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Alex Cook's Reginald Watts Prize entry

“Public relations today is horrible. Any dope, any nitwit, any idiot can call him or herself a public relations practitioner.” Edward Bernays, 1991. Is he right?

I cannot vouch for the state of the Public Relations industry in 1991, but there is certainly a measure of truth in this statement for today’s industry.

Growth in the PR industry was a healthy 7% over the last financial year, but with the private sector growing above-trend since the Global Financial Crisis and interest rates at historically low levels, operating conditions have been particularly benign and potentially flattering for agencies.  This could be masking some fundamental problems with the PR industry and propping up mediocre performers for as long as the good times roll.

There are problems with today’s PR industry, but for proactive, open-minded practitioners, there are plenty of opportunities for PR to continually evolve, develop and prove that it is better than the sum of its weakest links.

Today’s problems

There are growing external pressures on the industry stemming from the demise of traditional print media. PR professionals outnumber journalists in the UK[1], and in the US, the ratio is estimated at nearly 5:1 according to national census data. The rise of the ‘citizen journalist’ (individuals sharing news and feature content in real-time) has led to decreasing revenues for PRs from ‘earned’ coverage.

Traditional PR agencies have been slow to identify new opportunities beyond traditional media, hence the rise of companies solely dedicated to influencer marketing, digital marketing and/or video marketing. Press releases are not tailored enough for journalists and provide little value to them, while many PRs and their corporate clients see little value in looking beyond traditional media.

On top of this, PR is the biggest culprit of the whole marketing mix for failing to provide a measure of return on investment. While third party endorsements provide more authority than inbound marketing, they are much harder to measure, with success stories likely to be largely anecdotal. Column inches and advertising value equivalency are useful metrics but do not provide accurate information on leads generated and revenue derived from activity, which makes it difficult for companies to determine PR’s value.

PR companies will therefore have to become more agile. Just asworkers in the gig economy may take on multiple projects and tasks without ever having a full-time permanent contract, PR agencies will have to adapt to the slow demise of the retainer/’Agency of Record’ style contract and be willing to bid on individual projects on a case-by-case basis, as part of a more streamlined, proactive industry process.

Tomorrow’s solutions

In 2017, good PR practice comes not from the agency but from the client; the value of an agency is in acting as the ‘enabler’ to show the company the value of good communication practice. Reputation is becoming such a crucial issue in the context of the increased transparency provided by social media and the 24-hour news cycle that PR now has to help inform how a business is run, not just act as go-between between corporate and public. To survive and thrive, PR may well have to follow the path of management consultancy in this respect by acting as trusted adviser to consult on best practice.

This means that a good PR agency has to be able to change the culture of communications internally, demonstrating its value through concrete actions. Journalists are wary of PRs, so it is imperative that PRs drive ‘buy-in’ for good corporate communications culture throughout the client’s business. Companies need to understand that the external perception of their company trumps reality, rather than viewing communications through the lens of selling their story for exposure. When a company understands that, it has a transformative effect and provides the opportunity to change attitudes and processes internally.

To fully establish themselves in the role of trusted advisor to the business, PRs needs to harness the technological revolution. In the case of B2C, Virtual Reality will allow visualisation of the customer’s journey and provide exciting new PR experiences as consumers ‘try before they buy’ by immersing themselves in the environment of a business service or product. Machine learning-driven Artificial Intelligence is now capable of identifying brands’ logos on social media, allowing greater tracking of reach, engagement and ultimately, ROI.[2]

It is natural then, that skill at the multi-channelled dissemination and monitoring of information is now ranked as the most important skill for PR practitioners[3]. The convergence of PR and marketing has meant practitioners will have to marry creative thinking with a newfound-appreciation of data. The way Trump leveraged Cambridge Analytica’s big data with a hyper-targeted messaging strategy offers an insight into how PR can utilise technology to tailor communications in future.

Bringing this all together

With more voices than ever out there, it’s becoming harder to tell your client’s story.  Anyone can tell a story, but ‘the dopes, the nitwits and the idiots’ will have their lower quality stories drowned out by the sheer volume of noise, while the efficient operators will leverage new technology and big data to gain mass exposure for their clients.

Public Relations as an industry is not horrible, it just needs to find its way amid the increasing pressures imposed on it externally. Anyone can send out a well-written press release developed by a senior, and while an appreciation of the tactical is certainly important, to be an outstanding PR practitioner, professionals need to have the 360 degree view to understand why what they are doing is strategically important and the circumstances that provides the context for their actions.

The 21st century has all the potential to be a very exciting time for the PR profession. Digital tools provide the opportunity to bring clients closer to their various stakeholders, incorporating influencers, employees and consumers in positively driving a brand’s reputation (if directed in the right way). The developments of emerging trends like Big Data and Virtual Reality also provide scope for ground-breaking new initiatives, which can ensure PR not only stays relevant but continues to establish itself as a business-critical practice undertaken by creative, strategic, competent practitioners.

[1] PRCA Census, 2016

2  Salesforce AI helps brands track images on social media, Tech Crunch, 2017

[3] The Future of Public Relations: Trends, Skills, PR vs. Marketing, Marketing Profs, 2017