In 2009 Annual Conference, 2009 Conference - Tuesday

FPRA Annual Conference

Deirdre Breakenridge of PFS Marketwyse led an open and frank discussion on how public relations agencies can overcome a predator stigma. Focusing on public relations principles (both traditional PR and PR 2.0) that raise the profile of a professional and the agency to the rightful status of counselor and partner, Deirdre showed why agencies need to promote and sustain practices that support the needs of the 21st century organization such as being customer-focused and user-centric. Breakenridge challenged PR professionals working in the agency environment with changing the public image of PR firms. “Public Relations agencies today are in a branding crisis,” she said, adding that agencies need to redefine their position with clients among today’s constantly changing communication landscape.

“Agencies are being seen only as an engine for media relations and as developers of traditional mass communication messages who target demographics rather than behavior,” Breakenridge said. In her opinion, agency practitioners are telling stories without customizing the message to the communities they are trying to reach. Additionally, the public feels agencies are not being transparent enough in the work they handle for clients, often labeled the creators of “spin.”

To tackle these challenges, Breakenridge recommended agencies address three underlying factors in turning around their image: Attitude, Education & Technology.

First, agencies must see themselves and develop opportunities to become influencers. Practitioners must remember that PR is more about sociology than technology with changing vocabulary and behavior by the many markets they address each day. “The new media landscape is producing an environment where everyone is becoming a content producer, social communicator and citizen journalist,” adds Breakenridge.

Proactive agency practitioners should seek to educate themselves in the many diverse community networks available for consideration in their communication programs. Education demands that the PR professional watch and listen first, visiting different communities (i.e. Facebook, Linked in groups, Twitter, etc.) attending webinars or tele-seminars and following Bloggers. Once educated, agencies can advise clients on where they need to be in the vast world of social media, making the right choices that best serve the goals of the customers/consumers the client is trying to reach. Breakenridge discussed the many avenues to map and chart these social networks, (such as “the conversation Prism”) as well as recommending that agencies watch client competitors. Additionally, she illustrated the need to create a social media policy before embarking on an integrated program in order to identify the goals, audiences and agency and client responsibilities (and communicators) involved in the program.

“Technology doesn’t build the relationships,” says Breakenridge, “it supports the people and creates the platform for the meaningful information being provided to the targeted community – which gets the client direct to their customer.”

What does an agency need to do?

  1. Observe the communities and cultures that define the target
  2. Listen and pay attention to important conversations related to the brand
  3. Identify key communities based on the frequency of the conversations
  4. Internalize and analyze the feedback in order to learn about each community.

This new PR agency is a new hybrid PR professional. This professional can be any of the following:

  • Spectators – they just watch and listen to the networks
  • Joiners – they set up profiles on the networking sites but they aren’t fully engaged
  • Collectors – they are gathering information and collecting knowledge, perhaps commenting and doing more comprehensive communicating
  • Critic level – they are actively commenting, reviewing, posting, sharing, and building community relationships
  • Creator – they are influencers who are creating what people listen to

Agencies should set their sights on being a “Creator” to raise the profile of the industry and re-invent what PR is for clients and the public.

What do today’s agencies need to know?

  • It’s never too late to change
  • The time to lead is now and we are all learning together
  • PR employs a multi-tiered approach to reaching customers to build strong relationships
  • Agencies need to be proactive and change their roles
  • PR needs a new attitude

Breakenridge says to put the public back in PR agencies should:

  • Always be proactive
  • Listen and learn what is the best approach for a customer based on who’s having conversations in the market
  • Learn and educate your customers; observe and monitor who is talking in their markets and who are their most important influencers
  • Be prepared with updated technology and provide insight to customers–demo the latest tools and resources so that you are always the expert
  • Assume your new role and be a PR Champion and an agency that is considered a partner not predator

Key influencers to watch:

Brian Solis

Kami Huyse

Shell Israel

Books by the Author

Putting the Public Back in Public Relations

PR 2.0: New Media, New Tools, New Audiences

The New PR Toolkit:


About the Speaker

Deirdre K. Breakenridge is President, Executive Director of Communications at PFS Marketwyse. A veteran in the PR industry, Deirdre leads a creative team of PR and marketing executives strategizing to gain brand awareness for their clients through creative and strategic public relations campaigns.  She counsels senior level executives at companies including AmerisourceBergen, Hershey’s, JVC, Kraft, Michael C. Fina, and Secure Horizons. Deirdre is an adjunct professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey where she teaches courses on Public Relations and Interactive Marketing for the Global Business Management program. She recently finished her fourth Financial Times business book, “Putting the Public Back in Public Relations,” co-authored by Brian Solis, published in March 2009 and available in major bookstores.  She has also authored: “PR 2.0, New Media, New Tools, New Audiences,” “The New PR Toolkit” and “Cyberbranding: Brand Building in the Digital Economy.”

Deirdre speaks publicly on the topics of PR, online marketing and brand building.  In September, Deirdre was featured as a keynote speaker at the National Women’s In Network Conference.  Previously, she has spoken for the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), Strategic Research Institute (SRI), Women’s Presidents Organization (WPO), Tier1 Research and at a number of colleges and universities.  Deirdre is a member of the PRSA and has served on the Board of NJ/PRSA and the New Jersey Advertising Club. She was named Woman of the Year in 2009 by the National Association of Professional Executive Women (NAPEW).

Deirdre is a contributing editor of TechConnect, PRSA’s Technology Newsletter and also blogs about PR 2.0 Strategies at

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