Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Is PR dead, or just changing?

Publicly, the PR industry is claiming that it is stabilising after a difficult 12 months, and that new business is on the up. I think this is true, although privately I’ve heard concerns that the quality of leads is reducing, the pitch process is becoming even more random, and resources are being squeezed harder than ever. This means lower fees, lower turnover, lower profits. Which means lower-grade people, and so lower fees…

We can reverse this, if we understand how our industry is changing. Smaller, smarter clients are investing more, not less, in getting their communications right across the board, in order to differentiate in a tough market. To me, this is taking PR back to its roots – building relationships with a company’s public audience – through direct communications, not just through third party media endorsement. Traditional media circulation and influence is in freefall (reflected by low ad rates). The greatest influence is coming from the media you can’t buy: social sites, word of mouth marketing (what your mates down the pub think), bloggers, online communities and so on.

Creating influence that supports business growth is about more than persuading increasingly cynical journalists to write about your client. It’s also about direct communication with a public audience (you know, public relations). This marks a real shift in how PR has been seen over the last decade. Web 2.0 (user-generated content, citizen journalism, blogging, online communities, social media, digital content creation etc) has meant that the third party endorsement by journalists that clients have always sought is just one way of influencing user behaviour. In an online world, users influence each other directly, making traditional media just one in a number of influence channels.

This has two major implications for agencies.

1. Our clients’ products have to be up to the job. If users are going to recommend something to each other, it has to work. No-one’s going to take our word for it any more. I’m old enough to remember the days when you could mass mail a press release and a dodgy photo and see national coverage from it, but those days went with the dot com crash. Journalists are observers, not changers, of behaviour. Some client-side marketing and PR heads - many of whom started their careers during the dot com rise – are taking a long time to realise this, not least because they’re getting bad advice from their agencies. So, we have to learn to consult to our clients and not just take direction. This means putting people with experience onto the job.

2. Agencies need to understand the fundamentals of communicating directly to public audiences, not just through a journalist filter. Although journalists hate wading through marketing jargon, they’ll do it if they have to (ie if the story’s important enough). But client customers won’t bother. If you want someone to explain your product to their mate, you’d better be able to explain it to them first. (To a consumer, a coffee maker is a coffee maker, even if it makes hot chocolate. It’s not a beverage solution). And if you want to retain control of your company’s message, you’d better make it so simple and self-explanatory that it will be remembered and repeated. Agencies need to be able to take a complex message and simplify it, to make it compelling.

I suspect this will be a battle with some of the bigger clients – those who delegate communications to a junior PR manager with little experience (and whose low fees only buy a junior exec at the agency). For every smart client-side marketing manager out there, there is another who’ll refuse to let go of their ‘multi-platforms communications device’ in favour of a ‘mobile phone’.

But clients will only change if agencies give them good advice. Which means investing some of our most senior people to consult, in order to increase the value of communications – in its broadest sense - within the client company.

The result? Spin may well be dead. But communications has a bright future.


Sean Fleming said...

I love the bit about the coffee maker. Nice analogy.

Jon said...

All very true.

One other thing - in order for these agencies to comprehend *public* relations, the subtle differences between social, digital and online media need to be understood.

I disagree that the age of spin is dead, though. All these new communications mechanisms can be used to spread a message. Surely that is spin too?

(Maybe you mean the ability to spin a bad product into a good one is no longer possible...)

Kate Hartley said...

Thanks Sean for your comment - glad you liked it!

Jon - I was indeed taking 'spin' in its negative sense. It is still important for companies to communicate a clear message which is why I think the PR/comms industry has a bright future. But the transparency of communications today mean that the days of getting away with 'spinning' rubbish to appear positive have well and truly gone. (Which I think that has to be a good thing for the reputation of communications / PR.)

edward04 said...

PR is one of the tools that is gonna survive communications crisis if it positions itself correcly. meaning move away from the past - press releases, flashy events, gloss - to a world where authentic word of mouth recommendation is trumps. link pr to internet and you have social media marketing, with the people put back in p for pr (thanks brian solis) an industry in flux will transform itself for the better...even giles coren might write better articles if his freelance salary as a blogger depends on it rather than a nice retainer from a mag.

Kate Hartley said...

Edward - at the risk of invoking the wrath of Giles Coren, I completely agree. The key to public relations is indeed the 'public' bit. Thanks for your comment.

Jean Levasseur said...

I think that the problem in PR being dead is the terminology. Public relations isn't dead, because it was never really alive. PR firms, who were formerly media relations firms, need to learn how to take the messages that they're so good at crafting and distribute them in a meaningful way to the public, not just to a handful of reporters. It's the messaging thinking behind PR that is alive and well. The way those messages are presented are what's changing.

PR isn't dead; it's just being born.

Kate Hartley said...

Thanks for commenting, Jean (and sorry for the delay in publishing - I've been on holiday!). The shift away from pure media relations is interesting and can only be a positive thing, I think.