Public relations top ten future occupation - CIPR Midlands, Nottingham

Public relations top ten future occupation - CIPR Midlands, Nottingham


In a new report published this week by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), public relations ranks in the top ten occupations for the future. My view is that public relations increasingly has a role in every department within an organisation, and there has never been a more exciting time to work in the business.

These are the key themes of a speech that I’ve delivered in various guises to CIPR groups around the UK, developing it as result of conversations along the way.

I used it as the basis of a presentation at a CIPR Midlands meeting tonight in Nottingham. My thanks to Lisa Jones and Liz Bridgen for organising tonight's event.

I’ve spent the last five months at the CIPR working with CEO Alastair McCapra, the CIPR Council and the team at the CIPR, getting back to basics and focusing the organisation on its vision and purpose as outlined in the Royal Charter that we received from the Privy Council in 2005.

That work culminates next Thursday in Manchester at the AGM when we’re asking members to vote on a new governance structure. In my view it is critical to making the organisation fit for purpose and more business-like.

If you’re a CIPR member I’d urge you to please register a proxy vote. Download a form from the website (opens in PDF), mark-up your vote, and please send it to

Vision and purpose

The CIPR is unusual, like other Chartered organisations, in having its vision and purpose enshrined so formally. But that focus is helpful in defining our priorities.

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 must increasingly be 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.

Organisations, like markets, are becoming networks, and traditional hierarchies are breaking. There’s a role for public relations within every department in a modern organisation.

I firmly believe that we’re at an inflection point in the profession. Public relations is no longer defined by media relations or publicity. It shouldn’t ever have been.

Instead it’s a strategic management discipline focused on building influence and 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.

Let’s kick-off then.

#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.

Modernising public relations agencies and communications teams is one of the biggest challenges that the profession faces. We need to shift from hierarchical models and recognise the need for specialist functions such as a research, planning, creative, content development and community management.

#2 Networks, platforms and new forms of media

The fragmentation of media and shift to social forms of media is the narrative of the last decade for the PR business. We’re shifting from broadcast as a means of communication with an audience to two-way communication. New forms of media are complementing old.

Traditional media organisations are producing their own media, and journalists and other influencers connect via Twitter. It is incredibly daunting, but the best way to get to grips with social is to be social. Create accounts on social networks such as Facebook Google+, Snapchat and Twitter. Only then will you understand the challenges that organisations face in adapting to new forms of media.

Practitioners worry that they’ve been left behind. These concerns are well-founded although my view is that these changes will take at least a generation to work through.

#3 Big and little data insights from listening to publics

We have access, unlike ever before, to data to understand audiences and listen to what they think about us, our products and services, competitors and a market. This is big data.

In this sense the social web is a massive market research exercise that no has ever commissioned. Increasingly there are tools to enable us to cut these large amounts of data down to size.

We’re also able to understand how an audience engages with our content because every action and reaction on the social web leaves an audit trail. That’s little data.

There’s a growing third-part tools market in the public relations business: tools such as Marketwatch and Sysomos for listening, Lissted and Traackr for identifying influencers and communities, and web analytics for following conversation around the web.

That’s a good thing; that adds rigour to our profession.

#4 An academic and a historical perspective

One of the characteristics that marks out an industry from a profession is a memory and body of academic work.

Other professional disciplines such as engineering, finance and management aren’t shy about incorporating theoretical models into their pitches but when it comes to public relations more often than not we rely on instinct rather than academic rigor and data.

There’s a related point.

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.

#5 Brand content and the human voice

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. I will come back to our role as communicators in a moment.

Altimeter, the social business analyst and consulting firm, published data in 2013 that suggested that we are exposed to more than 3,000 brand messages per day. Most are corporate nonsense that don’t resonate with their intended audience and are lost in the noise.

I was fortunate enough to have breakfast this week with communication activist turned business adviser Tom Liacas.

Tom's view is that there are typically three brand personas in social media: the airhead, the psychopath and the robot. The airhead talks rubbish, the psychopath interrupts and is inane, and the robot is a machine pumping out messages come what may.

Those brands that do engage with 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 appealing to a higher order need, and are executed consistently across all channels.

#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 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 agencies are planning and designing strategy.

Candidates with credentials in psychology or anthropology are increasingly sought after.

#7 Understand how to make money

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.

That’s changing thanks to the work of the Association of Measurement and Evaluation of Communication (AMEC) and a rigorous focus on setting and measuring objectives.

If you haven’t investigated AMEC’s work I suggest that you do. It has produced template models for every conceivable type of campaign. 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 Earned, shared, owned and paid

We operate in a broad media environment yet frequently limit our campaigns to owned, shared and earned channels. Typically these will be siloed rather than integrated.

The audience, or publics, makes no such distinction. Practitioners need to be able to work across all forms of media. The changing nature of media means that increasingly campaigns need to include a paid component.

If you want to maximise how many people in your community your content reaches on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, you’ll need a paid element, and whatever your view of paid media, native advertising is often the best way to maximise return on investment from earned media.

If you’re a public relations purist that believes that paid media isn’t something that we shouldn’t consider please thing again.

#9 Power of internal communication and the shift to social business

Social media has no respect for the traditional hierarchies within an organisation. Organisations are porous. Messages are shared via text, email, and social networks.

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.

This is the shift to social business in which public relations ceases to be a siloed function and instead has a role within every department within a modern organisation.

#10 Confident communicator

We work in the business of communications.

We need to be good at communicating. If you want to get on you need to be confident in producing your own content and presenting. You need to be able to persuade senior managers or clients of your point of view. I used to be lousy at formal presentations and it remains my least favourite form of communication and an area of my own professional development.

TED is a good place to start if you want to observe masters and work and learn how to present.

And so we return to where I began and the role of the CIPR.

Public relations practitioners rightly want to claim their place in the boardroom. And yet we don’t hold ourselves accountable to the same standards set by professions such as finance and legal.

That’s foundation knowledge, a code of conduct, a community of knowledge, including exchange between academia and practice, qualifications, and continuing 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 of the CIPR in 2014.

My ask to you is to consider what professionalism means to you and sign up to the CIPR’s CPD scheme and start your own journey toward Accredited and Chartered status, helping the shift towards professionalism.

You’ll get five points for participating in the event today. You’re already well on your way.

Thank you very much for listening. I’d now welcome the opportunity to answer any questions that you might have.

Photo by shining.darkness via Flickr, with thanks.

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