Six months before any of us knew the market would crash, I considered my decision to enter the PR industry a calculated career risk.

I did it for the challenge, but I knew that applying my traditional creative director background to the world of earned media came with uncertainties. I had always considered PR people to be incredibly smart, aggressive and socially savvy, yet I still wondered if it was really a launchpad for great creative.

Within the context of that question, I quickly learned two important things.

First, the industry does a lot more than press releases and media outreach. The strategic side of the PR coin can, and should be, as creative in nature as any other type of marketing. As evidence, I noticed CMOs with multiple specialized agencies at their disposal commonly (and simultaneously) asking all of them to explore their brand’s next “Big Idea”, and PR was usually at the table.

And second, the industry was in the midst of historic change. Most of it was brought on by the arrival of social media, which is well documented in my colleague Chris Penn’s book How Social Media Broke PR (and How to Fix It). But the way that strategy and conceptual ideas were being developed and communicated to clients was about to make a dramatic shift too.

The 2008 recession hit toward the end of the year, quickly strangling marketing budgets everywhere. The normal competitiveness among PR agencies turned into desperation for what was left of business leads. Agencies that had in-house creative resources deployed them in full force to gain any possible advantage.

PowerPoint presentations filled with bullet points gave way to dramatic videos, surprise and delight stunts, guerilla-style thank you mailers and plenty of spec work. Lobbies with receptionists and welcome signs were transformed into bird sanctuaries, bus stops or whatever experience seemed most likely to demonstrate extreme immersion into and passion for a visiting client’s brand.

For the PR agencies doing it well and winning the business, the creative arms race continued. By the end of the following year, my creative colleagues who had been laid off by advertising and digital agencies were surprised to find an uptick of openings in PR.

When the market finally bounced back, it was obvious that the boot camp brought on by 2008 had done us a great service. My team’s size had doubled and the clients we’d fought for knew me and were adding healthy budgets for creative projects that would have been sent to non-PR agencies two years earlier. Most importantly, the fire drills and calisthenics that we’d gone through in the leaner days had become the foundation for our ability to create unique deliverables more relevant to the new, social world.

It wasn’t just my experience. My PR creative colleagues around town were seeing the same in-house growth trend, and most are still thriving in the industry. I was happy to catch up with many of them at this year’s Bell Ringer Awards in Boston, an event that, like most other PR competitions, continues to add creative-focused items to its category list.

About a year and a half ago I joined SHIFT Communications, extending my career in PR creative. In short, I feel incredibly lucky to be at an agency so dedicated to smashing the norm every day as a means to arrive at what could be. Like everyone else here, my team thrives on constructing unlikely but on-target solutions to modern challenges, and we couldn’t find a better environment for that.

Oddly, it’s a progressive spirit that feels a lot like 2008. Minus the recession.

Pete Buhler
Creative Director


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