The public relations industry is facing its biggest identity crisis yet, with more disruption coming its way than ever before. Technology is driving rapid changes, fueled by a fragmented media landscape, and by disintermediation—between brands and journalists, and between products and consumers— through social media. As a result, new client needs have emerged, and they are no longer served by the PR practices of the past.
The role of the chief communications officer is at a “critical inflection point,” according to a report from the Arthur W. Page Society. Meanwhile, global PR industry growth slowed to 5% in 2015, while revenue per capita in PR agencies declined, as revealed by the 2016 Global Communications Report. The report also shows concern that clients are not willing to budget appropriately for successful public relations activity, and that PR firms are not mastering digital and other new technologies.
According to Paul Holmes, CEO of the Holmes Report, the numbers suggest that “PR is still seen by many clients as a commodity rather than as a value-added service” and “PR firms are either not adapting to the new multichannel communications landscape, or they have not yet convinced clients that they can deliver all of those things.”
As communications professionals, we are confronted with competition from social media strategists, influencer marketers, and even management and innovation consultants. In order to grow and regain authority, we need to rise up and advocate for our place at the table. It’s time to become more ambitious, let go of outdated structures, and rebuild PR for the future. Unless we transform what PR stands for in the post-digital age, we risk fading into irrelevance.
For decades, PR people have stayed silent, operating in clearly defined, behind-the-scenes roles that were mostly confined to media relations. The same old tactics have been passed on for generations, leaving little room for innovation. Occasionally, we’d develop an obsession with data, or hear of a new media monitoring service. Such endeavors proved useless in moving us forward, because what we need is creativity, big ideas, and imagination.
While we narrowed down our expertise to press, a media revolution happened, changing consumption patterns and distribution methods. The rise of social media has made PR look, at best, traditional, and at worst, obsolete.
Against this backdrop, new verticals were formed. Social media strategists, creative agencies, “digital” communications experts, management and innovation consultants, all established their value in a much more assertive and vocal way. Eventually, they branched into areas that were ripe with opportunity for PR. And ironically, they achieved this by using tactics that were invented by PR people.
While communication departments and PR agencies remained stagnant, this new generation of experts positioned themselves as quick, nimble, and entrepreneurial, through aggressive branding and an alignment with new media. At a time when no one knew what social media meant for brands, Twitter was inundated with “social evangelists,” “engagement ninjas,” “brand storytellers,” and “PR 2.0” experts. By capitalizing on technology, they established themselves in areas that PR could have owned.
What ensued was a false gap between PR as a traditional practice, defined as safe, risk-averse, and about maintaining the status quo, versus everyone else as new, cutting-edge, and about building for the future.
History repeated itself with areas like community engagement, social media marketing, and more recently, influencer relations – which is even more relevant with the rise of Instagram, and will only continue to grow in importance for brands.
It’s not that there is no need for PR – it’s that the definition of public relations is expanding. And if we want to go along with the growth, we need to take the reigns and regain control.
|Adriana Stan is the public relations director of W magazine, and a writer on media, culture and technology.|
PR is more important than ever
When employed to its full potential, PR can shape public opinion, orchestrate news narratives, transform consumer attitudes—and ultimately drive business growth. In a world of ad blocking and general consumer mistrust around being tracked and marketed to, PR is more important than ever.
Public relations people hold incredible power, but in a world of decentralization and disintermediation, their role is no longer to serve as gatekeepers for a brand. It’s about creating influence, building reputations, advising decision-makers on how to transform an organization from within, coming up with creative solutions, and more importantly, thinking and strategizing in a way that transcends the silos of PR.
A strong publicist can see the big picture and knows the brand and its values better than anyone. Equally, PR people tend to be empathetic: they understand the vision, what drives executives, what motivates journalists, and how to meet needs on both sides. They exercise good judgment and are skilled negotiators and diplomatic communicators. They are often generalists and creative thinkers.
These are all skills that should be nurtured within an organization, and that will become increasingly important in the future. In a corporate setting, in order to succeed in projecting an authentic image or in driving real business results, PR needs to have a bigger place at the executive table.
On the agency side, PR people need to establish a stronger relationship with clients and offer more of the services they need, without being limited to specific silos – whether it’s influencer outreach, content creation, or a more holistic approach to strategy.
Re-imagining PR for the post-digital age
In order to evolve and grow as an industry we need to rebrand PR, rethink its role—both when it comes to agencies supporting clients, and corporate communications departments within organizations—and reimagine our responsibilities.
PR should not be organized around tactics—media relations, crisis communications—nor around channels: the biggest mistake in modern communications is labeling PR as “digital” vs. traditional.
We live in a world where all media is social and all social is media – as news stories become fodder for social conversations, while social posts make news headlines. PR does not live in a vacuum—it’s integral to a brand or organization’s success, and should not be treated as an outside, separate entity. PR should not serve as a quick fix when it comes to a crisis, or a patch that’s applied when something is not working and a brand’s image needs a makeover. It should be integral to the business process, from the conception of an idea and the early development stages of a new product, to its launch
We need to expand the definition of PR, focus it around strategy and creativity and demonstrate our potential—which extends beyond securing press placements. This means that our responsibilities will need to evolve, and in turn, our value as PR people will increase substantially. PR needs a stronger role in decision-making, as strategic counsels, and trusted advisors. To achieve this, we might need to lobby to make our voices heard, but most of all, change our attitudes and become better at promoting our own work—and consequently, our worth.