Back to PR and the future

A week or so back, I was at the PRCA conference The Future of PR, as part of a panel discussing how agencies are changing.

Danny Whatmough had invited me to take part in a panel discussion following the presentation of a survey of PR agencies and clients.

Technically, I left the PR industry in 2006 when I joined Spannerworks and founded what would become a social media and content practice at iCrossing (after the latter bought the former). Now I’m working with the Brilliant Noise with team creating an integrated digital marketing model of which PR is an important element and I’m also a non-executive at Liberate Media, an online communications agency that is built around PR as a discipline. It feels like a completing circle – PR’s back on my mind.

The story I was telling myself about PR in 2006 when I left and she remains the same in 2013. Because of its management consultancy aspects, the fact that it sees itself as a management discipline as well as a marketing discipline and its expertise in earning attention through content and distribution networks PR can be a leader in the marketing mix.

One delegate said to me after the panel that the conversation felt similar to the one the industry had been having since 2008. It was characterised by questions about how PR could grow and self-doubt and criticism of its failure to claim bigger budgets and a more central role in the marketing mix. How can PR grow and evolve? How does it need to adapt to a world where social media can be as important as traditional media?

These are tough questions, but they may be the wrong questions for PR professionals and agencies to ask themselves.

There are two paths open to in-house and agency professionals alike. They can lead from a strategic point in the mix, or they can become an expert discipline in media relations and integrate tightly with the other aspects of the marketing mix i.e. SEO content UX social media etc. The key to success will not be competing with other elements of the earned media mix, but collaborating with them.

It becomes increasingly unhelpful to ask which of marketing-communications disciplines has primacy as they each depend on one another fro success in earning the attention of customers and being part of an integrated approach.

In the survey which Danny Whatmough of Ketchum presented there was a fascinating question about whether the term “PR agency will still exist in 5-10 years time. Almost 40% of respondents felt that there would not be.

There was also a telling quote from one client: “The [agency] offer needs to be across communications and engagement and all its disciplines – not just narrow PR.”

I felt it was important to point out to the audience that there was also no certainty that there would be any such thing as an SEO agency, a digital agency, or what state of media agencies would be in, as their business becomes automated, assimilated into Google (and other “stacks”) and large clients increasingly look building media buying capabilities in house.

When there are pitches these days PR agencies find themselves up against creative, digital, media and any number of other disciplines. As Alison Jeremy, director of communications at the NSPCC said – “I’m just interested in who has the best idea.”

The upshot is that all of the communications and marketing mix are up for grabs – as is all of business. The disruption of the web is not localised to something that we call PR – it is disrupting every aspect of business commerce and culture.

The stakes that we are playing for are as large as we want them to be. If we talk about innovation in an incremental way – slightly better PR, slightly better advertising, slightly better promotions – then will we’re all missing the real opportunity. The opportunity is to reinvent how organisations talk to the customers.

That may not involve any think all PR or marketing or SEO or advertising in ten years time. Of course it may well do, but the power balances the way that organisations think about this process of engaging with the customers will be radically different.

Is the future bright for PR? The future for the people and the organisations that service the public relations needs of clients today are as bright as they want them to be. Danger and opportunity – you get to choose how you see the current great disruption.

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