I was reminiscing with the editor of this newspaper the other day about how the world of work has changed over the last few decades and comparing notes about how the professions of public relations and journalism used to interact compared to nowadays. Technology and attitudes have changed a lot but what has not changed is the desire to communicate information and messages and encourage the independent media that a specific idea or pitch is newsworthy and of interest to viewers and readers. The tools have changed but the mission has not!
When I was a new graduate in the UK setting out on my marketing career at a leading London PR agency, sitting on the very lowest rung of the ladder, it was the towards the end of the 1980s. We had the very latest “Wang” word processors with these crazy “floppy discs” on which we could store documents electronically – a big step up from the mechanical typewriters with carbon paper and the old, messy, very “inky” mimograph machines we had. I was tired of having blue fingers all the time, so I had learned to touch type during my university career. At an old-fashioned Ivy League British university ‘reading’ (which is the British term for ‘majoring in’) history, I was teased by a lot of my fellow students when I took myself off to the local typing school in my spare time. I wanted a summer job (what is now called an internship) in PR and I thought ‘touch typing’ would be useful and that computers just might become important for my future career! Touch typing has been and continues to be a useful skill which still increases my productivity significantly!
When I talk to my Millennial and Gen Z employees, they are fascinated by how different it was for me starting out in “the old days”. Press releases were printed off on paper, with double line spacing to allow journalists to scribble notes in between the copy. They were packed into envelopes and, as we were based in central London with most of the main newspapers all located close by on Fleet Street, we sent these off with motorcycle couriers. I even remember being sent in a black London taxicab when the ‘bike boys’ were booked up to personally deliver really important documents or a client product for the newspaper or magazine to photograph for tomorrow’s edition. Less urgent press releases were mailed to arrive the next day by the Royal Mail, which was almost totally dependable back then. I believe a similar system worked on Madison Avenue in New York and other big cities. For urgent and time sensitive documents we relied on the new-fangled “fax machine” to share documents and images in real time. Although the idea of the fax machine had been invented over 100 years earlier by Scottish inventor Alexander Bain, it really had its business heyday in the 1980s.
We also used to talk to people a lot – that is, sit and have face to face discussions. We travelled to in person meetings on a daily basis. I also remember sometimes being glued to my old-fashioned telephone at my desk, taking and making calls to media contacts to broker stories or answer questions about upcoming articles. When mobile phones arrived, first as car phones, then as brick sized portable devices with terrible connectivity, we saw them as a mixed blessing. Sure, it was convenient to be able to get hold of people when we were not at our desk, but it also meant that there was no quiet time in the car or on the train. Once a big agency provided that as a “benefit”, we were expected to be available all the time – 24/7. This was a really novel concept back then.
Of course, the internet changed everything. At my first agency we had a huge library of reference books – both general and those related to our specific clients ranging from fashion to toys, X-rays to luggage, gastro-enterology to cosmetics, and more. There were also information services we could call on a “pay by the call” basis, not just for phone numbers but for all sorts of useful information, like old-fashioned Google. Email was first invented in the 1970s and exploded once the internet became widely available in the mid-1990s. While email has evolved from a purely text-based communications medium to one that supports written text, images and video, the underlying framework and use of digital messaging have largely remained the same. The introduction of the ‘Blackberry’, an early smartphone, made us even more productive in the early 2000s and now we seem to do half our work on our iPhones or Androids. In fact, I sometimes think the younger generation forget that it is possible to talk on these devices!
I always tell my team that while we should use technology as a really efficient tool, it is much more about the people, the message, and the mission. I love this quote by George Westerman, Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management: “When digital transformation is done right, it’s like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, but when done wrong, all you have is a really fast caterpillar!”
God Bless America!
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