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The Merriam-Webster dictionary says a commodity is a good or service whose wide availability typically leads to smaller profit margins and diminishes the importance of factors (as brand name) other than price.

I wonder, is this happening to PR ? If it is (even a tiny little bit) can we blame the internet?

Let me unpack this a bit.

First, PR firms are making lots of money these days, which might lead one to assume commodification was not on. There’s more to it, though. Profits are indeed higher, but why? Is it absolute demand or higher margins on services rendered? I’d wager on the former. PR has claimed expertise in social media since the beginning and this has been a bonanza for firms’ top line revenue (meaning there is more absolute demand for services). I suppose, on this question, the answer about commodification isn’t entirely clear for now.

Second, PR and social media management are deeply human occupations with the attendent qualitative differences in human abilities. They aren’t oil or copper.  By this logic, in reality, there is no threat of commodification.

So, why ask the question about commodification in the first place? Because, on the open market, perception matters more than reality.

Here’s the rub: the proliferation of “experts” and people spouting  trite advice on the internet makes supply feel abundant and makes distinguishing between suppliers of PR more difficult. This is especially true for the busy business owner/manager who outsources PR help to agents.

The nature of the internet compounds the problem of distinguishing between suppliers. The web gives a strong edge to people who can produce compelling content. However, the ability to produce compelling content DOES NOT MEAN that one can EXECUTE a good PR campaign or manage an online community effectively. These are much more complex and substantial processes. This is why the internet is a wonderful place for charlatans. As a marketing medium it places immense value on style over subtance.

To sum up what I’ve said so far:

  • In the era of social media, there is high demand for our services.
  • In reality there are SERIOUS qualitative differences between service providers. 
  • However, the internet and proliferation of “experts,” threaten to give the perception that expertise about our craft is in abundant supply.

Some questions:

If this perception persists or grows, are PR pros liable to be less financially secure? Will we be required to take on more work for less money in order to preserve our current financial status?

I, for one, am a just a tad worried. You?

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Ben Garrett says:

    I started hearing about PR being a commodity back in the nineties from a colleague who came to PR from the advertising world. I’ve always been puzzled by this because our services are so extremely customized both for the client, the media and the public. But I think part of it comes from Fortune 500 companies who contract out for PR services in a very specific way, in the same way they make other purchasing decisions. I guess you can commoditize anything, but it seems like the wrong approach. It’s like looking at legal services as a commodity. Managed care has already tried to make healthcare a commodity, and it may works in certain areas like preventive care perhaps, but it’s not the way you would want to pick a brain surgeon…same analogy works for PR

  • Thanks Ben. You may be right about the contracting process of larger firms having partially created the trend. I agree that is dangerous to view legal, medical service (and of course PR) as a commodities. But I fear in some quarters this view is gaining credibilty. All the best, JW

  • Marty says:

    Dear Jackson,
    As much as I’m fond of you, I may have to be the bearer of bad tidings. Simply put, technology enables the ‘cowboy’ to masquerade as the specialist (even believing it themselves), to the point that the consumer / contractee can’t tell the difference.

    Through the ’90’s, specialist web designers and programmers saw their professions intrinsically devalued as software enabled anyone with a passing interest to produce a launchable web site using Dreamweaver or FrontPage. Today, web design is feeding on the scraps afforded by customizing templates.

    Through the ’00’s, professional photographers saw their services inundated and eroded by self-styled photogs sporting the latest (and now very affordable) digital cameras and lenses. Sure, the know-littles produce technically inferior images, but price themselves in a bracket that attracts a lot of customers while forcing pros to discount their hard-earned skills.

    Today, it takes little more than a few moment’s search to find a Twitter or Facebook user who crowns themselves social-media mavens or gurus, while their only credentials are the ability to use a SocMed platform, and a few hundred followers.

    And those who are in need of these services? How are they expected to be able to tell the difference between the established, seasoned professional and the cowboy?

    Perhaps that’s a topic for another post, eh?

  • Hey Marty. You are right about the macro-point. Thanks for expressing it far clearer than I did.

    All the best! J

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