Industry analyst Paul Holmes offers advice to our thriving but misunderstood profession
By Daniel Tisch, APR, FCPRS
There’s a paradox in public relations today: It is a time of unprecedented demand for our skills in modern organizations, but also unprecedented angst about how to position an often-misunderstood profession in a changing marketplace.
This was the backdrop at a recent Canadian Council of PR Firms event in Toronto, where the leaders of Canada’s major public relations firms partnered with the Canadian Public Relations Society to host Paul Holmes, the British trade journalist who has chronicled the growth of the global PR industry for a generation. (Holmes also provided the opening keynote at the following day’s “Fourth Annual PR Agency Boot Camp”.)
Holmes’ message was clear and bold: Public relations must position itself as the function that guides and subsumes both marketing and corporate communications:
“When you put marketing and corporate communications together, you get public relations. Marketing manages the relationship with one audience: the customer. And communication is just one part of PR.”
As Holmes reminded us, the rest of public relations is about how an organization behaves, not just what it communicates.
While this idea was timely, he admitted it was not new. Holmes believes the key is for PR to get back on what he argues was its original path; before we came to be seen principally as the organization’s interface with the news media, the PR function was more broadly seen as the management of relationships with all audiences.
Following is more of Holmes’ counsel to Canada’s PR agency professionals, to which I add my own analysis below.
The times have changed; the core function of PR has not
Holmes’ core message resonated with his Toronto audiences (at two “sessions,” the first for leaders, the second for agency staff)—just as it will no doubt reverberate with many readers of PR Conversations—because of its clarity. It’s not hard to see why.
His words had me musing about the inaugural decade of the 21st-century. First, about how it has rewritten the rules by which we play, with a simultaneous concentration of economic power in corporations and a diffusion of communication power to individuals and stakeholders. Because these movements have redefined the relationships between organizations and their publics, it is fair to ask whether public relations needs a similar redefinition?
Second, while leading public relations professionals have been excellent custodians of the reputations of our organizations, we have been less effective in managing the reputation of our profession. As a result, the market has defined PR for us, in less-than-flattering terms—whether it is the general public’s stubborn association of PR with “spin” (abetted by less-scrupulous practitioners) or the attempts by other communication disciplines to limit the scope of PR to the shrinking field of media relations.
Third, as the CEO of a public relations firm, I see another marketplace reality: The PR firms that are growing are already repositioning themselves and thriving as a result.
For many firms, media relations proficiency has gone from the majority of public relations work to a significant minority of our service offerings. Argyle Communications’ most-rapid growth is coming from the conception and execution of digital engagement strategy. Increasingly we work on research, content marketing, customer relationship management and brand strategy.
In general, the market is rewarding flexibility and a hybrid focus. One result is competitive pressures at the increasingly permeable borders between what were once more discrete disciplines.
Does this mean that to be successful, PR practitioners must encroach on other disciplines? Or are we simply—as Holmes suggests—reclaiming our turf?
When Holmes declares, “Any decision that has a relationship or reputational implication must involve a PR professional,” I conclude it’s a bit of both: The role of public relations should broaden, as more organizational activities and outcomes must be viewed through the ever-more-relevant lens of relationships and reputation.
The competitive landscape: handicapping the players
“Advertising people are better at invention. PR people are better at discovery. Discovery is better.”
Having attended countless all-agency meetings, I find Holmes’ words ring true when considering what may happen as boundaries blur. Being accustomed to earning attention from empowered stakeholders, the best PR professionals have always had to dig deep to find authentic truth. Yet until recently, we have lagged in creating jaw-dropping visual content and communicating a brand’s emotional benefit, living more often as we do in the functional realm.
Other players in this competitive landscape are management consultants, who increasingly try to get into the “high-end” of public relations strategy and service. Their weakness, Holmes believes, is lacking empathy and expertise in the human element of our business.
Social media: a key battleground?
“If a client says, ‘I’m looking for a digital or social media campaign,’ the right answer is ‘no, you’re not.’”
Digital communication is often identified as an area for competition between PR and other communication disciplines, particularly in the social media sphere. Holmes comes back to the idea of a smart strategy, beginning with a goal, not a channel.
What happens, however, when a digital channel is selected? Who gets the mandate to implement it?
“For marketers, social media changed everything. For good PR people, it changed absolutely nothing.”
Social media is just the newest way of doing what PR professionals have done for decades:
- building and growing relationships; and
- creating mutual understanding between organizations and those they seek to engage
While other disciplines are skilled at developing cool creative and inventing “brand experiences,” the ability to earn attention rather than paying for it, and to manage a relationship or an issue effectively, requires education and experience in public relations.
Based on CVs that I see in my in-box, specialty digital agencies seem to open and close faster than trendy restaurants. As the digital gold rush gives way to a more mature environment, the idea that any one agency can be good at all things digital seems increasingly strange; these firms are also vulnerable to agencies that play higher up in the value chain, i.e., where the brand and reputation strategies are built.
With integration as the new mantra, we are witnessing an unprecedented blurring of the boundaries among providers of public relations, communication, branding and marketing services. For client executives, this poses a challenge. It’s also a crossroad that a smart public relations professional will help them to navigate.
Who wins? It depends on their skills
“Credibility is the most valuable currency in an age of transparency. PR people uniquely understand that involves not being in control.”
It’s clear that success will not belong to any one discipline, but rather to those who can think across disciplines, while mastering the “PR skills of the future.”
Holmes argues that these skills include:
- analyzing data
- understanding behavioural science; and
- developing and deploying measurement systems that are truly relevant to business decision-makers (he cites “net promoter scores” as an example)
Is there still a role for that one-time mainstay of the PR industry, the ex-journalist? Holmes is quick to embrace the fit between his own profession and one of the greatest PR needs: brand journalism. “Go into organizations and find stories that are both interesting and true.”
It’s hard not to see compelling opportunities for PR professionals who follow Holmes’ advice, given our comfort level in an environment where communication is less about controlling content and more about co-creating and sharing content to influence conversations, relationships, reputations and brands.
That’s why his evening keynote session to Canadian agency leaders was a time to be bullish about our profession’s future, but not complacent about its challenges.
Daniel Tisch, APR, FCPRS, is immediate past chair (2011-2013) of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, is a Fellow of the Canadian Public Relations Society and CEO of Argyle Communications, one of Canada’s largest independent PR firms. He has lectured on public relations at Queen’s University since 1996. Dan led the GA to unprecedented growth, co-chaired the Melbourne Mandate process and the 2012 World Public Relations Forum, launched the GA COMM PRIX Awards and represented the profession with the International Integrated Reporting Council. Follow Dan on Twitter or read his corporate blog, Reputation and Reality.
Previous contributions include an interview Catherine Arrow conducted with Dan Tisch and Jean Valin, followed by a joint post by Dan and Jean, The Melbourne Mandate: A professional beacon for PR.
Photos by Bryan Sparks of CPRS National, taken during the Fourth Annual PR Agency Boot Camp.