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An open source model for PR?

For a number of years, I ran the UK PR account for MySQL, the ubiquitous open source database (and recently acquired by Sun for $1bn).

In that time, I got to know some very bright people there (not least the inestimable Marten Mickos, MySQL’s CEO), as well as getting first hand insight into an innovative new business model. Back in October 2006, MySQL’s VP of Community Relations Kaj Arno announced the then introduction of MySQL’s Community and Enterprise Editions with a quite telling phrase:

We aim to better serve both categories of MySQL users — those who are willing to spend time to save money, and those who are willing to spend money to save time.”

The parallels with the world of PR are quite similar. The traditional tools that have been employed by many client companies to support their PR efforts are now in many cases free (or at worst, a minimal cost). What is the role of a PR consultancy in a world where many of its traditional services and “black box” solutions are now freely available?

In my view, the answer lies in MySQL’s open source model, transferred to the PR world. Those who are prepared to spend time learning how to use these free (or near free) tools – and share their experience – will benefit from a greatly reduced financial cost. Rather than hoard knowledge, there will evolve an open community of PR practitioners – both agency and client side – prepared to share their experience.

However, there is clearly going to be a demand from client businesses to create solutions more quickly – and they will be prepared to pay for this expertise. PR consultancies will thus move to a paid-for support and

Far fetched? Gentle reader, I welcome your feedback.

9 replies on “An open source model for PR?”

No far fetched at all. In fact I think it is already happening to a degree.

For example I willingly (without being asked) offered a very big and famous PR agency my list of contacts in another area. I even offered to put them personally in touch with a couple of very good journalist contacts. I then helped them with sorting out some images for them.

Even though I’m a small agency this is something I would not have dreamt of doing a few years ago as ‘press lists’ were know as your secret weapon.

So why would I help a big agency for no money (and I wasn’t angling for a job.) The reason is because my mind set has changed and I now regard other PR people, not as competitors but as part of my community. I know one day I can pull on their knowledge pool for help (well hopefully.)

I agree with Annabel. This is another example of what Clay Shirky describes as ‘mass-amateurisation’. Anyone can publish, anyone can produce news, anyone can do PR. To an extent.

So those paid to do PR have to add value (speed, competence, expertise). I’d worry most about this trend if I were an international consultancy network needing high margins just to support the infrastructure. High margins for work that someone (ie one of my students) can attempt for free?

@Annabel – agreed. I think that whole attitude will become more prevalent.

@Richard – yes, that is one of the paradoxes for the larger PR firm – how to continue justifying the fees paid when much (or most of it) is simply to pay for infrastructure costs.

@ Andrew & Richard

I agree the big agencies are the ones that should be most worried. I think they will need to streamline their team structures and change skills sets. It will no longer enough to have people who are competent writers and good at media sell-ins. The global PR agencies will need account teams full of people who can not only write, but very new media savvy who have at the very least working knowledge and understanding of web design, photoshop editing, SEO, social networking, blogging, podcasting and most multi-media disciplines.

The exceptions PR should focus on are:

– decent writing and content creation
– people genuinely knowledgeable and passionate about a specific industry (and specific areas within that industry)
– real creativity

Clients will always pay for these.

Particularly a combination of the first two with the far harder to find third.

After all, why do creative ad agency’s get hired? In theory, anyone can create a logo or copywrite. It’s because amateurisation has it’s limits.

I forget who it was back in the late 90s – once the web had taken off – wrote: “It’s been said that with an infinite amount of monkeys, typewriters and time, you’ll eventually get the complete works of William Shakespeare. The world wide web has proved that wrong.”

Hi Ben – thanks for the comment. I agree. I guess what I’m getting at is that many of the things that PR consultancies used to make money on (or at least charge a premium for) are now potentially free or can be had for little cost. It should mean focussing on genuine value add (including the things you mention). It should also mean not having to pay lots of money for real estate and other overheads that really add no value.

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