It’s this summer’s great debate. It matters to graduates deciding where to develop their careers. It matters to students choosing what to study. So let’s review the arguments being made on both sides. Is the PR body in rude health or is it at death’s door?
It’s a challenging and important debate. If there are no clear winners, that’s because no one can predict the future with absolute certainty.
Trust me, PR is dead
This is the title of a forthcoming book by Robert Phillips. Should we trust him? Possibly so, as he’s an insider and an impressive thinker. Phillips was a senior manager within Edelman’s European operations before quitting at the end of 2012, for these reasons:
‘I no longer believed in either the business model or the purpose of the business I had chosen to profess. I felt like an imposter and a hypocrite and I knew it was time to quit.’
Phillips explained his thinking in a talk delivered in January 2014:
‘I believe we are entering the final decade of the Public Relations industry as we know it. To many, PR has become the ugly spawn of the consumer society; has encouraged wants over needs and jeopardised our planet; has celebrated “spin” over honesty; and has sought to manage the message to the people rather than let the people speak for themselves. “Spin” is now officially dead. We should focus instead on actions, not words. The future lies in what we do, not what we say.’
He goes on to outline what will replace public relations – in his phrase, ‘public leadership’.
Public Leadership is citizen-centric. Public Leadership demands an intimate relationship between an organisation’s leaders and the needs and aspirations of everyday people. This helps re-connect the purpose of business, specifically, with the needs of society. It also leads to an important re-think of the balance between profit and purpose.
The death of PR agencies – as we know them
This is the title of a leading article by PR Week’s editor-in-chief, Danny Rogers (July-August 2014 edition).
Rogers had just returned from the International Festival of Creativity in Cannes and had had many discussions about the changing world of advertising and PR. As he writes:
‘I was struck once again by the fact that advertising and PR are increasingly the same thing…. Yet while leading advertising agencies basked in the afterglow of the festival, ‘PR’ agencies fared less well, often failing to win even their own category.’
‘There used to be a fundamental difference between the two marketing disciplines. Advertising was about paid-for promotion; TV commercials and billboards. PR was about editorial persuasion; selling stories to journalists. And while the distinction between bought media and earned media still exists, you now find their executives working across both.’
Rogers argues that the repositioning and reinvention necessary for survival means that new-style communications agencies ‘may finally need to cast off those two deadly letters – P and R.’
The new mantra – communications marketing
His long-stated ambition had been ‘to broaden the definition of public relations’, but now acknowledges this as futile. Now he talks up ‘communication marketing’ in pursuit of marketing budgets that are many times larger than budgets for communications.
‘We need to get more chief marketing officers caring about the sort of programmes that we – historically a PR agency – have driven for Chipotle, Unilever and GE.’
The challenge for Edelman and for other PR consultancies is to remodel themselves along the lines pioneered by advertising agencies. As Edelman’s David Brain explains:
‘As we’ve been bringing planners, creatives, media buyers, community managers, ethnographers, research analysts, designers and film-makers into the global firm over the past few years, the very way we work has been changing.’
Exciting time to work in PR
Stephen Waddington is Ketchum’s European director of digital and social media and this years president of the CIPR. In his books, speeches and blog posts he’s been emphasising the need for public relations to change:
‘The public relations industry is attempting to modernise and reinvent itself. Broadening its reach beyond traditional media relations as a proxy to engage with audiences will be critical to future success. It is inevitable that as media continues to fragment because of technological change, and consumer behaviour becomes increasingly participatory, that organisations must change how they communicate.’
Waddington, like Edelman, sees opportunity in this challenge and believes that the key lies in greater professionalism and in a community of practice formed among practitioners and academics.
‘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.’ (From Brand Anarchy, page 225).