by Steve Earl and Stephen Waddington
256 pages, Bloomsbury, 2012
Where better to begin this review that at the end?
Steve Earl and Stephen Waddington have written a readable and up-to-date account of the challenges and opportunities facing public relations practitioners.
Their final chapter opens with this declaration:
‘The public relations industry is enjoying a renaissance… There has arguably never been a more exciting time to work in the industry. But it’s also incredibly daunting. Practitioners must learn new skills and expertise if they want to have a future in the industry.’
They suggest a list of skills required for practitioners operating in ‘the new reputation landscape’ on pages 227-230. In brief, ‘practitioners must first and foremost recognise how technology is impacting upon the media, how it is enabling brands to develop their own content and forms of media, and how networks and communities develop and operate online.’
The earlier chapters review corporate reputation, traditional and digital media, themes such as disintermediation (a word the authors hate) and the death of spin. On the way they take a side swipe at the current state of play:
‘Here’s the reality; the majority of news releases do not contain news content. The press release has become a general purpose document that an organisation publishes on its website and issues via a wire service, not to inform the media of a news event, but typically to reach broader audiences and to satisfy an internal audience… We call them wire fodder or public relations spam.’
PR spam clearly has reputational implications for practitioners and for the industry as a whole.
Then there’s the challenge posed by tech-savvy newcomers. This lumbering and inefficient approach to public relations has come under fire from a new breed of search marketing company offering clients are more results-driven approach.
The authors defend PR’s role as content creator on the grounds that you shouldn’t ‘have search marketing as your primary objective’; you should put the man before the machine. Yet ‘the public relations industry was slow to spot the opportunity provided by the [sic] online search and missed the chance to broaden its offer… The debate about whether public relations or search agencies are best placed to deliver search marketing campaigns has been well and truly won by the search industry.’
Public relations faces competitive challenges and brands face reputational risks at every turn. So is it a case of social media strategy to the rescue? Not so, because ‘the oft-lauded social media strategy has no place in this, because there is really no such thing. Did you ever have a local radio strategy?’ the authors ask rhetorically.
What’s needed is a public relations strategy that covers social media, and a greater attention to the monitoring and management of risk.
The industry should move away from measuring outputs towards measuring outcomes. ‘Today, public relations is able to get much closer to a meaningful answer to the eternal question: ‘Is all this public relations stuff really worth it for my business?’ We don’t yet have the full answer, but it is being put together, piece by piece.’
‘Shedding the shackle of media relations will be critical to the future success of the public relations industry. It is inevitable that as traditional media continues to fragment because of technological change, and consumer behaviour becomes increasingly participatory, that organisations much change how they communicate.’
This book is essential reading for intelligent students and ambitious practitioners seeking to understand where we are today and where we’re going.
For those wanting a more challenging critique of brands in the social media age, I recommend the following, also written by practitioners: Crowd Surfing (2008) by Martin Thomas and David Brain and Citizen Truths and Civic Principles: The Reformation of Public Relations (2010) by Robert Phillips in Julia Hobsbawm’s Where the Truth Lies.