Public relations: grow up, or get out

Public relations: grow up, or get out

16 personal challenges for public relations practitioners at PR Festival, and elsewhere.


I’m at the PR Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland this morning. The two day event has been curated and hosted by local agency boss Laura Sutherland. You can follow the event on Twitter via the hashtag #PRFest.

My session draws together many of the themes of the conference and challenges delegates to grow up or get out.

It’s an intentionally provocative session that strikes at our business being slow to innovate and learn. It examines 16 areas of innovation in public relations.

Please use these 16 points to consider and frame your own commitment to professional development.

Helping organisations tackle issues like these is my day job at Ketchum. If you’d like us to help yours think through these issues, please get in touch.

#1 What is public relations?

Public relations is the practice of understanding the purpose of an organisation and its relationships within society. We don’t need better definitions but we do need better planning models and clearer expressions of practice, not to mention a better demonstration of the value we bring to the organisations and publics we serve.

This discussion is as old as public relations itself. Crack on.

#2 Are you any good?

Time served is the typical measure of competence in public relations. It’s a lousy metric in a business that is moving so quickly. I’ve 20 years in practice but my social media listening skills are a work in progress and I’m lousy at visual community management. The Global Alliance recently published a global competency model. It needs to be developed and adopted as a standard by organisations and industry bodies. Practitioners need to sign up to continuous learning.

Sign up to a continuous profession development scheme and challenge your own learning and development.

#3 Representing publics

This is one area of practice in the UK where the CIPR and PRCA are in complete agreement. Public relations doesn’t adequately represent the organisation or publics that it services. There’s a significant gender pay gap that shows no sign whatsoever of being reduced; and there isn’t representation of non-white communities. The business has stopped short of making the obvious step of publishing data around salaries, gender and ethnicity.

What can you do you ensure equality of gender and ethnicity in your organisation? The status quo isn’t acceptable.

#4 Community of practice

The potential for collaboration between academia and practice in public relations has yet to be realised. Public relations academics and practitioners are isolated from each other. It shouldn’t be this way. Public relations is practical. We should learn from the body of knowledge that academic colleagues are investigating and apply it to our day jobs. Academic colleagues are enabling greater understanding in every area of practice.

This is an issue I’m continuing to explore through a workshop at BledCom this year. I’d love you to contribute.

#5 The internet of media

There are three billion people connected to the internet, typically by two or more different devices, using an estimated 4,000 different types of media. Investigate the media consumption in your market among your stakeholders. This will be informed by your sector and country. If your organisation’s primary stakeholders are consumers it will be very broad and typically only constrained by geography. Business organisations will be niche and may be more easily identifiable.

Best practice public relations should always start with listening.

#6 Messaging

The emergence of social messaging apps in the last five years has shifted consumer attention away from social networks. It’s the reason that Facebook acquired WhatsApp. This is a challenging area for public relations as it’s hard to understand how reaction or engagement best aligns with branded forms of content. It’s also a huge area of innovation as organisations develop branded messaging channels and bots.

Investigate this rapidly emerging form of new media and how messaging is used around your organisation. It’ll almost certainly be outperforming other media.

#7 Who influences you?

Influencer relations is an expression of how public relations is shifting from traditional media to new forms of media. Everybody with a social network has the potential to be an influencer. A modern day Wild West is playing out across the internet. Paid sits along earned and every market has its own ecosystem.

This is a big area for me in my day job at Ketchum in 2016. It’s a work in progress.

#8 Paying for it

Paid media is a mainstream area of public relations practice. Influencers, algorithms and amplification are all compelling reasons for paid integration. Search and social media algorithms are throttled so that organisations have to pay to maximise the reach of content. Paid is no longer a dirty word; it allows us to work smarter, amplify the outcome of campaigns and assure results. Integrating paid content into earned campaigns makes your campaigns work harder and delivers an improved return on investment.

Using free planning tools to investigate the potential of paid amplification in your next campaign.

#9 Rise of the robots

At Ketchum we’re paying close attention to Amazon Echo and Google Home. These devices have the potential to strip another layer from the internet. Voice recognition provides a direct relationship with a device and artificial intelligence adds context to search. Amazon doesn’t serve me a series of products, it serves me the one I want. Google won’t find me any restaurant. It will book a table at the one nearer my home.

Welcome to the next wave of disruption in organisational communication on the internet. Watch this space.

#10 Creativity is a public relations discipline

Public relations has taken its place as a discipline that can deliver creativity and return on investment. Next week we’ll rightfully take our place alongside advertising and creative agencies at Cannes and inside the large marketing services groups such as Publicis, WPP and my own firm Omnicom.

Your imagination and the people you work with are the only limit to the creativity you apply to your work in public relations.

#11 100+ year old content format

Cision’s acquisition of PR Newswire at the end of 2015 confirmed that the press release, first used in 1906, remains public relation’s primary form of content and yet the internet loves audio, images and video. There’s an estimated 4,000 media platforms on the internet. Campaigns shouldn’t start with a press release.

Start your next campaign by exploring and listening to the media that your public use.

#12 Authenticity and purpose

Successful organisations build trust and reputation on the internet by being open, candid and timely, just like regular people behave offline. In 2016 any gap between what an organisation does and what it says will be called out. This is an issue that has been played out since social media went mainstream.

Your first job working with any organisation should be to help it discover its purpose within the publics that it serves.

#13 Inside out advocacy

The best advocates for an organisation are almost certainly the people on the payroll. Yet most organisations gag their employees with policies and rules. Equal effort should be applied to external and internal publics.

Aways start listening activity with your internal stakeholders and work outwards from there.

#14 Data and the demise of demographics

Traditional marketing models based on age, gender, location and income no longer work. Marketing segmentation was never that simple but in 2016 social media subverts all norms and hierarchies. If you’re a brand, listen, and I mean really listen and then let’s have a conversation based on what I say, and more importantly, what I do. Watch out for further back-end integration of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. The dataset will rival Google’s planning and paid engagement capabilities.

Use Facebook Audience Insights at the outside of your next campaign and you’ll be surprised at how well it already knows your public.

#15 Show me the money

Defining a measurement framework for a campaign is hard. Practitioners continue to use advertising equivalent value (AVE) because it’s easy. But it’s also wrong. The objectives of a public relations campaign should be tied as closely as possible to organisational objectives. When you’re planning a campaign you should be able to define the outputs of your activity and map these against intermediary and organisational outcomes. There will be challenges in decoupling the contribution of public relations activity from other activities but it is achievable.

My tip is to focus on your publics and not on the media.

#16 Tools and workflow

Third-party tools investment in public relations has traditionally been limited to media databases. Much of the business runs on Excel spreadsheets for tasks ranging from tracking influencers to editorial calendars, and from managing projects to reporting results. #PRstack is a crowdsourced project built by Prezly that characterises the third-party tool market and builds understanding of modern practice and workflow. It now lists almost 250 tools and there are 48 case studies available in two books.

Investigate #PRstack. Try a new tool every week and build a new stack for yourself, and for your organisation.



Performance public relations: new AMEC framework, free tools

Performance public relations: new AMEC framework, free tools