PR Whiteboard

6 Ways PR Was Different When I Started

PR has changedI turned 40 today and that means I’ve reached a significant milestone in my life: that I’m a hell of a long time away from when I spent time faxing out my press releases.

Eighteen  years ago, I was an intern at Dorf & Stanton Communications in New York. That firm hired me as an account coordinator, and I’ve been a PR guy ever since. In my career I’ve held only PR or marketing positions, although I once “double dipped” and sold digital cameras to some big retailers. I’ve worked on both sides of the agency relationship – corporate and in-house – and have never looked back. While I deliberately stayed the course over the years, the PR category changed dramatically over the same period of time. Here are a few of the many ways being a PR guy is different now than it was 18 years ago when I first punched in:

1.       The Internet was, say, rudimentary at best. If you were lucky enough to have Internet access, you needed the patience of a Saint for times when webpages would stall when loading. Also, it was crazy heavy with text. There were minimal images and graphics – primarily because webpage templates were eight or ten years from commonality – but there was lots and lots of text to read.

2.       Email was comically bad. It existed but was buggier than Lake Winnipesaukee. You would commonly read an email, and never see it again. And that was only the beginning. It was exceptionally unreliable and, without naming names, a number of my clients weren’t comfortable using it. It was really an “internal only” tool and, as a result, I managed a lot of telephone calls with clients and press.

3.       Faxing happened with good regularity. I clearly recall “reserving” time on a row of fax machines at our office and faxing like wild when I had piece of client news. Amid fax number lists – like contacts lists, but for fax numbers – and fax machines were cover letters. Lots of cover letters. I’m certain the world is an improved place with less fax use. (Author’s note #1: I just heard from a colleague that faxing is still huge in Japan. I had no idea, and think that’s kind of odd. Author’s note #2: I once represented the full line of Sharp Electronics fax machines – a HUGE part of its home office line-up at the time.)


4.       Voice mail was a way of life. In fact, Kodak, a major client of mine, had a voice mail system independent of dialing a particular office. You would leave a recorded message that was intended to be picked-up by another party. Mobile connectivity for business was a long way off.


5.       Stuffing press kits was a BIG part of the gig. Especially around trade shows like Comdex (remember that one?), Toy Fair or significant client events. I clearly remember stuffing, unstuffing when an error was identified, and then stuffing again. Lots of press kit stuffing, with dividers between the releases, sleeves of slides, and thick spines on the press kit. I think the Kimberly-Clark press kit weighed four pounds – and it was all paper.

6.       One-directional communication. While PR – in contrast to advertising or other disciplines within marketing – has always been about engaging with an audience rather than directly talking to it (e.g., media and analyst relations requires that you engage, not just spit out messages) the most dramatic change in communications over the length of my career has resulted in companies engaging with their end-audience, directly, through social media. Previously, a wall of third parties (media, analysts) interpreted and translated key messages before moving them forward. Now, however, the channel exists for more direct client-to-end-audience communication, and that makes our role in the process more valuable. The PR skills we’ve always had for engaging are now enormously beneficial.

Were you working in PR or at a PR agency 18 years ago? What would you add to this list?

  • Nicholas P.

    Great post, Scott. I remember hearing these stories over drinks at the Grog. Crazy how fast things can change. In just a few years, I imagine lots of folks my age will be able to write a similar piece!

  • Brian Schwartz

    Happy Birthday, Scott.

    In 1995, I was an AE at a PR firm in Virginia. You probably recall flipping through Bacons’ media directories and The Yellow Book to develop media lists. This was, after all, pre-Google. Around that time, LexisNexus came out with an online news search tool. In my experience, being able to use that tool was a key skill since much of your billable hours came from media research like press lists and tracking coverage.

    One thing I think remains true today is that the medium is STILL the message. I have expounded on this notion and shared a few additional thoughts on Google+ if you care to take a look.

    Thanks and Happy Birthday. It is a good topic for reflection.

    • Scott Signore

      Great comment, Brian. You bet I recall the Bacon’s book, and clearly remember internal email being leveraged by those looking for specific directories somewhere in the office!

  • Ken Shuman

    Making clip books for clients was a regular activity. Cutting out mastheads, making sure they were straight, photocopying articles and binding them was a big part of an interns job. At least it was in 1996 when I was an intern at Lois Paul and Partners.

    • Scott Signore

      Yes, photo copiers and clip books! I found the process of clipping, pasting, copying to be somewhat therapeutic. Unless I was in a rush, it was relaxing. And, it gave me a first hand understanding of the importance of properly merchandising results. Thanks for the reminder, Ken.

  • Tim Hurley

    Setting up and staffing “press tours” to NY, San Francisco and Boston was huge.

    Also, the Monday morning feeding frenzy at the reception desk of the Agency I worked at (Copithorne & Bellows) when “the weeklies” …..aka the computer trades like PC Week …. were sent to the office by cab so the account teams could scour them for client coverage. Then it was off to the copy and fax machines to get the coverage to the client.