First of all, let’s clarify one thing: Public relations professionals do no rip people’s heads off: they educate, train and explain. No ripping…and rarely any other acts of violence. No, we are an image-conscious group and we’re trained to stay calm during a crisis. The only thing that might make us come unglued is to ask us if we can get you on Oprah.

Wondering why I need to make that clarification? It all started when my twitter-friend Steve Farnsworth posted the following:

Are Traditional PR Firms Stuck on Stupid? from Zachary Cohen’s blog on Twitter.

I don’t read every Twitter post, but Steveology is interesting to follow and I like that he spends time sharing relevant social media-related articles or sometimes articles like the one Zach wrote, titled PR Firms: Zombie Wasteland. It was the word “stupid” from Steve’s post that caught my eye because I find that to be one of the most offensive words in the English language. Steve usually doesn’t post sensationalized hype, so I took the bait, even though I generally believe that when we resort to calling names, it usually means we have run out of valid points.

Having speed-read the article I quickly ascertained that Mr. Cohen was wrong (which he almost admitting at the end because he summarized with:

Am I way off the reservation here? Let me know…totally expecting to get my head ripped off on some of my claims…so have at it!)

And I fluttered back to Twitter and posted this response:

@Steveology I’m 2 much of a lady to rip his…, but Mr. @Zacharycohen seems to think there are college grads & dinosaurs… nothin’ between?

That’s the background. What transpired next was Steve fueling the flames of the great PR/Social Media debate, Zach suggesting I wasn’t up to the challenge and me telling him to “bring it” (and anyone who knows me can validate this) because I will never, ever, ever, infinity [credit Paul Giamatti / Big Fat Liar] back down from a PR challenge. I can say no to just about any dare, but a PR challenge – no way! You’re all just lucky that this time, there’s no Patron Silver involved, but, that’s another story for another blog.

Before I continue, let me just say I fully respect and appreciate Zach as a person. He seems like a cool guy – he lives in New York, so he must be much cooler than me. Zach wrote a thoughtful piece, took the time to put it all together and had the guts to post it for the world to see. That, I respect. He has more nerve than most people for even doing that much. Zach has responded in a friendly manner and he’s taken all of this in stride. By the end of the week, we’ll probably be BFFs. But I wouldn’t hire him to do my social media.

I actually feel a little sorry for him. He wrote to me and said:

well in my defense I did quote an article that talked about the nuance so I wouldn’t have to.

No need to defend yourself. Everyone is entitled to being wrong once in a while. It even happens to me occasionally. (Just kidding, I am often wrong. Don’t tell anyone!)

Ok, so here is my first issue with the article, which isn’t even in the article. It’s Zach’s bio where it said he was a TV writer. It has since changed to include the following:

Zachary Adam Cohen helps restaurants and other businesses in the hospitality industry navigate the currents of social media.

He started his company in September of this year. (Yes, 2009) He worked in the financial industry and with NYMEX, “the largest energy commodities exchange in the world.” He studied Creative Writing, English Literature and Art History in school. Social media is the new love of his life.

This is all great, except nowhere in his bio does he include marketing, communications, or public relations experience. There isn’t even anything close. He just got into social media this year, so his experience there is limited. None of this would bother me, except that Mr. Cohen seems to feel he is qualified to make observations or recommendations regarding the use of public relations firms.

It’s this new brand of social media expert that is giving social media a bad name!

Social media is getting a bad wrap from everywhere from Business Week on down the food chain. Even social media people are calling “social media experts” touting expertise into question. Check out Dan Schawbel’s blog on why this calling yourself a social media expert is a bad idea.

My point is this: there are legions of people who believe social media and PR are either one and the same or interchangeable. New social media experts jumping into the fray are only muddying the waters. (Nice use of clichés – no?) The truth is, social media is a tactic that is part of a company’s broader PR/communications/marketing strategy. You can’t just do social media as a one-time event. It has to be part of the communications portfolio.

And that communications portfolio needs to be guided by experienced professionals that are trained and experienced in communications. [See my previous post on what PR do] In Business Week, Stephen Baker actually calls out self-proclaimed social media experts as “snake oil salesmen.” And I tend to agree with him. Anyone can throw up a poorly written bio, proclaim they are an expert / consultant and find some low-tech business person to buy it. But most of these people do not have any experience grounded in communications and therefore will fall short in many ways.

Unfortunately, there are enough of these new media types to make large numbers of people wonder if PR is dead or dying.

Zach asked: Who should run your PR these days? Traditional agencies or digital shops?

Short answer: A public relations professional should run your PR.

Just like a brain surgeon should operate on your brain, and a massage therapist should rub away the stresses of the day, and a dog trainer should train your dog. Experience and results lead to expertise, not fast fingers and a witty Twitter profile.

Since Zach has posed this “important question” to the masses, I have to wonder if there are people actually asking it. I do not think so. Large companies are investing huge budgets in communication programs with a heavy emphasis on social media, but they are not sitting around wondering if they should go with a large firm that has decades of experience or the self-proclaimed expert who just hung his first shingle. Most companies are using their traditional firms to move forward with social media initiatives or combining partners to ensure PR & social media are working together.

But, regardless of who is or is not asking the question, I will humor Zach, just this once, and follow his thinking on this.

Zach says “mobile agencies are far ahead of their traditional counterparts.” That is certainly debatable. He quotes an article from eConsultancy on why, according to Forrester, Traditional Agencies Can’t do Digital. But, Sean Corcoran, Forrester analyst and the report’s author is quoted at the end of the article saying this: You’ll see some interactive guys take over and some traditional agencies hold the fort:” so here is an expert saying the playing field will be level, with some traditional and some digital shops leading social networking initiatives. That makes sense to me and I believe client competition will be fierce as traditional agencies flex to embrace social media, but it is not because traditional agencies are “stuck on stupid,” as Zach writes.

I find that Zach’s understanding of the PR process underdeveloped. His overview:

Get magazines and newspapers to cover your brand, advertise with them, and bang for your buck will follow.

Um…actually, no. That’s not how it works. First of all, a lot happens before getting “magazines and newspapers to cover your brand.” When I was an intern in my twenties, way back when, at Jane Ayer Public Relations in Santa Monica, I had a better understanding of PR. Right here, Mr. Cohen shows us that he is in no way capable of giving advice on public relations issues (and this debate is a moot point, so remind me why I am writing this.)

PR people do not rely on paid advertising to gain coverage for their clients. That’s the job of marketing professionals who generally work closely with PR, but advertising is not PR.

Zach’s blog post ascertains three points, and frankly, all three are wrong.

1. Traditional Agencies are “Stuck on Stupid”

2. New Agencies Inculcate a Culture of Experimentation

3. Traditional PR Firms Can’t Catch Up

I do, however, like the word “inculcate”. That’s fun to say: Inculcate: it sort of rolls around your mouth. Anyway…

Zach suggests that “new agencies inculcate a culture of experimentation.” He says “PR agencies fear nothing more than bad PR.” No, there may be one thing they may fear more and that’s people outside the industry with minuscule experience pontificating about their demise, but even that wouldn’t rattle most PR pros. (And I think there was a typo in his post, or maybe he changed his mind while writing, but I am going with the typo, because otherwise, the whole post makes no sense and I am debating a mad man.)

Traditional agencies are leaders in creating a culture of experimentation, creativity, engagement, listening, and dialog. That philosophy was not born yesterday and does not belong only to new or digital agencies.

Traditional public relations agencies don’t need to catch up because they are at the head of the race! Once you are in the lead, there is no one to catch up to.

Traditional PR firms are doing a great job managing what is going on in social media and most of what is going on are due to experienced leaders within the PR industry having the foresight to get what is happening, responding quickly and move their clients forward. I think Zach is suggesting that those who jump onto the social media bandwagon from somewhere else have a greater chance of success than those who have been doing the communications planning (and getting paid for it) that has lead to the growth of social media.

For anyone out there that believes that a three-month crash course in social media creates a solid foundation, or somehow puts digital agencies ahead of traditional, I have a very well built bridge in Brooklyn I think you might be interested in purchasing.

And somewhere, on the other side of that bridge, is Zach, waiting for the PR industry to “catch up” to social media.