Steve Rubel, a senior vice president at Edelman Digital, essentially asked in a recent blog post if PR is becoming obsolete.

He observes:

“Every day I am deluged with hundreds of PR pitches. They come from everywhere: startups, big companies, competing PR firms and, occasionally, from people inside Edelman where I work. I read all the emails but delete 99.99% of them. I don’t even respond. I feel bad about it, but they’re so off base I can’t even begin to tell you how bad they are.”

He notes that “increasingly, bloggers (and maybe journos too) simply don’t want our help. Many bloggers – particularly those who cover tech – love to discover new things and experience them on their own, unaided by PR.

He concludes that the PR industry must adapt. That includes giving up spam, “mak[ing] sure that companies and products are easy and a joy to discover” and “giving up control.

So does “self-discovery” rule and is PR broken, as TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington believes?

Frankly, I’d suggest that if one wants to argue that the business of PR is broken, the business of technology startups has to be partly to blame.

PR firms aren’t staffed by magicians. Good PR firms that are retained for media outreach usually do an excellent job helping their clients plot and execute a media strategy. Results cannot be guaranteed and reputable firms don’t make guarantees.

If a PR firm’s clients don’t have compelling stories to tell, there really isn’t much that a PR firm can do.

And herein lies the rub.

There is no shortage of technology “startups” with more funding than brains, whose management and investors believe that putting a PR firm on retainer is a smart move – regardless of whether or not they have developed the company to the point where there’s a real story to tell.

The lure of Silicon Valley dreams, coupled with the irrational exuberance of Web 2.0, have fueled the creation of “startups” that aren’t innovative and aren’t interesting. Inevitably some of these “startups” retain PR firms.

This, of course, is one of the primary causes of the plethora of “canned pitches” that Rubel and Arrington receive daily. It’s not that PR firms are doing a poor job reaching out; it’s that there are far too many “startups” that probably wouldn’t be of interest to Rubel and Arrington anyway that PR firms are tasked with trying to publicize.

When Rubel and Arrington fault PR firms, I believe that they’re ignoring Shakespeare’s advice, “Don’t shoot the messenger.”

The bottom line is that PR firms are little more than envoys for companies. While they may help their clients craft messages, when a client realistically has no message to send, the “assistant” shouldn’t be the recipient of the criticism.

Frankly, it seems that Rubel and Arrington should instead lament the fact that there are clearly far too many “startups” putting the cart before the horse.

I think it’s also important to note that technology isn’t the only market in which PR firms operate.

Thus, it’s worth considering that when technology people discuss the PR business, they’re discussing it from a narrow perspective.

When it comes to PR in the technology business, I do believe there is opportunity for evolution, but probably not the type of evolution that Rubel and Arrington have in mind.

In my opinion, good PR firms already exercise the following:

  • Client selectivity. While PR firms live and die by the retainer, I believe that a good PR firm doesn’t hesitate to tell a prospective client that doesn’t have a need for a PR firmwhen it is clearly not ready for one.

    After all, taking on a client that doesn’t have a story to tell almost necessitates the type of dart board approach that Rubel and Arrington complain about.

  • Media selectivity. Are bloggers really all that important? It depends and frankly, I believe many PR firms that invest time promoting their clients to bloggers are wasting their time (and their clients’ money).

    In my opinion, “startups” that think a review on a major blog like TechCrunch is likely to do them any good long-term can be described in two words – hopelessly naive. The best PR firms think strategically about who they reach out because they’re not focused only on achieving “hits” put achieving the righthits.”

    Good PR firms certainly recognize that emailing a “canned pitch” to every A-list blogger in the tech blogosphere is a less-than-worthwhile approach, not because the odds of the approach working are slim but because the real impact of publicity via these blogs is often questionable.

At the end of the day, while there are certainly PR firms that are less-than-competent (as with every industry), the business of PR isn’t really broken.

If anything, the business of startups is broken and Rubel and Arrington might want to consider that the adage “Garbage in, garbage out” applies to PR.

So long as naive entrepreneurs and investors believe that PR firms can work magic, Rubel and Arrington will continue to receive “canned pitches” from PR professionals doing the best they can to earn their retainers using the cruddy messages they are paid to deliver.