. economic bubbles, etc.). Welcome to the scary sociological world of modern news…

    • Good point. The ideal situation is, of course, that the true content gets pushed to the top. This won’t always happen of course, but in my experience people often “vote” in whatever way that network uses for content that includes a citation for the information source.

  • But 30 years from now, Geoff? Why make a mark in three decades? Why not sooner? Why not, oh, five or 10?

  • The idea that you can separate PR from your interactive efforts is one of the most ridiculous things in the advertising world. PR is and will be still important of course, but it’s morphing with the rest of the industry to adapt to the new way people are communicating and that really is the bigger issue everyone has to accept.

    • It’s an entire ecosystem, and we need to start thinking like that and move away from the silos. You know I can rant about this forever, right? LOL! Thanks for coming by…

  • This get me thinking about the precarious position of journalism these days. I won’t even begin to touch upon editorial bents; liberal, conservative, or otherwise, but from where I sit in the social automotive sphere, I see the move toward paid content and automation and it makes me nervous.

    If the future of media still revolves around “build an audience, monetize through advertising,” the “evolution” of media/marketing/PR feels like a disastrous race to the bottom.

    We already have computers turning sports scores into articles the average sports fan can’t distinguish from human-crafted pieces, and a great deal of the automotive press these days is completely beholden to marketing departments, which ensure positive press retains access to press fleets and negative press goes hungry.

    There’s also the rush to out-scoop the competition, even if that means paraphrasing a press release before re-publishing the press release “after the jump” to ensure keyword-driven SEO. All this and gratuitous sensationalism in pursuit not of enlightenment or education – and certainly not empowerment – of an audience curated almost exclusively for viewing marketing messages.

    The power of the media to inform and empower the populace has sadly been reduced to a means to prop up economies built on me-too mediocrity and anti-competitive “innovation.” In 30 years? I hope the debate around advertising/PR is taking place in a dusty, seldom-seen corner of the web whilst the rest of us discuss the potential of a budding, united, global society around meaningful products and services which deliver on all the false, subconscious promises made in the 50 years leading up to that point.


    • No, I think you are spot on. We really do seem to have an issue with information sources. Qualifying good information from bad information will be a critical skill set in the coming future, of that I am sure!

      And the thing is that the falsehoods you speak of are usually built on 5 to 10 degree bends of the truth, enough to hurt, but not enough to be glaring. Thanks for a great comment!

      • Thanks.

        Problem with those 5-10° bends is they tend to grow over time. How far along the timeline before 5-10° becomes a 100 miles from reality?

        Given the number of studies thrown about suggesting most people don’t trust corporate communications (read: marketing, PR), you’d think there would be a move toward a marketing renaissance, with more honesty than hype and subterfuge. After all, if most people distrust and dislike advertising, it would seem there is incredible potential for firms which, as Valeria Maltoni puts it, “trade on promises.”

        On a semi-related note, did you hear about the recent news at the (NY?) Times about quote-approval? Looks like the press is getting tired of spinsters neutering quotes before stories go live.

        Maybe the renaissance is right around the corner…

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  • Convergence 30 years hence? For many, perhaps. For me, it’s now. In my situation, the C-level broke the code, cracked open the marketing round nut…. Q1 2013’s coming:)

  • Interesting debate. I’m kind of with you and Barry – advertising and PR will converge in time as digital comms become the only way people share and consume news. The bigger question for me is how we make sure the important stuff does rise to the top. Take a subject like climate change. Right now it is too influenced by short-term political ambitions and journalistic sensationalism. But in 30 years time, the world will be a very different place – how can we make sure that the important voices that need to be heard really are heard above all of the noise from everywhere else? Am I straying off-topic? Sorry!

    • I think this is a really important question. How do we discern quality and make sure that it is featured, the point of conversation if you would? Given the need for attention, sensationalism and catering to the crowd to get noticed now, I have major concerns. Great observation!

  • I’m with you – I think that the lines between marketing, PR and advertising will continue to blur. I wrote about this awhile back. I think the debate between these practices will become entirely mute…and way before 30 years.

    Ironically, 10 years ago when I was in J-school, I was part of a pilot project called “convergence”. Back then, it taught newspaper writers to tote around a camera and learn how to write stories for the paper and the web and also build video around it. It’s been fascinating to see how that concept is now the norm. And of course, it goes well beyond that now to include social, mobile, etc.

    I think what’s becoming really interesting is the line between journalists and PR/marketing is blurring too. I was at a conference last week and heard my former J-school professor from that convergence class speak and he said that j-school grads are getting completely different jobs than before. They have to be content creators that look a whole lot more like marketing than journalists. I think the better question in 30 years (or maybe even now) is “who is a journalist?” I think that’s the most dramatic shift we’re seeing now.

    I could go on and on…great topic, Geoff!

    • So much to think about with this comment. Who is a journalist and who isn’t? When do we become one? Do we switch roles depending on relevance and the moment? So much to consider.
      Sounds like you went to a very good J-school. Which one, if I may ask?

      • Yes, the question of who is a journalist could be an entirely separate post (or book)! It’s incredibly striking to watch this shift. It’s exciting, but also somewhat scary because the idea of an unbiased news source seems to be dwindling.

        I’m biased, but I went to the first (and best!) J-School – The University of Missouri. :)

  • I’d say it’s closer to “now” than 30 years out. The blurriness is already there. Of course, the universe is big, and on the one side of the scale, with many of the less “less thinking” population, the distinction is greater than on the more forward thinking (cognizant?) side. I agree that many (most?) need verification from 3-5 peers, but there is still something to be said from seeing that (at least historically) “well-regarded” source. Take today’s mega story on the iPhone 5 in the WSJ — to Apple fans — verification. To haters — it may as well have had “Advertisement” sprayed atop it…

    • I couldn’t disagree with you on this. I see it, too. I hope the old guys in the corner office figure it out as well.

  • Very much agree, just from the past two years of interaction with PR from my advertising side. Why do you think it will take 30 years? Will it take that long to phase out today’s norms?

    • I think its more of the industries accepting the transformation. Die hards won’t adapt, and orgs like PRSA and AMA may be resistant to yielding..

  • Great post Geoff. The lines are so severely blurred at this point that there is not clear line anymore right now. I think it is the PR folk who are so desperately trying to hang on to continue to lend credence to their ability to control the message. It is OVER, and time to recognize that “Earned Media” is now basically all media, and crosses into every avenue. Earned, paid, organic… is it all about what is relevant, how people find and absorb content, and who is listening/engaging. It does not matter whether it is paid or not… just is it effective. Ok… I am rambling ;-)

    • No, I think you were spot on. The reality of media from a customer perspective is that they generally don’t trust anything about brands anymore regardless of paid, owned, earned. It does come down to relevancy, proof points (word of mouth, ratings, social validation, etc.), and that’s it. Good comment, Ted, thank you!

  • Great post Geoff

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    […] media. Geoff Livingston, auteur van het boek ‘Marketing in the Round’ omschrijft in een recente blog ook het verdwijnen van deze debatten. Hij was aanwezig bij de 30 jarige verjaardag van USA Today […]

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