A Decade of Changes in the World of Public Relations

Recently I received a batch of CDs that contained a digital history of a little more than two years of my life. There were email exchanges with long-lost friends, spreadsheets containing old NCAA basketball tournament picks, and over 1,500 documents, including hundreds related to my old business. I found the contract I signed with a public relations firm, as well as its monthly bills. I was also able to read the first press release I ever wrote, the emails ending the relationship with the public relations firm, and my own futile attempts to drum up publicity. What I found most interesting was noticing how much the public relations industry has changed in the past 12 years. These are just some of the big differences I spotted.

Fax vs. Email: Back then, my public relations firm was blasting out faxes to newspapers, magazines, and radio stations. These days we blast out emails, but even that’s changing to an extent thanks to text messaging, instant messaging, social networks, blogs, and video sites.

Online Media: A 300-person media list from mid-1997 included just three journalists whose primary job was writing for an online publication. Today, more than 30 percent of the journalists on my media list write only for online publications.

The Death of Small Press Publications: One of the biggest public relations coups we scored in 1997 was garnering a great review of a record in the Big Takeover, a fabulous bi-annual music magazine that luckily still exists. Sadly, virtually all of the other small press publications, most of them zines, are long gone. Some have been replaced by websites, but you can’t pick up a website in a record store or in a club. I’ve got boxes of old zines, and those publications sold more product for me than any other piece of media.

Long-Distance Charges: The funniest email exchange I found was with my public relations firm, a billing argument over long-distance phone call charges. There wasn’t really any alternative to expensive long-distance calls then. Today, we’ve got cellphones with flat-rate calling, business long-distance plans with flat rates, and cheap VoIP.

Websites with Frames: Using some modified software, I was able to reconstruct my company’s original website. It was awful. The navigation was in a separate frame, the fonts were plain ugly and the images were set to a horrible resolution. For the time, the website was actually rather impressive looking. Today it would get you laughed off the web.

This Email Thing: At one point, I asked my public relations firm for a list of email addresses for journalists and record label personnel. The response? “We’re trying to get a list together, but a lot of folks aren’t into this email thing.” Apparently email still wasn’t ubiquitous in 1997.

Can You Hear Me Now?: Speaking of ubiquitous, when I was making plans for a meeting on March 19, 1996, at a recording studio, my notes stated: “Use payphone across street if no one answers [the door].” I swear I had a cellphone then.

Contact Sheets: These days we send photos from our cellphone and text them to news agencies. Back then I was Fed Ex-ing contact sheets to my public relations firm so they could take a look at some band photos. I think I still have a box of black and white “press-ready” photos somewhere.

Burn Baby Burn: I spent two consecutive nights in early 1998 burning CDs and creating custom labels to send out to journalists. Today I would just send someone an MP3 or point to a band’s MySpace page.

Of course, a lot hasn’t changed: public relations has always been about a story to tell, an opinion to air, or simply something to promote. It’s about relationships and preparedness and luck and missing out. The arguments I had with PR people then are the same ones I have with co-workers now, and the importance of public relations has not waned.

The nice thing about being able to relive the past is that you are given the opportunity to learn from your mistakes (or bask once again in your glory). If only I could rewrite that press release where I misspelled “guitar.”

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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