An Interview with Deirdre Breakenridge: Reinventing PR’s Relationship with Itself

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“Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.” – William James

I don’t think I’ve ‘met’ many people with a more positive and holistic attitude towards relationships than Deirdre Breakenridge.

In her most recent book, Putting the Public Back in Public Relations (co-written with Brian Solis), the importance of re-establishing ‘relationships’ as the foundation for great PR is arguably the key theme.

In fact, the great relationship I’ve been able to strike up with Deirdre via social media in the last six months was the key factor in my decision to buy and read her latest book.

So it made sense for me, once I finished the book, that ‘relationships’ was the theme I’d quiz her on…and this is what she had to say…

An interview with Deirdre Breakenridge

One Topic. Four questions. Hundreds of talking points.

Q1. Media relationships

Adam Vincenzini (AV): Was any one single factor responsible for taking ‘relationships’ out of media relations?

Deirdre Breakenridge (DB): There were several factors that took the ‘relationships’ out of media relations. PR people were faced with the pressure from their clients to produce more media coverage with less time and with a smaller budget.  At the same time, the media was becoming increasingly hard to reach as they struggled with their own deadlines and stresses to produce stories quickly to keep up with the pace of the Internet.  Desk side briefings and reporter lunches were just a memory of the past.

One of the most pressing problems (or maybe to some it appeared as a solution) was our ability to use technology to simply broadcast news announcements from email blasts to wire service distribution, without making that personal connection with the media.  Through the process, we moved farther away from the relationship-building techniques; a practice we had relied on for years as part of our PR media relations approach.

Today, whether it’s media relations with journalists or building relationships with other groups of people in web communities, there’s only one way to practice PR and that’s using the people relations approach.

Brian and I wrote our book to focus on Putting the Public Back in Public Relations which means you need to listen to the people that matter, make direct connections with them and be a valuable resource, which is critical for a brand.

PR professionals are practicing their people relations with different groups (even beyond the media) in social communities, including with their brands’ customers.There’s also a strong focus on the new players or influencers. Although media relations will continue to be a part of our jobs and we will change the way that we connect and engage with today’s journalists, we’ve come to realize that bloggers are important to the news process and consumers are relying on them for information, intelligence and entertainment. Building relationships with bloggers requires an understanding of their interests and participating in their communities.Bloggers, like journalists, want to provide useful information to the people who rely on them daily, so it’s critical to do your homework and connect with bloggers on a level that builds credibility, trust and mutual respect.

Today, building relationships means listening to what your customers are saying and hearing their thoughts and acting upon their concerns, problems and questions. Today’s brands have the opportunity to become valuable resources for the public. No longer are we allowed to just build our relationships the way we think they should be formed.

If you recall, back in the day, there were PR firms that would start a media relations program and “building a relationship” by generating a media list. The agency would send a journalist a news release, introducing the company and announcing their news.The follow-up call on that very news release was a means to discuss the company announcement. That’s hardly a way to build a relationship.There was no listening involved.

We have incredible listening (monitoring) tools and technology that provides us with real time information about our brands and the people who take the time to converse about them. If you listen to the people you want to reach, customize your stories and really target and act upon their needs, the relationships you build will be stronger and last long term; these are the relationships that are built on empathy, trust, and loyalty.

Q2. The value of ‘any’ relationship

AV: In the book you and Brian talk a lot about the importance of making relationships the foundation of successful PR, not just with media, but consumers, broader stakeholders etc. However, relationships, by their very nature, take an awful lot of time to create and foster – can the industry expect clients / brands to pay for this time? And, how much is this skill / service worth?

DB: Relationships definitely take time to cultivate and trust develops as people feel a mutual respect and understanding, a sense of similar beliefs, and there is a level of reciprocation on behalf of both parties.  For some, the traditional PR process took much longer to build relationships because they were less focused on what people were saying and more focused on pushing out messages to the market (whether consumers cared about the communication or not).  For example, messages were handed down from the C-Suite and then worked into news releases, which were sent out over the wire; a mass approach where there was no ability to have two-way conversations.   At times, the only direct feedback was from the journalist at the media outlet (whether they chose to write our story or not).

Consumers today want to drive and control their own media, so it’s harder to reach them through traditional media outreach.

If brands don’t customize their stories, then they end up as noise on the receiving end.

Web 2.0 sharing and social media collaboration allows us to build invaluable relationships quickly by tearing down the walls and allowing more transparency and openness, which humanizes the brand.By being more human and allowing employees to interact through social media makes it easier for customers to get to know the people behind their favorite brands.Helping customers through their concerns and issues aids in building relationships quickly. Having direct access to information, news and updates as well as promotions and discounts through social networks also builds the relationships at a faster rate.

We have the ability to form relationships by listening first and then engaging with help people.
The more swiftly we can identify the needs of our target public, the more quickly we can work to help them and to have a better relationship.

The broadcast model, which didn’t develop relationships but just blanketed the marketed with announcements, can’t exist in the social sphere.Social media is about two-way conversations and becoming the people you want to reach.

Of course, PR people are at the heart of listening and have been the skilled communicators advising brands about strategic communications for years. With our role as the communications strategists, research librarians, skilled listeners, conversationalists, savvy web marketers and even market experts/analysts, we have earned our seat at the boardroom table. PR has shown value over the years by contributing to a brand’s financial performance, reputation and brand management.Social media enhances these outcomes for the brand. As a result, our value will be recognized and compensated, as we continue to work with journalists and other groups to build stronger relationships with a brands public(s).

Even though we are changing our approach and tightening our own communication model to suit the needs of the public, once again the value that we deliver to the brand in long term warrants that same kind of recognition as our traditional days, as we produce tangible and measureable results with respect to participation, involvement, engagement and ROI.

Once our brands truly understand the new approach to communications it will less time to create better relationships and PR people will be recognized as a leading force in this new PR/social media approach.

Q3. Respect and relationships

AV: I was once told that there are no scoreboards when it comes to successful relationships – they work because there is no agenda and great mutual respect exists – can PR (and other related disciplines) realistically expect to reach that summit? Both with the people PR pros want to have relationships with but also in the eyes of the public?

DB: Yes, I believe that the new PR movement is reinventing the public relations industry so that we can have those relationships based on great mutual respect in the eyes of the people we want to reach and the general public.  We are working very hard to change our reputation of being known as “spin” doctors and PR flacks.  These stereotypes have been around for years and they were representative of an approach that lacked one-on-one communication, mutual respect and true relationship building efforts.  It appears that our industry fell into a complacent “mode” allowing our brands to think they were controlling the communication, massaging the messages that they wanted to put forward in the market while they simultaneously hid behind their corporate walls.  We weren’t helping to make our brands more open and transparent. Today, opening up the communication is an essential part of our PR approach.

Social media allows our brands to tear down the walls and to engage with the public (rather than shouting out messages).  Brands, as well as their PR people, have the opportunity to participate as meaningful resources, which helps to build relationships through connections with real people, in communities where they were never invited before.  A brand has to understand the cultures of various communities, because they are all different and so are the people or influencers who drive the communication.  All of this can be done by listening, observing and identifying as first steps, to pinpoint what’s important to the people in those communities and then participating by providing insight and valuable feedback.

The book, Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith also focuses on strengthening relationships and how being invited into a community means becoming one of its members, not just a “spammy” marketer with self-serving messages. Or, as Brogan and Smith discuss, you have to become “One of Us.”  In order to reach a summit of mutual respect in a relationship you must be one with the community.  Social media is peer-to-peer participation.  PR and marketing people need to take off their PR and marketing hats off and help their peers. We see this more and more as consumer study show that consumers trust their peers before their brands and then look toward the media and other competitive sources.

Q4. Sustaining relationships

AV: As I touched on in my introduction, the way you cultivated a relationship with me has led to us chatting quite regularly, and partly influenced my decision to go out and buy two of your books – is that type of effort sustainable all the time? What happens if / when you reach a tipping point and can’t be so generous, both online and in real life?

DB: I think that people who are like-minded will naturally be drawn to one another and just like building a relationship in the traditional realm, you will find different levels of friendship.  I wrote a blog post recently about the Twitter Relationship Stairway. Relationships come in many forms from your casual acquaintance all the way up the stairway to the trusted confidant.  Of course, we will only reach certain levels of friendship at any given time. We all have the ability to move each and every friendship up the stairway. However, with so many connections, one question surfaces: do we lower our friendship barriers and allow everyone to be become our friends, or do we hold higher standards for friendship as technology allows us to meet thousands of people.

I believe that we will be able to increase and even sustain the number of meaningful relationships, as we filter out the noise in our own networks and focus on the deep conversations and the people who have the most meaning for us.  We pick and choose our “friends” based on social capital and the value they bring to us each day.  It will be easier to organize our relationships through technology, and because open ID or Facebook Connect, for example, enables us to bring our operating systems wherever we go, our conversations will be connected as a result.  Although our human network will traverse across several platforms, we will have our closest confidants with us at all times.

In addition, we will see more technology blending our media, for instance Twitter Media is a perfect example of how TV and Twitter combine for engagement and deeper interaction with respect to a TV viewing experience and the communities that congregate to discuss them.  Our experience is blended where we are entertained and we can chat with our friends about a program, which consumes less time then if we were to watch a television show and then pick up the telephone to call and discuss the show with five friends who watched the same program.

Consumers thrive on participation and interaction.  Looking at the differences between Forrester’s 2008 and 2009 Technographics Ladder reveals that adult U.S. consumers are participating more in social networks, moving up the Social Technographics Ladder to be social media creators at the top of the ladder.  It’s consumer behavior that drives this movement and the technology facilitates their actions.  With that said, we will learn to filter, maintain and keep our closest networks with us (groups comprised of a trusted circle of people) while we review and select how other levels of friendship change and grow, as we continue on our social media paths.
I can’t thank Deirdre enough for taking the time to put so much thought behind the responses to these questions.

It is this thinking which makes ‘Putting the Public Back in Public Relations’ such a great read – Deirdre and Brian really challenge what has become the status quo and deliver some very practical, and at times, confronting advice about how we can improve and evolve as an industry.

If you are interested in learning more about this book, or the three others Deirdre has written, visit her blog at

You can also keep in touch with her via Twitter.

Now, I imagine that has stirred up some comments…don’t keep them to yourself…share them via the box below…


  • Reply April 20, 2010

    Samantha Ogborn


    First off, I want to give a big thank you to Adam for taking the time to do this interview and asking questions that fuel some great insights (insights especially for students who are looking for some clarity in the chaos that is PR and/or social media). Unbelievable, Deirdre. You thread your words so eloquently – nothing seems out of place and everything makes sense. Most of all, I can agree with Adam – this post makes my head spin. So many great concepts!

    A few things really speak to me here.

    First, this: “Today, building relationships means listening to what your customers are saying and hearing their thoughts and acting upon their concerns, problems and questions. Today’s brands have the opportunity to become valuable resources for the public. No longer are we allowed to just build our relationships the way we think they should be formed.”

    I keep hearing that companies can try and make a brand what they want it to be, but at the end of the day, consumers are the ones forming the brand, opinion leaders put out their thoughts on the brand, etc. however (and correct me if I’m wrong or not wording this exactly the right way) by building relationships, your brand can grow organically. Because by building relationships, you begin to build that trust at the same time. Yet this doesn’t happen overnight, and I think a lot of companies need to recognize this.

    I love this whole concept of “humanizing” as well, Deirdre. I’ve heard this used a couple of times but you do a fantastic job explaining what exactly that means. I agree completely with your reasoning as well – “By being more human and allowing employees to interact through social media makes it easier for customers to get to know the people behind their favorite brands.”

    I also appreciate that you bring up ROI but it’s not a main focal point. There’s been a lot of debate going around about whether ROI is important or not, I like that you bring together the whole picture and include engagement and involvement.

    Definitely going to read over this post multiple times, sorry if this comment is all over the place 🙂 Looking forward to picking up your book this summer. I’ve seen quite a lot of buzz on my Twitter stream.

    Thanks once again Adam, and stellar post Deirdre!

  • Reply April 20, 2010

    Natalie Green

    Timely and enlightening.

    Were it not for the pressing needs of my PR clients I would have liked to temporarily (probably) shut down that part of my business so I could stop, take stock and figure out what I should be doing for them.

    I want to address their communication needs and effectively build relationships with their publics. I also want to form and convey a realistic view of what they should expect in terms of media coverage. Also, how much time it should take me to help them achieve their objectives and how I can communicate with journalists and other ‘broadcasters’.

    This post/interview has given me food for thought and much needed guidance on how I can do the best job I can.

  • Reply April 20, 2010

    Grant Smith

    Mate, great get (and nice to see an article on PR that focuses on communication and relationship management rather than marketing.

    Bit sad though to think it took a new book to remind us all of what we’re supposed to have been doing day in and day out for the past 80 years. I guess that’s what we call progress.

  • Reply April 20, 2010

    Adam Vincenzini

    Guys – there is so much to say about this post that I might leave responding until the guys on the other side of the pond wake up – I agree, it is like going full circle, and is a great thing in my opinion.

  • Reply April 20, 2010


    This is a very interesting blog and so i like to visit your blog again and again. Keep it up.


  • Reply April 20, 2010


    Hi Adam! I really enjoyed interviewing with you and thought the relationship questions were fantastic. Relationships are at the heart of good PR, so of course, I found myself with a lot to say on the subject. I also want to thank your community for their great comments. I really appreciate the feedback!

  • Reply April 23, 2010

    Elissa Freeman

    This is an excellent post that brings to light the lost art of relationship building – on so many levels.

    There are those who feel technology has replaced the notion of relationship building, yet it can actually influence how it brings people together.

    Technology’s rapid assent appears to have also impacted the pace of our strategic objectives (for clients, stakeholders etc) -ie get out there quick and fast and let’s see the results. What this post revealed to me was how effective relationship building can be (with journalists, consumers & like-minded twitterati) if you actually take the time to sit back…and listen.

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