The public relations industry’s confidence problem

Steve Earl and I are well under way with our next book Brand Vandalism. The April copy deadline is within sight. This weekend thoughts turned to the future of the public relations industry and the value that it creates for organisations. My personal view is that it’s got a confidence problem.

If you have a point of view we’d love to hear it via a comment or Tweet. We’ll almost certainly quote you.

The public relations industry must cease being introspective and define its value to organisations as the reputational and relationship adviser. It must confidently assert its contribution to the broader economy if it is to earn the place that it deserves as a management discipline.

As organisations recognise the opportunity that new forms of media provide to engage directly with publics and the potential reputational hit if they don’t, the public relations industry has the opportunity to take the lead role in the communication between an organisation and its audiences.

Media change
It’s a work in progress as the shifts in media continue and it will more than likely take a generation to work through. In the meantime the debate about who owns social media is a distraction.

Markets may be started by conversation but ultimately they are created and nurtured through action. Public relations practitioners need to be brave and modernise if they want to grasp this opportunity.

My fear is that the public relations industry may let the opportunity slip by simply by being too introspective in its outlook.

There’s a turf war taking place between advertising, public relations and digital. I don’t use that term lightly, it is a war. The battles are taking place in pitches and the reorganisation of communication and marketing departments day-in day-out.

The new attention game
The battle lines are being drawn by media change and audience consumption and the positions that advertising, public relations and digital assert. In many instances the lines between the disciplines are blurring to the extent that it not possible to tell one from the other.

If a County Council posts an editorial news update in its Facebook newsfeed and then pays to promote it to ensure that all its follower see the message, is that advertising? If a retail brand works with a peer analytics firm such as Klout, Kred or PeerIndex to identify the key influencers in its niche and then pays the company to manage an influencer campaign on its behalf, is that public relations?

The threat to public relations taking the lead is its failure to adapt to new forms of media as quickly as other disciplines.

Missed opportunities
We’ve been here before. In 1998 a company called Google launched with the purpose of enabling Internet users to find the most relevant content online. Its vision of organising the world’s information and making it universally accessibly and useful has remained consistent for more than 14 years. The rest as they say is history.

Google created an opportunity for a new industry to help organisations create content and build relationships online. In 2011 that industry was worth $3billion in the UK (econsultancy, 2011) and $16 billion in the US (econsultancy, 2010). It’s called search engine optimisation and is a growing segment of the burgeoning digital industry.

The advertising industry isn’t backwards at coming forwards either. This week it used a public relations tactic to fire a shot across the marketing and communication industry that no one in the public or private sector could ignore.

The £100 billion question
The UK Advertising Association published an independent report by Deloitte this week that claimed that the advertising industry contributed £100 billion to the UK economy. That’s the sort of headline that makes government and business sit up and listen. In fact it’s the sort of headline that gets the attention of the UK Treasury.

Deloitte’s research is the start of a conversation for the advertising industry with a CEO in the public or private sector. The public relations industry simply doesn’t have the same weaponry.

The 2011 PR Week / PRCA Census concluded that the PR industry was worth £7.5 billion to the UK economy. Our advertising colleagues have outsmarted us by taking on the macro contribution of advertising to the economy rather than a micro view. It would be great to see a piece of third-party research on behalf of the public relations industry that made this broader connection.

Meeting Mark Borkowski
I had a conversation a couple of years ago with Mark Borkowski about the difference between the advertising and public relations industry and which was likely to win the attention of the boardroom as media fragmented. Exactly the same conversation is taking place every day in bars and restaurants across the world from Soho, London to Madison Avenue, New York.

Borkowski is a plain speaking practitioner that has built world-class agencies, advising leading brands, and so his opinion is always worth seeking out. His view is that the advertising industry simply has more swagger. Advertising executives wear better suits, present better and think bigger, he said.

It’s an issue of confidence but it’s also a matter of agility.

Value proposition
The advertising industry isn’t waiting for permission to become the adviser to brands as they seek to start and engage in conversations with their audiences. It has been quick to recognise how its strengths in planning, creativity and production can be used to in the new media environment. It also benefits from a business model that enables agile teams to be built based on skills to meet a client requirement.

The public relations industry for its part arguably has the most potent proposition for organisations. It has always worked in the editorial environment, listening and crafting a narrative to enable organisations to build their reputation by earning attention rather than buying it. But the industry needs to be brave enough to align its business model from the hierarchical structures of old to the new challenges that organisations face.

Instead the public relations industry gets hung up obsessing about inward focussed issues such as whether it is a profession and the issue of measurement.

The professionalism debate can only ever be addressed through action. If you want to make change take your own professional development seriously and sign-up to a continuous professional development scheme through a recognised professional organisation such as the UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR).

Measurement is being addressed thanks to the work of AMEC. The industry needs to get over the fact that Advertising Standard Equivalent (AVE) has been utterly discredited and thanks to the Valid Metrics Framework the industry is arguably in a stronger position than any other marketing discipline.

The debate about who owns social media is flawed. The future will be owned by the practitioners that define it. Personally, I’m working hard to ensure that it’s the public relations industry. As Borkowski might say, we need to find our swagger.

Thanks for stopping by. If you enjoyed this blog post you may like to receive future posts as they are published, via email. Please sign-up here.

Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.


  1. Spot on. It’s often said confidence is the product of experience. Which makes it very f^cking frustrating that public relations never seems to learn. We simply need to grow some.

  2. Whatever happened to the term Public Relations Counsel? Too often PR has been relegated to mere media relations and it offers so much more in terms of strategic thinking. Unfortunately many practitioners have allowed this to happen as it is the part that organisations understand best and value because they understand it; and we know people prefer stuff they understand, it feels safer. it is time to stop playing safe with PR.Communications is ever more integrated and a wise counsel who knows how to maximise an organisation’s relationships with its publics is the one that will survive. PR needs to grab the opportunity with both hands and remind the world how it (we) can provide counsel to organisations to mange their reputation and their relationships.

  3. I think this article hits the nail on the head in many areas. Particularly on the point about agility and how the debate about who owns social media is a distraction.

    Focus needs to be on the communication; it’s time for modernisation and for the bun-fight of ownership to stop, because there’s plenty to go around.

    I agree with your thoughts around professional development. I’ve been a CIPR member since 2006 and last year decided to enrol in the continuing professional development (CPD) scheme for the first time. It opened up a new world of learning to me and I’d encourage other comms pros to do the same. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Rachel

  4. Couldn’t agree more. Sadly, the battle between PR and advertising for the senior exec’s ear has been raging ever since I’ve been in the business – or rather, PR bemoans the fact that it doesn’t get a seat at the top table. Time to get over ourselves and just start doing it.

  5. It’s as much an identity crisis as a confidence crisis and I imagine the former leads to the latter.

    PR has the opportunity to be the glue in the modern digital marketing facet. See this post I crafted on the subject: http://www.planetcontent.co.uk/online-strategy-is-like-five-a-side-football

    I come across a lot of companies when I run training sessions that understand that things have changed and want to know how to change, but it’s often the clients that hold them back.

    Those of us who are already versed in the new world of digital should be able to win new business off the back of this.

  6. I changed my class having read this. Students say this insightful and refreshing post has made them think about the boundaries between advertising and comms.

  7. My dissertation is about how PR needs to manage its reputation and prove its value through measurement and possibly the VMM. I look forward to reading the future comments on this post!

  8. There will always be communications channels with high OTC but a blog with a relatively small readership can have more influence.

    The values based community, culture and institution will always have an advantage over mere reach.

    We now have a lot of research to confirm this is frequently right.

    OTS and reach are no longer the critical elements in evaluation that they once were. We have advanced beyond that.

    The significance of community is now much better understood.

    ‘Brief entries we write on Facebook are more memorable than the polished prose of writing professionals. And these online quips have more staying power with readers than do the faces of people we encounter on our daily rounds.’ http://lat.ms/XfnfS5.

    As in Facebook so too in other community based communication (just look at this blog and the above comments as an example).

    This brings us back to the whole issue of values.
    Shared values are more important.
    The Facebook research results reflect the human need to be part of a value based community.

    In evolutionary terms the human race knew that remembering what ‘my social group’ is saying is more important than almost anything else – it was a big contributor to survival.

    The part of public relations involved in community value development is, of course, worth many times larger than the economic effect of advertising. It is, among other things, the foundation of UK enterprise.

  9. A really interesting blog that captures well the current questions across the industry. I think from a personal point of view divergence is a hug issue. For me as an in house person with comms in my title it now goes far beyond just PR. I’m expected to understand and lead a much wider range of issues now than ever before.

    The role has changed immeasurably in the last 3 years for us & we need to be grasping & shaping those opportunities rather than getting hung up on some of the questions that seem to have been around for years.

    I like Mark’s point about advertising & that swagger which reminded me of some advice my mother gave me when I got my first job in London. When buying a suit think about the most expensive one you can afford, then double it.

  10. Stephen, you are spot on about how social media is changing the landscape in which public relations sits and the power we have shape our own destiny and influence business at the most senior levels. We now live in an age of Public Relationships, where Public Relations can, and must, come out from the shadows that it has often operated in in the past. But the past is something worth looking at a bit before we move on to shape our future.

    I started my career in marketing and advertising. We shouted about our campaigns, a good ad was something to celebrate and there was no shame in being seen to sell to the consumer. Advertising jingles were a part of my childhood, we’d chant them in the playground and some evening when we’re in the pub, I’d be happy to be challenged on my ability to sing on demand the major TV ads of the 1970s and 80s.

    But this happy nostalgia for and celebration of ad campaigns has a modern relevance. When I moved into public relations, one of the very first lessons I got was “never be the story”. In the last 50 years PR men and women built reputations and empires, by staying in the background, never complaining and never explaining. If the CEO didn’t want to know how you got them in or out of the FT, then that was fine. You were judged on your results (or a version of them that was essentially columnn inches or lack of them) not always on the planning activity you undertook and that activity was often unquestioned.

    And this has been a fundamental difference in how each of these professions is portrayed. It’s not just swagger and better suits, it’s about shop front verses back room. It’s about a history of NEVER being the story. We can’t be shocked when the rest of the business world has not adapted quickly enough to our change of approach in recent years. It’s time it did though as there is no doubt that times have changed.

    But, I do agree that something fundamental has changed. Organisations do not have the luxury of ‘hiding’ their public relations activity. The relationships they have are very public, happen in real time and are an ever increasing part of the bigger reputational picture for any organisation. These changes may have been facilitated by technology but they require a shift in culture: how organisations talk about their public relations activity, the recognition that when they engage with customers, shaholders, partners and employees that this is public relations and for PR practitioners, being prepared to embrace this new model as part of the job.

    So, I think confidence plays a large part but it’s also recognition that what we do has changed, is evolving constantly and can take place in ‘PUBLIC’.

    I agree that PR practitioners and the organisations that represent them can always do more to shout about the value of the profession and a study such as this could help that cause. Anything that shines a light on some of the great work that many of my public relations colleagues can only be a good thing.

  11. Never mind the suits, seem to recall we (and Steve Earl?) lost a pitch because of bad hair! While it may be an opportunity for PR, its a threat for advertising. If they have ten times the share of the budget now, they are not going to want to lose any to a PR agency, even if they do acknowledge that there are certain things that play better to our strengths. I do agree we need to grow some and change our (and clients) thinking that all roads lead to press coverage. Its happening in consumer but b2b is lagging.

  12. Good post Wadds…looking forward to the next book. I originally posted this on your FB page so am just catching up with the comments above too.

    Confidence isn’t lacking in many areas of the PR industry…thinking, curiosity and business accumen is though!

    There’s also a whole lot missing when it comes to other commercial areas….which in turn causes ignorance about the impact of poor communication.

    Without a baseline understanding of market forces, pricing, service, economics, law etc. how can PRs advise clients effectively?

    Those that read and learn can but the general population of get on and do-ers who don’t read or extract themselves from the pr world or question things – especially the crap practices laid down years before, can’t.

    The industry has too many (ex) do-ers at the top now…

  13. I actually think it’s less a confidence thing and more to do with people’s natural abilities. The majority of PRs are tacticians, not necessarily strategists. As such, they want to get on and do rather than look at the bigger picture. I also think the industry is a little arrogant. We know we have a reputation issue but still don’t do anything about it, despite the fact we could all be better off if we did. It’s like we know we add value but ultimately it’s everyone else’s loss because they don’t bother to find out how. Almost totally FUBAR!

  14. A thought provoking post. Here are some of my thoughts:

    The public relations industry should outwardly review online advertising as a perfect example of an industry using data to prove clients of ROI. Advertising campaigns use a mixture of cost methods to directly provide clients with sales and visits. Clients only pay for what they get – whereas PR tends to use fixed campaign costs.

    I love the PR industry but we are still obsessing over the fact we are now acting as media companies (EC=MC). Instead we need to review how our campaigns are structured, where money can be made and show how the agility of content creation easily beats the static nature of a media placement unit.

    PR has even more tracking tools than online advertising – we just need to use them.

  15. As requested (with spelling error corrected!) : I think the success of most PR departments is directly proportional to the value that is placed on it by a senior management team. Those that use it and see it as integrated and those that are used by it and do not.

  16. It’s interesting to consider why PR practitioners have less swagger than advertising colleagues. I think it is due partly to the nature of two way communication which always has a strong listening component and empathy at work; advertising has had a one-way communication with shouting and self regard more at work. Given that the future is multi-way communications, time for PR practitioners to continue listening with empathy but add strong self-regard and awareness of their crucial role in shaping the future of brands and reputations through ongoing conversations.

  17. Nice post Stephen. I think there are two things that stand out for me – advertising is seen to have a product [the ad] whereas PR’s product is, too often, relationships. How PR is perceived depends on the results that the relationship delivers – and because the interviews are done by senior executives the role of the PR is marginalized.

    I also think that agencies all too often rely on the press release/media relations process [perhaps a way to justify hours]. This needs rethinking.

    I work with entrepreneurs/startups and increasingly journalists want to talk with them, rather than the PR. I think this will become an increasing trend in the next few years and the PR industry must rethink their ‘product’ and the way they cost it. If they don’t they may become irrelevant.

    Thanks for starting this discussion – look forward to reading others comments on the piece also.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *