For an industry that excels in repositioning, our PR industry looks spookily similar to what it did 10 years ago.
Brands are still mostly buying traditional publicity campaigns from PR agencies (albeit with more online media titles).
In many ways the GFC averted an identity crisis for the PR industry. Despite watershed changes to the mediascape, clients have preferred ‘safe,’ devil-you-know campaigns and services with tangible results and hardcore reporting.
In this environment innovative PR offerings like social campaigns are treated as a mere value-add – linked to delivering short-term marketing metrics rather than exploring broader brand building outcomes.
The good news is PR agencies didn’t over-invest in innovation during a time when clients weren’t prepared to pay for it. The bad news is that other players in the communications sector did and are now poised to reap the rewards.
Entire industry sectors have sprung up around digital communication offerings and social media channels are working directly with brands. Advertising and creative agencies are also starting to focus more attention on influence and below-the-line dollars.
What unique territory can PR occupy in this evolving communications world? And will the market pay for it?
Here are four factors I believe will help shape the future success for PR:
1. PR people get news value – and news continues to drive the consumption of a significant percentage of online content. Whether former journalists, frustrated journalists, or pros who’ve had the concept of what makes news beaten into them by unresponsive media, PR people understand the subtleties of the news environment and the best of them have a strong instinct for news values and news creation.
The appetite for news will never disappear – whatever physical form it takes. And there will always be a place for news brokers – where news agendas can be balanced against the views and interests of corporates, causes and individuals.
PR pros of the future will continue to be content creators in earned media environments, where the story value takes central place in any negotiation.
2. PR provides the best integrated offering with social media – PR and social media dwell comfortably together. The drivers are similar and both are focused around news, information and entertainment with results best gained via an ‘earned’ position rather than a paid one. When these two disciplines work together and work strategically, the results are significantly amplified. Where marketing and broader corporate agendas can often be at odds, effective PR people know how to drive promotion and manage company reputation and issues seamlessly as part of the same campaign.
3. We can dwell in ambiguity: The world of PR is, by nature, a murky one, which can involve endless pivoting and repositioning. Historically, PR people have been dismissed as superficial or masters of spin. In today’s frenetic decision making environment, where there are more questions than answers, providing an agile communication service that can respond to corporate issues in real-time is a highly prized skill.
4. … and still keep our feet on the ground: The inability to pin down a PR brief or contain PR activities to one box kept it free of reporting scrutiny for decades.
However, the GFC and the advent of social media has created an environment where PR in all its forms is now subject to robust KPI reporting – with a much clearer contribution to marketing and company objectives.
As a result, clients now get the best of both worlds – a flexible communication service with measurable outcomes against KPIs.
The Australian PR industry is mostly represented by independent or boutique PR operators – with a handful of bigger Australian brands and multinationals. Some are claiming that the future of PR is to align with or sell out to bigger advertising or creative agency brands, creating a one-stop-shop. However, whilst this may be a fiscally smart move, PR is a specialist field that has much to gain from the emerging communications environment.
We should never compromise or dilute our strengths.
The answer is not to blend in, but to stand firm in our areas of specialisation. The market needs that offering.
Fleur Brown is CEO of Launch Group.
To read more about the state of PR, see the current issue of B&T magazine, out this week, which includes a main feature dedicated to the sector.