Here’s what’s rising from the grave of traditional PR

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I love RealSelf. It’s a site that educates women about choices for looking younger.

I have written a lot about how anti-aging information is essential for managing one’s career. Aging is not equal in the workplace. Women are penalized much more heavily than men. So women can gain power in the world through knowledge of the tools for looking younger.

But mainstream media is reluctant to recommend that women turn to a resource like RealSelf. Those reporters don't like the reality of the world they live in, so they don't write about it.

That's why public relations professionals should scrap the traditional pitch to mainstream media — saying that is almost cutting edge, except that Obama's team beat me to it:

Time magazine has great analysis on why Obama's campaign team was so effective. “Incoming press secretary Robert Gibbs pointedly told the New York Times magazine that Obama never sat down with the Washington Post Editorial Board. You could go to Cedar Rapids and Waterloo [Iowa} and understand that people weren't reading the Washington Post … Obama posts weekly addresses on YouTube, and Gibbs answers questions via video on”

But the big problem with PR pitches to print media is that there are too many failure paths. There is nothing to click. You have to make a note to yourself, while reading the paper, to go check out something online. And then you write a link that is prone to typos and then you can’t lose the note. All this means a newspaper pitch is unlikely to go viral.

Pete Blackshaw, from, says, “PR is not the owner of the story. There are still some PR people who are great at convincing the mainstream media to pick up their client’s story. But today, the story, if it goes anywhere, will grow through consumers, online.”

The good news is that finally, there’s a social media tool that people expect to see pitches on. No longer do PR types have to annoy bloggers to the point that bloggers create blacklists. Now publicity mavens have a spot of their own, and, big news, the bloggers love trolling Twitter for good pitches.

Here’s how it works: The online influencers are on Twitter. They send traffic to blogs and Facebook and StumbleUpon. And those people email their friends, in community-wide missives, and that’s how something becomes viral.

The only catch is that PR folks need to get good at pitching in 140 characters.

And sure you can do it without Twitter. But in this situation, Twitter is hard to beat.

“Brands will adopt Twitter for everything from media/influencer outreach to consumer service to crisis communities. But more than any push channel, Twitter will give consumers—advocates and critics—unprecedented access to corporate personnel, and vice versa,” says Scott Monty, author of the Social Media Marketing Blog.

But even the best viral campaigns are not as effective as real conversations. Companies will participate in the conversation instead of paying people to control it. “The consumers who love the company and help vet the storyline will also be keen to help the company succeed — promoting that storyline in … guided content,” according to Todd Defren, who blogs at

This is happening now. We’re in a recession. So it makes sense that instead of paying expensive PR agencies to work their magic on outdated media gatekeepers you save the money. Instead, train passionate employees and customers to have authentic conversations about the brand.

Here is a great example: When bombs went off in Mumbai last November, American Express immediately went through their databases to find any customers who might be there. American Express called each customer to see if they needed cash, housing or help getting a way out of the city.

I didn’t find this out from the news. The gatekeepers of the media world wouldn’t print this. They’d think it was too much like PR.

I heard it from my mom, who works at AmEx. And it didn’t feel like PR at all: She was genuinely proud to work for a company that would do that so she wanted people to know.

And I’m telling you because I don’t care if something sounds like PR or not. I care if I got a chill when I heard the story. And I did.

Note to AmEx: This is your new PR. Compliments of all of us. Because we’re all in this business of PR now.

(For a great overview of social media and PR, read interviews by Peter Kim in Social Media Predictions 2009.)

50 replies
  1. Rebecca
    Rebecca says:

    How could you quote Scott Monty when he clearly is not a good representation of how to do corporate social media?

    Scott uses his personal Twitter account @ScottMonty for his main PR efforts for Ford, even pointing to his personal account, when he not only has several other Ford Twitter accounts, but could easily create and promote a main centralized one. He also RT’s his personal account on to the Ford accounts instead of the other way around.

    This is all obviously quite smart for his personal brand, but Ford is getting the short end of the stick. His excuse is there isn’t enough time or team members, which is completely ridiculous.

    Otherwise, great post :)

      • Rebecca
        Rebecca says:

        You’re not understanding. The point is you shouldn’t be a social media representative for a company using your personal account and your personal account only. I’m not representing my company on my personal blog or my personal twitter. I do often mention them and promote them on my personal account, but I don’t use my personal accounts as the sole PR machine for my company. That’s because we have a specific company Twitter account and soon-to-be launched blog for that reason.

        Corporate social media people should build under the corporate brand and have authentic people representing those brands. I love that Scott is a person and connects so well with community, but he should do that for Ford with a Ford account if that’s his job.

  2. Raven
    Raven says:

    What a great story about American Express. PR would eventually have to morph due to the way technology is (re)creating conversation and communication.

    And, now that common sense, being genuine (and ingenuity) are more in demand from consumers, I think companies will definitely wise up and tone down the PR-ness of communicating their brand.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thanks, Rebecca. I read all the links.

      Sidenote: I am constantly talking about how bloggers are strong performers in the workplace. This is a great example of why: We each have a bunch of ideas rolling around in our head at any given time. But the people who publish their idea so that others can challenge them are the ones who have the sharpest ideas.

      Thanks for challenging my ideas, Rebecca.


  3. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    I think your comments about Twitter and PR are interesting. I’ve tweeted about it, so I guess I’m helping you with PR. What a shame I can’t invoice you!

    However, I was disappointed about RealSelf and think your description of it was inaccurate. I thought it would be, as you say, information and advice on how to look younger. Instead it’s a site about cosmetic surgery. Not the same thing at all. Cosmetic surgery can probably help some people look younger, as long as it doesn’t inadvertently make them look freakish instead but a site that was truly about looking younger would also have prominent information about hairstyles, makeup and skin care, how to dress, diet and exercise, vitamins, natural stress treatments and so on. If the site covers any of that, it’s certainly not obvious from the home page.

    • Tom
      Tom says:

      Caitlin – indeed covers cosmetic surgery from an unbiased perspective. But it also includes consumer reviews and topics ranging from lasik to Invisalign clear braces to Laser skin treatments.

      While some visitors are looking for a better understanding of treatments like Botox, our community is most often seeking solutions to challenging problems that include acne scars, breathing problems, and facial wasting. Not one person coming to has stated the desire to look unnatural or “freakish.” By far the most often feedback we get is “thank god I read this before doing it.”

      I agree with your point out that the alternatives are not abundantly evident from our homepage. But if you dig in, these concepts are represented throughout the site and are integrated into vibrant discussion areas and answers by hundreds of medical experts that voluntarily participate on the site.

      • Caitlin
        Caitlin says:

        @Tom, fair enough. I don’t have a problem with the existence of a website about cosmetic surgery, just little personal interest in it. My issue was that Penelope described it as a site to help women look younger and I think that’s misleading. Looking younger might be part of the motivation for the people using your site, but it’s not the most accurate description of what the site is about.

        Of course, people don’t set out to look freakish but I’ve certainly seen that happen from too many face lifts or implants or botox injections. I agree there can be a middle way.

        Lasik eye surgery is a form of cosmetic surgery by the way. I’m not saying that as a judgment (it’s something I’d contemplate), just as an accurate descriptor of what it is.

  4. JMB
    JMB says:

    I’ve been reading your recent posts. I just want to sincerely say (off topic):

    “Welcome Back!” and I hope all is well.

    (on Topic)
    That’s amazing to about AmEx. I too would be very proud to work for a company that took such action. Perhaps a post on how smaller companies can promote genuine interest in their employees, customers and the greater good of (hu)mankind.


  5. H Jordan
    H Jordan says:

    It’s curious how plastic surgery pops up in these posts. I think this post could have been written without any mention of RealSelf. In fact, it would have made more sense to me if it had …

  6. Susan Koutalakis
    Susan Koutalakis says:

    As a PR professional for many years, the bad PR people always seem to sour the field for those of us who are good. In the end, what it really comes down to is relationships — the relationships that you have and have built up over time — to further your brand and market awareness which in turn builds a better story.

    I’m in Peter Kim’s camp, I have a personal Twitter account that I use for myself and for work purposes but I also post on our company’s Twitter account. Whenever I post something there I find that my co-workers take it viral.

    I’m always amazed how the ripple effect one post can have. It doesn’t matter how long I’ve been doing PR, it always surprises me.

  7. Rachel M. Esterline .:. A Step Ahead
    Rachel M. Esterline .:. A Step Ahead says:

    Interesting post, Penelope. I am a PR student and have found Twitter and blogs not only be great for promoting things, but also as my primary source of news. Companies are less likely to get my attention with a newspaper. Things are more credible to me if a friend tweets about it.

  8. JT
    JT says:

    I was disappointed when I clicked the link to RealSelf. It doesn’t appear to be about doing natural thinks to look younger…like exercising, reducing stress, taking antioxidants, etc…it seems to be about hiring people to alter your body. Not quite “real.” Yuck.

    • melanie gao
      melanie gao says:

      I’m with Caitlin and JT on this one. I felt very bait-and-switched by the RealSelf link – it’s not about ways to look younger, it’s about plastic surgery. There are better, safer ways to look your best.

  9. James
    James says:

    So, Penelope… as you move the idea of social networks forward so that the information shared becomes personalized rather than institutionalized I have some questions regarding our responsibility to our youth.

    I work for a school district and we’re pretty progressive on a relative level. We have VOIP, and wireless, we’re getting ready for student owned devices and there’s videoconferencing and SMART Boards in every site… but social networking tools are currently blocked for the most part. Twitter, Facebook, and others remain off limits.

    What do you see as the educational power of these types of tools? How do they fit into the day in the life of student that will some day work like you work, except in an evolved form :) And what does it mean to be without these tools – are we hindering or helping?

  10. olga
    olga says:

    i love this post!!!! it is exactly what I have been talking about for a while now. traditional vehicles are being broken in this age of innovation. simple and to the point. love it!

  11. That Mike
    That Mike says:

    I’m just sayin’ …

    … a site named RealSelf packed with information about cosmetic surgery options.

    keepin’ it real alright

  12. eliz
    eliz says:

    As newspapers continue to shrink and file for bankruptcy, the old model of PR will die off with it. The death of these old institutions is democratizing everything. As a former newspaper journalist, I find these changes exciting rather than depressing.

  13. Annie
    Annie says:

    The old vehicle of traditional PR still runs more than some think. That’s what really shows how you’ve developed relationships with media, especially locally. And yeah, these “rough times,” certainly don’t make it easy, but I think you definitely hit it right on. THE WORLD NEEDS GOOD NEWS! And sometimes it just takes a little PR for them to hear it.

  14. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    I have had nothing but billing problems with AmEx for over a year now. Their customer service has turned into a circus of voice mail and departments that don’t know what the others are doing. It’s good to hear finally that they are actually doing some good things and they should let people know they do things like this. I really miss the great service that they used to give. I hope it can return…..

  15. jennifer
    jennifer says:

    AMEX HA!
    They were probably fishing for prospects to sell their travel insurance. I've experienced how they require their clients jump through hoops to fulfill insurance claims.

    Hmmm, it's time to start Twittering about the negative experience.

  16. Don B.
    Don B. says:

    Don’t underestimate the importance of looking good as opposed to young. Find the one or more attributes that cause people to think wow when you enter the room and make sure to look good whether it is the eyes, the symmetry, the mouth or the hair. I work with gray haired women who are obviously older but look good, stay in shape and dress sharp. They exude confidence and speak with clarity and assertive purpose. People like to be led and work with people who are “looking good”. In my business looking young might be a plus in getting a date but has little to do with building and thriving in a career.

  17. Maggie
    Maggie says:

    a) Awesome post–you are preaching to the choir.

    b) Ironic that you mention RealSelf in this post; I was once contacted by a reporter from People wanting to feature me in an article based on the review of a procedure I wrote on RealSelf. Tell me any other way I would have wangled my way into being featured in People magazine. (In the end I didn’t do it–wasn’t sure I wanted the whole world to know I’d had not one but two boob jobs. Which now they of course do after reading this comment.)

  18. Sansa
    Sansa says:

    Wow was I disappointed by your pitch for RealSelf. You’re right about the need to look younger/good in the marketplace but plastic surgery? Botox? Surely you can do better.

    • Tom
      Tom says:

      Sansa – I’ve posted in response to several others in this thread that RealSelf is not a plastic surgery promotion site. It’s a community of real people sharing their experiences and asking questions.

      RealSelf is a legitimate consumer resource that delivers valuable information to over 500,000 visitors a month. Allow me to provide just 2 examples of how we’re meaningful:

      1. Every day we get messages that we helped someone make a better decision. Just today a member on RealSelf wrote “this website and your comments have saved my face and my pocketbook.”

      2. Working with a journalist from Allure, we collectively put two venture-backed chains of clinics offering “flab jabs” into bankruptcy by exposing their unethical marketing practices and dangerous procedures.

      The question I have for you is, do you see a problem with this transparency and access to information, or just the entire subject of plastic surgery or cosmetic treatments?

      Your comment alludes to a problem I see in society when we stigmatize even the consideration of undergoing a cosmetic procedure. By making it socially taboo and judged as plain wrong, it encourages people to skip the fact finding and information sharing and to go directly into a clinic poorly informed.

      By far the majority of negative consumer reviews posted on our site are from people who learned when it was far too late that they were not properly educated on critical factors like the meaning of “board certified plastic surgeon” or what questions to ask the doctor in advance.

      You are certainly entitled to an opinion that cosmetic surgery is not for you, but to suggest that it’s unworthy of debate and open discussion is dangerous and unbecoming of the socially enabled media landscape.

      Tom Seery, Founder,

  19. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:


    Great story about AmEx which also illustratesd why not being able to distribute one’s products widely has its advantages. Master and Visa could never do what AmEx did. Simple reason why. AmEx, unlike Master and Visa, does not have (many) other banks distributing their products. So they own their customer database entirely. This enables them to deliver better service across countries and in times of crises.

    I have moved across several countries and lost my credit history each time, natch. But AmEx could see my reliability as a customer in every move and I have been an AmEx customer since I graduated with my MBA. I recently discovered – airside – that I had misplaced my Amex. One call to AmEx and my card was arranged to be delivered to my hotel in the destination country the next day.

    Another thing is that we like the AmEx story but how many would be creeped out if BofA or some other Master/ Visa issuer of their card called them and enquired about their need for housing, cash etc? In other words, AmEx’s strong brand image, excellent customer service ethic and its efficient use of its customer database go hand in hand. One cannot work without either of the others.

    PR is not a unicycle, it is a multi-legged stool that requires them all for its stability and above all, believability. PR agents overnight relabelling themselves ‘social media experts’ are, to quote the cliche, believing their own PR a tad too much.

    PR people – like equity analysts – would do well to understand their customers’ real business and business models much better before offering to pitch their products/ services. Difficult but not impossible for those who really wish to try.

  20. Melinda
    Melinda says:

    I agree with Don B that ‘look better’ is not synonymous with ‘get plastic surgery to look younger’. The vast majority of women could alter the way they look significantly by losing weight, eating more healthily, quitting smoking, getting a great haircut/colour, or learning how to apply makeup and dress well. None of these things require plastic surgery – in fact, all of them could be acquired for the cost of a round of Botox. A site that assisted women with achieving those goals would be far more helpful than one that encourages them to undertake expensive and risky procedures.

    • Tom
      Tom says:

      Melinda – you’re judging the book by the cover. If you were to dig into you’d find that patients are posting their real experiences and rating procedures.

      These ratings are often enough to encourage them to move on, try something other than cosmetic surgery. For instance, I suggest you read the 188 stories posted by women who’ve tried to lose fat using an injection treatment called Lipodissolve. If you still conclude that we’re assisting women to get cosmetic procedures like Lipodissolve, I’ll stand corrected.

      There are hundreds of cases where women have posted comments on RealSelf akin to “I’m glad I didn’t do this.” We are passionate about giving consumers access to high quality, very difficult to uncover information so they can make informed choices. We have no vested interest in seeing someone make the emotional decision to get any type of cosmetic treatment.

      Tom Seery

      • Melinda
        Melinda says:

        Hi Tom,

        Thanks for your response. I did read through the site but didn't see the section where people commented that they had not undergone surgery – €“ all the comments seemed to be from people who underwent surgery or procedures already.

        I realise not all responses are positive, but looking at the site as a whole, overwhelmingly they are. I don't know whether this is a genuine reflection of patient satisfaction, as the people responding on the site are self-selected, not randomly selected. Are people who are satisfied more likely to find and post on a site like RealSelf? Are people who have spent a lot of money on a vanity procedure likely to try to justify the worth? I don't know, but they're worthwhile questions.

        I also note that cosmetic doctors can post before/after pics. Obviously these pictures are going to be biased towards procedures that the doctor regards as good results, not average or even poor ones. There's also a section where people ask questions and working plastic surgeons respond – €“ expert, but hardly independent advice. And finally, surgeons often respond to poor reviews, frequently recommending further procedures to fix what went wrong.

        With these kind of selection biases, I don't know how the site cannot be regarded as promoting plastic surgery on the whole.

  21. Carla
    Carla says:


    I agree with you about the evolution of PR into conversations and relationships and away from simple media relations. But that evolution has been happening in the profession of public relations for decades. PR as a profession has a bad rep — ironic, isn’t it? The woman standing in her bikini at the car show says she works in PR. But PR professionals are reclaiming their professionalism and increasing value by taking it back to what matters — the story.

    True, professional public relations is about telling stories — knowing how to find the story in your client’s actions, knowing how to tell that story, and finding the right venue to get that story out to your target audience. It was always this and always will be. Good communicators adapt to new technology. Heck, where would we have been in media relations 20 years back without fax and affordable courier rates? So now we have email and social media and blogger relations. It’s still the same job, just new tools.

    And PR as a profession is becoming much more professional. For proof, see the rise in the number of people getting professional accreditation in PR , . As opposed to what your commentators are saying, PR is not dead. It is growing. With marketing and ad budgets getting cut in this recession, good storytelling and good public relations is finding new life as it creates better value and better credibility.

    Carla Shore APR

  22. Amanda Hite
    Amanda Hite says:

    great post…

    in the spirit of this blog I just linked in to my twitter. Tweetdeck just alerted me that it’s been ReTweeted in a matter of seconds it’s went out to about 3,000 tweeters.

  23. Jim C.
    Jim C. says:

    This whole “looking younger = looking better” idea looks like a mistake to me. It isn’t necessarily going to help women — or men — succeed in business, especially not in upper management.

    It seems to me that the idealized image of a top executive of either sex is that of a fit, healthy, distinguished middle-aged person without visible health problems or excessive wrinkles, but with enough facial “experience lines” to give the appearance of wisdom. Ideally a man shouldn’t be bald or balding. Neither a woman nor a man should be fat. Grey hair isn’t a minus, though a salt-and-pepper effect is probably better.

    A woman who wants to move up the ladder shouldn’t be getting surgery to look like a twentysomething ingenue. As for looking middle-aged, that will happen by itself soon enough.

    I’m not saying this is right or good. I’m just saying that, if you are using appearance to succeed, you should try to look like the people at the top.

  24. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Take a look at Fortune magazine’s 50 most powerful women. It’s easy to look at see which women have used Botox and which haven’t. Most have. You would not find this with men. So, to your point, Jim, if you want to look like the women who are at the top of large companies, try Botox.


    • Shefaly
      Shefaly says:


      It’s a shame that Caucasian skins wrinkle earlier than Asian or Afro-Carribean skins (although there are few Asian and Afro-Carribean women in the top-50). Which is probably why it seems easy to draw the conclusion that most women in the Power-50 have had botox.

      I can believe that the media women have probably been ‘fixed up’ a bit but they probably also have better PR shots. The others do look their age and rightly so.

      So if your contention is right – that they have had botox – I think they should sue their botox-providers for it scarcely makes them look younger than they are. ;-)

  25. Kelly Moore
    Kelly Moore says:

    I enjoyed your post, and agree with what you propose. However, I do need to stand up for the merits of good-old print media coverage.

    You mention there are too many road blocks to getting people from your print coverage to your Website. However, as recent as yesterday, my experience has shown print readers are quite capable of taking their new found knowledge online without a link.

    A Kids Eat Free page on a Website I run for Des Moines-area parents was discussed in a front-section article on family budgeting. My site saw a 500 percent increase in traffic as compared to all previous Wednesdays in the month of February.

    The article also appeared in the online version of the Des Moines Register, but it did not provide a direct link to — evidence that my new viewers had to either Google the site or punch it into their address bars.

    So, while a click-through is definitely aces, print coverage is nothing to turn your nose up at… at least not yet.

  26. jenx67
    jenx67 says:

    This harkens back to all the conversation taking place a few years ago about the news release being all but dead. In some contexts I suppose it’s still alive, but it’s definitely on life support.

    I’ve been thinking this (reluctantly) for a long time now – how can PR not have a major crisis when print journalism and local electronic journalism are plowing through one now? As you probably heard, The Rocky Mountain News is now a goner.

    One of the things that made the news release so weak post Web 2.0 was the demand for two-way communication. Blogs (and even forums) provided a solution to this through the advent of reader comment, etc. Twitter enables two-way communication, but that doesn’t mean that people using it understand the need to manage the feedback loop.

    Jennifer James McCollum, APR
    (i thought i’d make it official. ha!)

  27. David
    David says:

    Hey, I liked the comment about blogging so that others can help you to sharpen your ideas. I guess it’s a much quicker and (possibly) somewhat meritocratic way of publishing, in that respect at least. Maybe I’ll try getting into it. Good SEO too.

    Isn’t there a case of respect for age in the workplace, though? I know, from being a sort of wunderkind at my first non-self-employed job six months ago (for a games developer, no less — not someone with a lot of older employees!) that however great your degree was, and your dedication and work ethic at the job are now, if you’re one of the youngest employees, people still tend to step all over you. Now, that will partly have been the particular company I was at, but nevertheless: isn’t there an argument to be made that older people garner more respect, possess more gravitas, have more of a presence and power? Not ALL older people, but maybe you take my point.

  28. Dale
    Dale says:

    Most men don’t have cosmetic surgery as much as women because the only surgery that would make men more confident, etc wouldn’t be visible. Ultimately, it’s all about confidence, and those etheral qualities that make recruiters like, trust, or admire you. Looking good isn’t it, it’s about confidence and self esteem. These are what people buy with plastic surgery.
    When men make the connection between confidence and surgery, they’ll be lining up for it, even if the thought of a knife down there gives them the willies. Pun intended:)

  29. jennyg
    jennyg says:


    REALSELF?!?! (how ironic!)

    Good God. Why do you keep doing things that make me completely lose all respect for you and your opinions? Suggesting (cheesy, horrible) webpages like this as a solution to making it in the business world makes me feel like there is no hope, ever, for business in this country.

    How about doing a good job, looking your age, and thereby reinforcing the notion that age=experience=good? How about advising women about how to better communicate their efforts, results, and impact on a project or company, as opposed to *advocating SURGERY??* (sigh). I wish you realized this suggestion of yours is the problem, not the solution.

  30. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I knew I read something really good about American Express somewhere on the web and I just came across it today. It’s a blog post from Ron at ‘The Wisdom Journal’ on identity theft ( ). Here’s the excerpt on AmEx from his blog post –

    “I had no idea what to do. I called American Express and told them what I suspected. They immediately shut everything down and gave me the phone numbers to all three credit bureaus to close the door on any further credit fraud. Generally, you're only liable for the first $50 but American Express waived that. I cannot praise the people at American Express enough. They were absolutely fabulous to deal with and every person I spoke with was over the top with helpful suggestions and encouragement.”

  31. Jane Austen
    Jane Austen says:

    As much as we don’t like to admit it sometimes there is prejudice based on age, and sometimes we have to resort to botox with juvederm just to stay looking young. I love what you said about the media not getting the whole story, and just putting what they want out there. Great story about American Express!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Martin Schmalenbach says:

    Here’s what’s rising from the grave of traditional PR…

    I friend of mine forwarded to me an email excerpt of a blog entry on Penelope Trunk’s blog at Brazen Careerist. It eloquently and succinctly describes the new paradigm that Web 2.0 and social media represent to the PR and advertising/marketing in…

  2. Martin Schmalenbach says:

    Here’s what’s rising from the grave of traditional PR…

    I friend of mine forwarded to me an email excerpt of a blog entry on Penelope Trunk’s blog at Brazen Careerist.
    It eloquently and succinctly describes the new paradigm that Web 2.0 and social media represent to the PR and advertising/marketing in…

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