Typewriter to digital, how PR has changed in 30 years

When I set up RMS Creative Communications in my spare bedroom 30 years ago, I had a golf ball typewriter, fax machine, no money but one client (Sorbothane, a brand of insoles that absorbed 94.7% of impact shock - some things you never forget).

The most important tool in my arsenal was a copy of BRAD, a hefty directory that listed every single newspaper and magazine in the UK, along with a ream of contact details and advertising rates.

Typing and faxing

I’d type a press release and fax it to the client. Whilst waiting for approval, I’d create my press lists using BRAD. Address labels would be typed, stuck to envelopes along with stamps. Release approved, I’d head to the local photocopying shop to have copies made. Back to my flat to fold and stuff the release into the envelopes, before heading to the post office.

At that time, I had no way of telling if the story had been picked up anywhere. The client stayed loyal for another 15 years so something must have stuck.

PCs and MediaDisk

Fast forward a couple of years and I’d moved into a proper office, had a PC, photocopier, franking machine and a couple of colleagues. BRAD had been replaced with MediaDisk, an encyclopaedia of publications - as its name suggests - on a disk. It was transformational and seemed incredibly advanced. We loved whiling away the time trying to find the most obscure titles held in its database.

I still remember the excitement of having to shoulder shove the office door open because of the pile of post on the mat. Gathering it up, we’d rush to our desks and eagerly open all the envelopes containing newspaper and magazine cuttings, each with a little sticker stating the name of the publication and its circulation.

When cuttings were cuttings

Back in the day, cuttings houses (we used a variety but Romeike & Curtice stands out in my memory) employed thousands of people who were given a list of company names and then tasked with reading through newspapers and magazines to spot any mentions of them.

Armed with scissors, this army of sharp-eyed individuals would physically cut the article, attach the aforementioned sticker and send it off to the PR agency. Yes, people really did read, spot and clip for a living.

Measuring with rulers

Then the fun would begin … out would come our rulers and calculators. We’d measure the size of each cutting, calculate how much the client would have had to spend to buy the equivalent space as advertising and times it by six to factor in the greater impact of editorial over advertising.

Monthly reports would list all the coverage secured with details of these calculations…

Believe it or not, I still miss those days. It felt so satisfying to actually hold the tangible results of your efforts in your hands, even if it meant them being covered in newsprint.

Technology has changed everything.

Media changes

It has led to headcounts at newsrooms being slashed, putting journalists under increased pressure. Ironically, it has made them even more accessible so they are constantly bombarded every minute of every day, making it harder to cut through. Whilst technology has brought greater efficiencies and made onerous jobs easier, it has also made our jobs tougher in certain ways.

It’s not all bad, though. Whereas in the old days, the media database was king, now, knowing your journalist contacts inside out is essential. We need to know exactly who at a publication will be interested in our stories, what angle they’ll want to take and how they like to work. Some like two-line emails followed up with a client interview, others want us to write everything for them.

Gone are the days when a release would be mailed to a big list and we’d see our results via the letterbox a couple of weeks later. Things work much more quickly these days.

Some things remain constant

One thing hasn’t changed - the agility of PR professionals required to balance what clients want to say with what journalists want to hear. That’s our skill and the advent of digital, along with the changes in working practices, have meant this ability to work quickly and effectively, adapting messaging and repurposing content, is tested every day.

With the arrival of digital marketing, the power of PR was eclipsed for quite some time with many clients choosing to sideline media relations in favour of PPC, SEO and (often dodgy) link building activities.

PR agencies have had to evolve. We can no longer work in silos. Integration is key to delivering value to clients. There is mutual respect for the various new skills that have come under the umbrella of marketing. The digital marketers, for all their undoubted skills with analytics and precision targeting, have come to realise that content will always be king. And, of course, who writes the best content? I’ll leave that one open for discussion!

Written by Ruth Shearn, founder of agency RMS Creative Communications


Creative Moment Awards 2021