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It’s High Time the PR Industry Stopped Harking Back to “The Good Old Days"

Michelle Hatcher

Written by Spreckley Partners Director Michelle Hatcher.

The world has changed. Yet as we re-emerge, blinking into the light, PRs alike will be, at some point, taking a step back and wondering how the Public Relations industry has changed, and more importantly, will it ever change back to the way it was? 

There have been some good points over the last two years. As human beings, we have all taken a good look at our lives in the cold light of lockdowns. We've looked at the planet, and for most, we realised that some elements of our world needed to change dramatically. For PR, it hasn't been any different. We have analysed and reflected; what we are doing, why we are here and are we providing the right audience with the right message? 

Of course, one of the good things is that we have disposed of the Monday to Friday 9-5 and the endless commute. We no longer sit in steady traffic streams, listening to breakfast radio shows hosted by overly cheerful disc jockeys. No, we enjoy the commute to the desk, whereever it may be, plug into a thought-provoking podcast, and ease ourselves into the day. The significant benefit is that we have gained strength as a team, even where hybrid working has become the norm. Work is more productive, sleeker, and faster. 

As PR professionals, many of us have finely tuned our skills. We are probably reading more than we used to. We are digesting the news over more time during our morning routines. I, for one, am glued to my BBC News app before I have even gotten out of bed, memorising the front pages, checking out new angles and thought leadership tactics before contemplating the bathroom. 

As PRs, we are in better shape than ever

The rigours of pandemic life, if anything, have only served to make us more self-aware, more dynamic, sharper, wiser, more crafty, and more cunning than ever. Why? Because many of us took to our bookshelves and re-thumbed through some old classics over the last two years (Thank you, Mark Joyner and the insightful “The Irresistible Offer”). 

Not only did we rediscover the wisdom of the past, but new authors and thinkers started to emerge (thank you, also, Sandra Coffey, for giving us “Breaking Into The Media”). Zoom saw worldwide conferences shift online. London Fashion Week 2021, for example, was 100% online: who could possibly have imagined this happening two or three years ago? And thoughts have been collected by every PR and Publicist known to man, posted, and debated. 

We also restructured our timetables and gave way to a sharper form of working, a more productive storytelling system. Not only have we turned Hans Christian Anderson into last year's model, but we have even started educating our audiences about our newfound reframe.

We still have a love-hate relationship with social media

The former media editor for The Times, Raymond Snoddy, penned the rather splendid book, “Anti-Social Media?” which took a long hard reality check of the relationship between journalism and the way it breathes (or is often strangled) in the world today. For me, I love social media (when it's working), but then again, I can sometimes loathe it. 

In the world of PR, there is no getting away from it. We shout out messages in posts of visuals with witty text. We strategically develop ways to reach audiences, often taking some stick if we've got it wrong. It can be hit and miss. She is a tough woman, is our social media. She takes no prisoners. 

I recall an article at the beginning of 2021 which talked about the growing rise of AI in public relations and how bots will (and do already) dissect the quiet reading habits and behaviour of target audiences to ensure that a press release will have all the right subliminal messages embedded in the text (not to mention the same messages targeting the values of the journo it is pitching to.) It was a wake-up call for most of us hardened PRs who have been around since the days of daily rolling about on the floor amongst sprawled out newspapers of the morning. 

We have swapped press launches for loungewear

At the beginning of 2020, my wardrobe was stuffed with M&S suit jackets, mix-and-match uncomfortable blouses, equally uncomfortable heels, and matching handbags. Now, I have a selection of jumpers, jeans, and heels collecting dust. In 2022, as we embark on a full year of hybrid working, I find myself loading my local dry cleaners up with my now out-of-fashion suits, dusting off heels, and buying more handbags. 

Yet the comfy side of life is something that I do struggle with. Is it guilt that I conduct a meeting in fluffy My Little Pony slippers? Are these habits that will somehow find themselves peeking into my working life as I venture back into the office?

Heaven forbid I find myself on the tube one morning hurtling along the Circle Line only to find myself with teeth not brushed and the faint aroma of bacon about me. 

Values have changed, so the message changed

Now here's the thing. When is an audience not an audience? When it's not addressed or not listening. The target market we once aired a message to now has different values. Some things are less important than they once were. In 2022, we find businesses focusing more on their workforce than their financial goals and in turn, blurring the divide in the workplace to 'we' as opposed to 'them' and 'us'. In PR, we have had to re-evaluate our conversation, change our messaging, or change the language for a more significant, more impactful response. 

Talking to your target audience was relatively straightforward in the past. If you were a plumber by trade, you spoke to people who were currently standing in three inches of water in their kitchens. If you were a hairdresser, you could guarantee your target market was people who couldn't see you without hair grips. 

Yet now, while our target market is also hybrid working, exchanging suits for part-time use and the gym for commuting, it means that they have changed the way they live, think, behave, and work. Which means we have to rewrite the book. Literally. 

The values of 24 months ago won't necessarily be high on the agenda now. Millions have had to switch careers either deliberately or otherwise. Audiences have taken on roles they never thought they would do or want to do. They have ditched motoring as much and the way they take a holiday. What your audience loved about your client once might be the other way around now. We've seen clients have to shift their language, their tone of voice, everything. Out with the old and in with the new.

Hone your ‘working friendships’ and you will thrive

When I first moved into Public Relations many years ago, my work was my love: the theatre, the arts, and festivals. I lived for the expos, the hyped-up trade events, the home shows, the rock concerts, the county shows. My world was flea markets. Even the word 'pitches' stood for stalls first, and press releases second. 

I traded around the glossies, organised photoshoots, and ushered a trail of make-up artists and wardrobe stylists. I hired out mansions for days on end and huddled in freezing landscaped gardens attempting to keep expensive lighting equipment dry under giant golfing umbrellas. 

A few years before the pandemic, my career took another path into wealth management and finance and quickly into B2B technology. The key to PR for any agency has been and continues to be adaptability. The world relies on us to make sure the bridges between client and press are still firmly in place. Our job is to look after these two precious commodities, build on our relationships and work together within what we call a working friendship. It is where the best agencies among us will thrive in 2022. 

We keep the wheels of industry moving with our stories, love of words, and love of what we do to enrich the world with feeling, inspiration, wit, and a hefty dose of engagement. Why? Because the world needs us to find truths, showcase the brilliant, turn on the lights, brush up the tea chest, tap the mic, and turn the everyday into the dazzling. 

And if it means we go back to slippers and Minnie Mouse trackies because of a yet another new Covid variant or an as-yet-unforeseen new restriction to our lives, then so be it. We'll keep doing whatever it takes.