There's never been such a good time to work in public relations

There's never been such a good time to work in public relations


This is a speech that I’ve delivered in various guises to CIPR groups around the UK, most recently at a meeting with the CIPR North West group tonight at the Co-operative Group's headquarters in Manchester. I'd welcome your feedback and comment.

Future of public relations

Thank you for your invitation to speak this evening. It’s thanks to the hard work and commitment of volunteers such as the team here in the North West that the CIPR exists.

Ellen-style #selfie with CIPR North West team


I want to tell you my personal story about the CIPR, where I see the business of public relations going, and how I think that fits with the future of the CIPR.

My involvement in the CIPR started with the CIPR Social Media Panel in 2011, then the Council and most recently the Board.

Along the way I’ve written and spoken about the challenges that we face engaging with audiences, or publics, in a two-way relationship via all forms of media and improving the reputation of the industry via professional development.

Last March I shared a series of pledges that I thought that the CIPR needed to address in order to modernise and support practitioners as our business changes.

You voted for me as President and here I am and now those pledges have become a plan. And we’re cracking on with delivering it.

The CIPR's vision and purpose

My view is that the CIPR needs to get back to basics. Its vision and purpose is outlined in the Royal Charter that it received from the Privy Council in 2005 [PDF]. You can look it up for yourself online.

Our purpose is to promote the highest level of professionalism in public relations through skills, knowledge, and research. We exist to serve the public interest and advance the expertise of our members.

In my view, best practice in public relations is about skills, not just experience. Media fragmentation and the increasing recognition of the value of reputation in boardrooms is an awakening for the public relations industry.

The CIPR's recent State of the Profession report revealed just under half (46%) of practitioners brief board members and senior staff, while a third (35%) contribute to organisational strategy.

I firmly believe that we’re at an inflection point in the profession.

Public relations is no longer defined by media relations. It shouldn’t ever have been. It’s a strategic management discipline focused on building reputation by promoting mutual understanding. I tell anyone that will listen that there has never been a more exciting time to work in our business.

To support that case I want to talk through some of the areas that I see as critical from the CIPR State of the Profession, the PRCA 2013 PR Census, the recent report from the European Communication Professional Skills and Innovation Programme and my own work at Ketchum.

#1 Workflow

Despite almost 20 years of new forms of media, communities, and the emergence of new influencers alongside journalists, public relations remains wedded to workflow that is more than 100 years old. Ivy Lee sent the first press release in 1906. That tactic remains a cornerstone of our profession. Change is coming but it’s slow.

The State of the Profession report revealed just under half (46%) of practitioners brief board members and senior staff, while a third (35%) contribute to organisational strategy. Modernising public relations agencies and communications teams is one of the biggest challenges that the profession faces.

#2 Big data an illusion

Big data emerged as a hot topic for public relations last year but little data is where the action lies. Public relations practitioners need to use tools to deliver insights from data relevant to their publics; tools such as Lissted or Traackr for analysing networks, Brandwatch, Radian 6 and Sysomos for listening, Unmetric for benchmarking, and Google Analytics for tracking web traffic. Related to my previous point about workflow, there’s a significant third-party tools market emerging. That’s a good thing.

Data enables us to make informed decisions yet much of the data we surround ourselves with is flawed. Likes and web hits are easily gamed. Playing with influencer algorithms has become a sport. That doesn’t necessarily mean that this insight has no value but it does mean that it needs to be analysed through a sceptical lens.

Google’s Consumer Barometer is a good entry point to exploring data and the opportunity it provides to deliver insights.

#3 An academic and a historical perspective

One of the characteristics that mark out an industry from a profession is a memory and body of academic work. Other professional disciplines such as management consultancy firms aren’t shy about incorporating theoretical models into their proposition but when it comes to public relations  more often than not we rely on instinct rather than academic rigor and data.

Practitioners joining the industry should have, or quickly acquire, foundation knowledge. There’s a related point, the role of universities isn’t to turn out industry ready graduates. Instead there needs to be a period of training as there is in any other profession. The simple fact is that academics and practitioners need to work better together.

#4 Insight and creativity

Social business analyst Altimeter published data last year that suggested that we are exposed to more than 3,000 brand messages per day. Most are corporate bollocks that don’t resonate with their intended audience and are lost in the noise. Those that reach their intended audience and resonate are almost always based on a creative idea that is integrated and engages with its intended audience across multiple channels. Campaign winning ideas are based on an audience insight, typically emotional, and are executed consistently across all channels.

Content in all its forms is the drum beat of public relations campaigns. We need to get out of our comfort zone of text and images. A modern practitioner needs to be confident in working, and ideally producing, all forms of content.  We all carry devices with us capable of creating audio, images, text and video.  Experiment with creating these different forms of content and applications such as Instagram and Vine. Once you’ve mastered how to do all these things get in front of the camera rather than behind it.

#5 Brands need a human voice

Hands up if you spotted a brand sharing an image of a pancake on Tuesday or fireworks over the New Year period? It’ll be bunny rabbits and Easter Eggs next.

It’s hardly very creative or original is it? Social networks are based on relationships between people. To be successful in this form of a media a brand needs to be authentic, original and human. Copy should be conversational and not mangled by approval process.

Practitioners can’t control a message. They can’t even manage it. But they can participate and lead a conversation.

#6 Social sciences

Ever since the era of Edward Bernays, public relations has been about putting psychology and the understanding of human nature at the heart of our work.

My Ketchum colleague, European CEO David Gallagher believes that we’ll see social science take on increasing prominence in our strategic work. Concepts like nudging and framing are increasingly common in the way we are planning and designing strategy. Candidates with credentials in psychology or anthropology are increasingly sought after.

#7 Measurement

Your public relations campaigns don’t need a content strategy, or a channel strategy, you need a strategy that meets your organisational objectives. That should be based on measurable objectives and rooted in audience planning, listening and measurement. Only then can you consider content and channel.

The public relations  business has traditionally been lousy at proving its value. Rather than addressing this issue head on we’ve relied of faux proxies such as advertising equivalent value.

The CIPR offers a Research Planning and Measurement toolkit for members, that sets out a comprehensive approach to public relations that is the best starting point for any practitioner looking to understand how to build measurement into their work. The Association of Measurement and Evaluation of Communication (AMEC) have produced template models for campaign measurement which are also worth a look.

The key skill, often overlooked in discussion that focus on metrics, is to understand how to define measurable objectives and tie them into business objectives. Ultimately if you don’t understand how a business makes money you’ll always struggle to justify your position.

 #8. Paid media

As media fragments organisations are figuring out new ways of making money. If you’re Facebook that’s sponsored content, for Twitter it’s promoted tweets, for The New York Times it is native advertising, and for The Daily Telegraph its content amplification. These new formats are different attempts by organisations to create a sustainable media and if they provide the most effective means of engaging with a public we need to embrace them. The future of the media, like the future of public relations, is a work in progress.

I’d encourage you to look at the deal we announced last week at Ketchum with Kenshoo, the digital and social media planning and buying network. Practitioners must work across paid, earned, social and owned media.

#9 Power of internal communication

Social media has no respect for the traditional hierarchies within an organisation.  Organisations are porous. Messages are shared via text, email, and social network. There is no longer any distinction between internal audiences or publics, typically employees, and external audiences. With the right communication strategies, content and engagement, employees have the potential to be the most powerful, and crucially, trusted advocates for an organisation.

#10 Slow march to professionalism

Practitioners demand a place at the boardroom table alongside other professions. There are notable individuals that operate at the highest levels within organisations but they are the exception rather than a rule.

That takes us neatly back to the role of the CIPR. Public relations practitioners rightly want to claim their place in the boardroom.

And yet we don’t ourselves accountable to the same standards set by professions such as accountancy and finance.

That’s foundation knowledge, a code of conduct, a community of knowledge, including exchange between academia and practice, qualifications and continuous professional development.

The building blocks for professional practice are in place but many public relations practitioners are yet to be convinced. That’s the single biggest challenge that I face as President in 2014.

The CIPR itself has set out on a course of modernisation. It’s a networked organisation but yet it built around a centralised secretariat.

We’ve started to change that by addressing the CIPR’s value proposition, governance, member journey and operational structure.

Last week we held our first board meeting outside London at Media City in Salford with a reception for Accredited and Chartered Practitioners the evening before.

We’ve a lot to do and we’ll not achieve everything that I want to do this year. But we’ll make a good start.

What is your personal commitment to profesionalism?

My ask to you is please recognise the need for us to make the steps towards becoming a profession and make your own contribution.

Sign-up to continuous professional development and set yourself on the path to becoming an Accredited and then Chartered Practitioner.

Thank-you for your attention. I’d welcome the opportunity to answer your questions.

Quantified self: I lost 27kg from being self aware

Quantified self: I lost 27kg from being self aware

Public Relations Credo by Tim Traverse-Healy

Public Relations Credo by Tim Traverse-Healy