Advocacy is my passion.
It’s what led me to law school at Washington University in St. Louis many years ago. But to my surprise I learned that the law was one of several means of advocacy. Advocating for a cause influencing the court of public opinion was what I found truly exciting, moreso than influencing the court of law. This passion coupled with a yen for entrepreneurism led me to start my own firm, and found it upon the values of strategic advocacy for our clients.
The Makovsky agency has succeeded for nearly a thousand clients, thriving on the waves of change in how our work is performed. We started on a shoestring without clients! Our 40th Anniversary is a natural moment for reflection on our achievements—and the nearly 300 awards we have won, as well as the evolution of the firm and the spectacular talent that has graced our organization.
Over the past forty years, our industry has survived and prospered, during times of peace, prosperity and stability as well as uncertainty, polarization and challenging economies. With that long-term perspective in mind, here is my opinion of “the 10 most important” developments affecting PR in the past 40 years:
The March of Technology: When Makovsky opened up in 1980 with just me and my administrative assistant, our primary tools were a few IBM Selectric typewriters. Today, due to the pandemic, our entire agency is running remotely and fully online from locations throughout the country. In forty years hence, perhaps our Zoom calls and iPhones will look similarly quaint. Makovsky is constantly seeking tools that help us better advocate for our clients and conduct business more efficiently. Sticking to core values and embracing the march of technology has been essential to our longevity.
The Digital Impact: The internet revolution ignited such huge changes within our business that it’s often hard to remember when print media was king. Clients today expect that we can analyze their impressions, social engagement and the size of their global audiences—all a measure of eyeballs on digital channels. Yet, it wasn’t that long ago that our business-to-business clients persisted in asking if their online article appeared in a publication’s print edition too as “we need that for the coffee table in reception.” Today, the communications environment is far more complex and fragmented.
Consequently, our focus on advocacy has led us to center strategies on reaching key audiences wherever they may be found; today’s multiplicity of channels enables that. Digital fueled 24/7 news cycles and also radically shifted crisis communications. No more thinking about the crisis overnight, nor delivering the strategy to the client “tomorrow.” Now Artificial Intelligence is bringing new vistas in communicating (e.g. Alexa) covering creativity, targeting and insights.
Specialization: Back in 1980 nearly every firm was a generalist. It was perfectly acceptable to tell a new tech client: “Give me a few days to learn your business.” Today you’d be laughed out of the park if you said that. So when I focused our first practice on technology, we made sure we knew the business before we walked in the door. We hired specialists and decided to make “deep specialization” our strategy in technology, financial services, investor relations and health. Our tagline: The Power of Specialized Thinking. We were somewhat unique. Over the years, specialization grew and today it is commonplace.
Consumer Power and Influence: Voices of countless individuals (from bloggers to podcasters) became more trusted than many “experts” and became influencers for seemingly every product, issue, and nuance. Further, many organizations today are not as dependent on advertising or traditional media to reach the consumer. Through the advent of search engines, social media and social listening, consumers are enabled to make informed decisions on purchases before they ever enter the physical or online retail environment. This changed the psychology of the sale.
The Arrival of Fake News: Our business is all about ethical advocacy as it gives clients a competitive edge and economic advantage. But today advocacy is harder than ever before thanks to fake news: disrupting a company’s ability to tell its own truthful story and negatively impacting its reputation. The digital track and AI have made it easy to put words in people’s mouths that they never uttered and to create video and film to demonstrate events that never happened. Monitoring the media, crisis planning, and tech advances are among ways to defend and sustain the purity of our advocacy message.
The “End” of Privacy: A recent survey found that 64 percent of internet users believe organizations are not completely transparent about how they use customers’ personal data. When privacy is openly breached, it’s a reputation killer and an expensive credibility situation to fix. In the U.S., with the exception of a few states we do not have standardized privacy rights. The opposite is true in the European Union.
New Ways to Collaborate: I think of today vs. yesteryear and am certain we have turned collaboration on its face. There is Google Docs vs. making photocopies for all, then coordinating everyone’s changes. There is “everyone has his or her own office” vs. open seating or cubicle seating. The idea: tear walls down and collaborate. Private offices got smaller; conference rooms increased. Even with Covid-19’s attack on open seating, we will not reverse course, but use socially distanced desks. Working from home accelerated the success of virtual collaborative teams.
Revolution in Measurement and Data Analytics: This was not even on most client agendas 40 years ago! We now have computer dashboards for client access at any time to see our media relations results, for example. This has progressed from analysis of media presence compared with competitors; share of voice, to a range of data (circulation, dates of publication, message identification, etc.). Today we message test on targets before communicating, which helps determine overall strategy, and research the impact of campaigns. PR practitioners with analytics skills are in demand and training our talent along these lines is critical.
Rise of the Communications Role: It’s rare that we get a client who doesn’t have a Chief Communications Officer (CCO), compared to years ago when you could not count on it. The position and its responsibilities have grown in importance in a complex world. A 2019 report by the Page Society, based on the input of 200+ CCOs around the world, found that the CCO “is becoming increasingly multi-faceted, amid sweeping changes in C-suite structures, company cultures, stakeholder engagement, business models and technology.” More and more CCOs report to the CEO.
PR Emerges From Behind-the-Scenes: Before I started Makovsky, practitioners worked behind the scenes, preparing frontline client executives for their moment in the sun. We still do that, but the clients and agencies today are more open about retaining PR. It was a big deal the day a major client I worked on, a scientist from DuPont representing the aerosol industry, was set for a TV debate with the New York City head of consumer affairs on the fluorocarbon challenge. At 4 PM the day before the debate, the scientist cancelled out. The client suggested I stand in his place. But leadership at the agency I worked at had to approve—so I met with the chairman, president, and EVP to discuss the image of publicly identifying me with one client, as I was assigned to others also. Would that hurt the agency’s business? (It didn’t!). We were supposed to stay in the background. Today what is inside is outside. There are few secrets anymore. (P.S.The debate went GREAT!!)
Our profession has been in a whirlwind of change since 1980. It hasn’t stopped yet. We’re banking on the future!
Ken Makovsky is the president and CEO of Makovsky Integrated Communications.