Is the PR/comms industry dying while we still discuss press releases?
Over the last year, I have increasingly felt the traditional PR and comms industry is dying – I believe our sector must recognise this and help practitioners to adapt.
Ten years ago, we were at a similar cross-roads as social media invaded the PR space. Then, our industry lost out big time. Swathes of PR practitioners failed to spot the threat and took forever to start using it, let alone helping clients with it. We allowed the marketing agencies to pick up what should have been ours by right – content production is all about building relationships, writing insights and sharing tips and advice. Bread and butter to any PR professional.
Now we are seeing newspaper advertising revenues plummet – there is plenty of discussion about the future of newspapers and the media, but who is looking at the impact on our sector? Pick up any newspaper or trade magazine and they are a slither of what they used to be.
So what is the evidence of the death knell sounding? And what can we do about it?
PR and content marketing
I am in the process of launching a new business, Next-Up, which has evolved from Northern Lights. We spent months searching for the right website and marketing partner (during which time, I also felt website designers were stuck in a time warp) until we finally found the right inbound marketing agency we needed.
For the uninitiated, how does inbound marketing work? You produce compelling content that your audience are prepared to give their email for, in order to download guides and so on. From there you know what interests each individual visitor to your site and tailor what they see and what you email and engage with them on, depending on their interest. It is all about content. And who is producing this content? It is content and SEO writers, not PR professionals.
Last year, a conversation really hit home as to the changing nature of PR. I was having coffee with the chief executive of a cool, global drinks brand. In conversation he mentioned that he had sacked the two PR agencies he worked with and they now only worked with blogger influencers. As far as he was concerned, PR as most people know it, was dead. He said he didn’t get a return on investment for the money he spent on traditional PR and media relations.
Internal communications is the big opportunity
Apart from owning the content space, there are other market opportunities for our industry, yet we are not filling them.
I have been one of the CIPR’s trainers for five years and in that time watched a number of big changes in the type of delegates attending and their job roles/challenges.
I train in internal communications, change communications and strategic internal communications and have noticed these trends
- A few years ago, nearly everyone attending an internal comms course would have had some kind of PR title. Now, most of the room is likely to have a dedicated internal comms title – finally internal comms is being recognised as a strategic business skill with dedicated resource
- However, those who are in the roles have little experience or understanding of what they should do and it is perfectly clear their bosses have little idea either. So while everyone is trying to do the right thing, there is a woeful lack of skill in delivering good comms. I dread to think of the cost of this wasted talent
At the same time, I have been helping a number of chief execs and leadership teams to understand comms and lead the process in their businesses. While they sort of believe in it, in principle, it is extremely hard to get the whole leadership team on board and even harder for leaders to do it well. They buy into the theory, but then start doing ‘comms things’ just when they have time. They see finance, operations, sales as the real business – comms is just nice to do when they can.
What is clear is that bosses in the UK are waking up to the importance of internal comms but struggling to understand it properly or implement it well. This should be a golden opportunity for the industry to fill. When I raised this in an industry meeting last year, the professional bodies looking at this said they had tried to make an MBA module on comms work and they couldn’t sell it.
I could have predicted this – business leaders are not going to go on an MBA module. We should be influencing and working with business leaders on this absolutely critical business issue. And we need a plan now.
Managing reputation – where is our leadership?
And finally we come to reputation. I have always struggled with PR being about managing reputation. This is the CIPR’s definition of PR
For me, PR has always been about communications – external and internal – to achieve an organisation’s goals.
But I agree, reputation is a critical factor.
This year we have seen just what the impact of reputation can be
- Facebook’s reputation crashed along with its share value – $50billion wiped off in two days
- Carillion bosses prioritised director pay over company affairs
- Volkswagen has done little to hold directors accountable for the diesel scandal
- The scandals of aid charities, such as Oxfam – their culture, the lack of leadership, failure to address sexual harrassment and more
The PR profession has tried to position itself as an authority on ethics, however a few codes and a bit of training are not going to change corporate culture or persuade business leaders to look at fair pay and honesty. We need the voices of our industry speaking out about the issues, what needs to be done and taking the lead in changing behaviours. We must be influencers – not simply producers of a few policies that I doubt any business leader has read or even knows exists.
It was encouraging to see our industry taking action last year when the PRCA threw out Bell Pottinger for bringing the industry into disrepute. Action was swift and it made global headlines. However, you could argue that this was an internal issue within the PR sector itself – we weren’t influencing and commenting on the issues of reputation management itself, just the behaviour of one PR company.
So to sum up, what do we need to do to refocus our industry and ensure we stay relevant and in business for decades to come?
- Our industry leaders need to step up and be a player among senior business people – we must operate (and be seen to operate) at a level beyond mere press releases. We talk the language of reputation and influencing – when it needs to be about business and organisational success. Sarah Hall started the process, but we need to do more of this and more strategically
- The PR industry’s presidents need longer terms of office in order to influence. I’ve seen them come and go with little impact, other than addressing what I would call internal issues – a year is not enough to make a difference. We need them to be the voice of our industry and on Newsnight, Radio 4 Today, Sky News and more, talking about the big reputation issues of today – and offering solutions
- We also need to stop spending so much time focusing on our industry as a profession. We aren’t a profession – lawyers and accountants are highly regulated, advise on the law and its implications and can be sued for the quality of their advice. We just aren’t in this field. Yes, we must all be professional and ethical but we spend too much time on something that the rest of the world isn’t very interested in – instead it’s time to be externally focused on being a key partner to help businesses and organisations be successful
- The training offered by all the industry bodies needs to step up a gear. It’s easier to put on more of what we have always done than to step outside of our comfort zone, be innovative and take risks to position ourselves in new markets. The PR industry has never been good at tech – hence losing out on the social media platform. Let’s not do this again, it is our future
- Let’s tackle our future as if we were our own client. How would we advise the PR industry? We’d say you need to be relevant to the core issues of today, help practitioners understand the future, put on events to influence at senior levels and become recognised thought leaders in their space. Not ours
Communications has never been more important. There are opportunities out there for good communicators and will be for decades to come. But we first need to have an honest debate about where the media is going, its impact on us and how we need to adapt to the new face of media.