The public relations industry’s confidence problem

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.

Introspective 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.

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