In 25 Years, The “Fax” On How PR Has Changed

25 years ago this week, The Unabomber, Monica Lewinsky and Whitewater were all in the news and for the first time in my adult life, I had started getting paid for something other than producing, writing or reporting the news.

It was my first week in PR and, although I wasn’t exactly sure what I was getting myself into, it was certainly worth a try.

I remember a lot about that first week in 1998. I realized I’d have to learn some new terms: “personnel release” and “media alert” first among them. I would immediately have to learn how to use the high-volume fax machines. I would have to buy some more suits and ties. And I’d have to get used to working in an environment that was so much quieter and cleaner than any newsroom.

I also had to get used to the deadlines. One morning that week, an account supervisor asked me to write a video script for a client fundraising campaign. I asked a bunch of questions and reviewed all of the materials and by lunchtime, I had what I considered a script. He was floored. This isn’t daily news, I was reminded. He was expecting it in a week. Oh.

So much about PR has changed in 25 years, most notably media relations. Back then, we could find a “home” in some news outlet, somehow relevant, for every client story idea. Every community had a newspaper and the biggest ones had hundreds of beat reporters and so many daily pages to fill. Today, finding actual news opportunities for ideas is often the exception. We communicated with reporters via phone, fax, even the U.S. mail. For truly urgent situations, I wore a pager.

In the agency business itself, things have also changed considerably. It used to be nearly every client was charged a recurring monthly flat fee and teams of at least three, usually more like four, people would put in hours on the account, billing for time-consuming manual activity like writing meeting recap memos, creating media lists out of books, and making clips of news stories using a paper cutter. Clients were billed for every office expense, from copies to long distance phone calls to those faxes buzzing out all day long. There was a lot of money to be made in printing, as there was no such thing as a PDF. Even not factoring in inflation, there has been fee deflation because in a time-based business, so much can be done so much more efficiently and post-Great Recession, clients are far more cost sensitive.

It would have been impossible to predict, as it is impossible to overstate, the wide-ranging impact on PR brought by the proliferation of the internet – from smart phones to social media to the contraction of the media industry.

Some of the trends have pointed positively, at least for those of us with decades behind us. For example, there is more of a premium now on experienced counsel. Also, on average, as I wrote earlier this year in law publications in multiple states, the relationship between communicators and lawyers has perhaps never been stronger, especially in crisis. And I haven’t put on a suit and tie to see a client in four years and it had only been a handful a times in the ten years before that.

It’s impossible to predict what this job might be like in 2048. Only one thing is for sure, the fundamentals of sound communication and high customer service, combined with the highest ethical standards, will be the keys to success. And it’s impossible to picture a fax machine as essential equipment.

While I certainly couldn’t envision a Hall of Fame career in those early weeks in 1998, by the end of that summer I realized that this, at its best, could be a fascinating and fun way to make a living and spend a life. It still is. Thank you to all who have made it possible for 25 years, and counting.