This PR Century

in P.R. & Corporate Communications

Where the marketing industry is concerned, the 21st century will be remembered as the era of PR.

A few people have asked recently where I see strength and/or growth potential in the marketing industry to which I almost always reply “That’s easy, it’s definitely PR”. And yes I use the term ‘PR’.

I put this to anyone in advertising: If “Social Media” was labelled “Public Media”, would your thoughts about the term Public Relations and what the industry has to offer be any different?

Also, what are your thoughts on the type of marketing expert you should call on if this happened to one of your clients? Or should I say ‘when’ this happens to one of your clients.

What ‘era’ is that you say?
As we’re all (hopefully) aware of by now, this is the era of story-telling, the era of customer-generated angles, insights, and consequences, as well as an era in which both the individual and the group expect education and openness to dominate proceedings.

PR people have of course been accustomed to handling this kind of reality, academically and strategically as well as operationally, for decades.

Nowadays, the customer/consumer is not only in the centre, they are in charge. Media and touch-points are not only convoluted, they can be downright deceptive.  Further, the once clearly delineated borders between “Advertising”, “Marketing”, and “P.R.” are now officially blurred and porous, if not invisible.

But this discombobulatory ambivalence needn’t keep the consummate PR professional up all night, as s/he is of course at home with grasping complex communications networks holistically more than everyone else in the game.

But haven’t you heard the latest, PR “spin” is dead!
Beware of anyone telling you “spin is dead”, for that is simply spin itself! To say that spin is dead is to say that PR is dead, which is the furtherest thing from a true statement in this industry.

Spin is not dead and in fact it’s never been more important a tool. Perhaps spin is no longer exclusive to the traditional press conference culture, and is taking on slightly different guises in the modern mix, but “spin” per se cannot, and will not, be going anywhere. Certainly not during an era in which public/social perception carries so much clout and capricious sway, and in which (actual two-way) interactivity is becoming ubiquitous.

While it could be argued that a slight adjustment of strategic focus is needed by the PR agency or in-house PR/CorpComms team of today, nothing good will come out of trying to shake off the term “PR”, or diluting the way that any of PR’s foundational principles are promoted. Doing so will only undermine several key points of differentiation that the PR spectrum rightly owns, in my view.

What’s happened recently is that a couple of new players have moved in on the planning, strategy, and experiential / activation parts of PR, and seemingly (and naturally) some people in the PR industry don’t want to be perceived as having ‘missed the boat’.

However it’s surely wiser to hold fort on the name as opposed to watering down perceptions with a name change to “Communications” etc, as it was PR that pioneered (and remains the best in) areas such as (but not limited to) behaviour and impression management, brand messaging, corporate identity, contents management etc  (and can keep watch on the media and associated relationships simultaneously!), all of which the ‘new-age’ comms planning outfits will never be able to offer, at least not with the necessary focus on compliance, risk management and corporate savvy client service. If anything PR should eventually swallow up or merge comms planning shops into their own agency, or in-house team.

What is at present a perception error being made by the masses about PR can easily be corrected through education and awareness. But re-naming as “Communications”? Why?!

In terms of re-naming PR it would probably be best to run with something like “PB”, ie “Public Branding”, as the model and strengths of the two disciplines of ‘PR’ and ‘Branding’ are so similar there would be more sense lumping them together without concern for diluting the image of either niche.

Although it would be nice and fancy for PR to be seen “evolving” at high speed by re-defining its name, the fact is any dilution away from the uniqueness, magic, art, science or style of original good old media-slogging PR in response to a brief ‘quasi-boom’ of others simply catching up, is in my view detrimental to PR’s rise to uppermost glory, which it will surely rise to by the end of this decade.

When you’ve already got the best game in town there’s no need to change.

What’s going on in fancy modern-day progressive yet conservatively brilliant PR agencies or in-house PR teams?
Some PR agencies now have specialist Creative Directors in their ranks, several PR firms/teams are now sporting some of the most cutting-edge integrated Digital Strategists around, and some are even taking on specialist advertising Strategic Planners.

Great PR agencies are continuing to do what they have always done brilliantly; education, networking and proper community management; tactical public relations and brand messaging / control / development; and of course spin, message manipulation, media relations, advocacy, risk/crisis management, and experiential marketing.

For decades PR people have been boxing clever with the semi-soft hooks and jabs of their sweet-and-sour science, including such wonderful, fuzzily-defined concepts as sentiment, brand presencesway, emotional capital, mind share, etc., all of which are now the order of the day.

What does “PR” have that “Marketing” and “Advertising” don’t?
Experienced PR exponents (and to some extent Branding exponents) hold key assets in the increasingly vital areas of contents (and ‘messaging’), and compliance.

Contents
Once the greater herd comes to terms with the fact that digital media is essentially just that -another form of media- they’ll be looking around more seriously for trustworthy, gifted professional writers and messaging champions to strategise, create, continually monitor, and re-strategise their company and/or brand’s contents in eclectic interactions with the world and all its communities.

Only PR is properly equipped with the right foundation for long-term success amidst the ongoing contents boom that is set to continue indefinitely.

Every now and then these days we have some self-proclaimed genius tell us all from a great height that content is king, as if it’s partly their own revelation. That alone would be fine, but often we have to also tolerate these writers sledging PR in the same article, or at the very least downright ignoring PR altogether, as if it were a side dish in the marketing mix that does nothing else aside from churn out press releases.

If we consider “What will matter most once all the social media hype has subsided?” the answer is long-term holistically managed and properly controlled brand-related content.

A company’s branded contents and its capacity to educate and follow-up on issues and complex social machinations shouldn’t be left to non-PR people, nor should it be left entirely up to any in-house PR or any marketing team.

Any time a company or brand is not where it wants to be, the missing ingredient/solution is almost always connected directly to one or more of the base principles of PR. This is true regardless of what era or boom we are in. And the guidance, direction and execution of contents should have a senior PR exponent in charge – someone with at least 20 years experience, or somewhere around the PR Peak which is around 40 years experience.

Compliance
Now more than ever, social engagement does indeed have it’s weak points. Channels such as Facebook can become a company/brand’s worst nightmare in a matter of minutes at any point in time.

Advertisers need to ask themselves which service providers in the market are most compliant and knowledgeable of the laws, risks, and compliance issues that cut across the public domain and all its complexities, cultural and psychosocial idiosyncrasies? Good PR firms (and to some extent good business consulting outfits) hold the most important majority of these playing cards, have been holding them since day dot, and in the case of PR firms have refined them to suit present and emerging climates.

One rule of hiring when it comes to PR is this – You DO NOT need to worry about a very senior PR person not being ‘with the times’. PR is with the times at all times, that is what PR is. A 60 year-old PR leader is up with it because they have needed to be their whole career. Very different to almost all other industries and marketing disciplines where it is often the case that younger is better. In PR, older is almost always much, much, much better.

Crisis management and risk management are foreign to the non-PR disciplines, and in my view it’s worth eating a nice big piece of humble pie, treating PR with a whole lot more respect, and get to know the marvellous ways in which they apply their fantastically beautiful craft.

Or you could wait until you get hung out to dry by the public and irreparable damage is done. These days crisis and sharp downturns in perception and sway are inevitable, and they are possible at any moment.

Where do you see PR weak or needing improvement?
In a word, Research. Both as a vertical industry and in-house endeavour PR teams are too weak, unenthusiastic, or poorly endowed in insights and metrics capabilities. The pointy end of strategy.

At the same time it should be acknowledged that PR firms are not devoid of research/data capabilities – in fact they are known in some cases as veritable storehouses of statistics and archived trend and sentiment. They’re just neither analytical nor prediction-oriented enough as is required (in terms of R.O.I. proof) in this day and age, I think some would agree.

PR will have to draw on more cross-media and market potential analysis tools for their clients, whilst maintaining secrecy etc of course.

In my view the best immediate solution for a PR agency lacking in the insights offering is to hire an advertising industry Strategic Planners as a Business Development Director.

Of course the best long-term option is to build a mini-research team within the agency and/or gobble up a small research house, but as a lead in to this and in order to ensure the best internal cultural tone is set from the start, the good old ‘Stratty’ is the key I think. They are professional, appropriately conservative, humble and flexible, and they bring creative elements that will also contribute to the quest for hearts, minds, and dollars.

One other point would be that PR needs to invest in more expensive talent, engender nothing but the most top quality of standards, and push through some higher charges for its services as the offering and deliverables progress to critical mass.

The very real threat that Advertising and Marketing feel by the presence of the PR industry will become all too impossible to handle if PR becomes the best at insights. At worst it will force the cross-pollination of the three disciplines sooner rather than later, which would be great.

Personally I would love to see the PR and Market Research industries combine as one. It would make for better quality everything, and PR would rightly be where it deserves to be. Nearer the top of the food chain.

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{ 2 comments }

Libby

Yes! Go PR!!

Though “comms” is my preference as a label mainly because clients can understand form the beginning that non-traditional PR solutions as stand-alone projects can be performed.

Simmo

pr agencies have the media side offering which others cant replicate, agreed, however im yet to see or hear of anyone from the pr box plan comms as well as the marketers ive seen do it. nowhere near as well.

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