Holmes Truths: Repositioning PR or getting back to where we once belonged?

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Paul Holmes, editor of The Holmes Report and chief executive of The Holmes Group

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.”

In conclusion

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.

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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.

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Photos by Bryan Sparks of CPRS National, taken during the Fourth Annual PR Agency Boot Camp.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Dan – thanks for this insight, which builds nicely on some of the recent debate that has gone on in relation to the past few posts on PRC (and indeed, I can see echoes with my recent Greenbanana Rainforest post). I also like the reference to PR’s history which echoes the chapters from the 1948 book that I’ve been serialising here. Interestingly the next two chapters to be posted early May and June are on how to use PR counsel by John Hill followed by one on how to use the PR department of an advertising agency by a VP from Ayer & Son.

    One thing that strikes me in relation to your comments about positioning and redefining is that if we could all just accept that PR is a social construct, we would realise it naturally develops, morphs and moulds to respond to, and help shape, the world in which we live. Any formal attempts to redefine and position PR into a commonly agreed ‘box’ is futile and not necessarily helpful. It is a bit like Toni’s reference to Jazz in a comment on my last post. We just need to go with the rhythm, man!

    Beyond that observation, I have a question for you. You talk about how the argument made by Paul Holmes resonated at the meeting and will be seen as compelling by many of us at PR Conversations – but what’s going to ensure PR practitioners realise the potential here rather than simply talking about the opportunities?

    • Heather — As always your analysis is very smart, and you close with a question that is far more fundamental than anything else in these endless existential debates! The reality is that some will succeed and some will fail. The agencies will be the first test cases, because they will face a direct decline in business if they don’t realize the potential. I find most of my peers (i.e., PR agency CEOs, especially of independent firms) are ‘doing’ more than ‘talking’ – i.e., re-shaping our businesses to seize the market opportunities of today and set ourselves up well for tomorrow. Our weakness is that our website still describes who we were in 2010, not 2014! So for us, the challenge is often matching the brand/reputation with the reality. I find that those who predict doom for PR are usually talking about a very narrow form of PR that has largely given way to today’s more flexible, hybrid models. They can cause us problems, though, because they reinforce the legacy perceptions, even as many of our industry’s best and brightest have evolved. Cheers!

      Dan

  2. This one statement worries me. Seriously worries me.

    “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.”

    Why? It’s just wrong!

    Public relations is about building relationships. Marketing is about getting people to take action on your behalf. Publicity is about awareness.

    If you don’t have relationships you don’t have the ability to influence. Without influence it is hard to get them to take action on your behalf [that means they do it because they want to, not because you ask them to]. Publicity can, but often fails, to attempt to build relationships.

    PR doesn’t need to reposition itself… it needs to understand what its value is, where it fits and equip PR ‘professionals’ with the skills to help customers build mutually beneficial relationships with its audiences.

    I also question this assumption:

    “Credibility is the most valuable currency in an age of transparency. PR people uniquely understand that involves not being in control.”

    PR should be uniquely understanding that not being in control but, currently, there are an awful lot of people in our industry pretending to be control freaks! The industry also suffers from a real credibility issue – most people working in it clearly wear blindfolds and have their fingers in their ears!

    L

    • Agree with you Lyndon, but they ceratinly don’t have their mouths shut…..
      Dan this is a very good post and I welcome the dynamics of your thoughts over the years. Cheers!

      • Lyndon, to extend the imagery, perhaps even with blindfolds and plugged ears they can still smell the coffee! Perhaps I see more people adapting than you do. As someone with an undergrad in politics and an MBA, I readily admit that education for careers in government and business has spawned many generations of control freaks! But anyone who persists in that mindset – ignoring the growing mountain of evidence to the contrary – is probably a suitable victim of the process of natural selection.

        Toni, thank you for your gracious comments. That means a lot to me. Thank you!

        Dan

        • Hi Daniel,

          Perhaps, but if that is the case then those that position themselves as ‘experts’ are doing us all a disservice. Most articles I read online about PR suggest the future of public relations is content marketing, or social engagement, or… pick a current buzzword.

          Perhaps it is different in-house, but if more agencies are smelling the coffee then you might hope to see it reflected in their websites or in the way they talk about what they do – focusing on relationships, not media coverage. On helping their customers build relationships, rather than being the gatekeepers of them. On pricing based on solving customers challenges, rather than on minimum retainers and commitment times.

          Perhaps you see more people adapting than I do, but I spend a lot of time looking for PR people adapting – more time than an average customer does – and I don’t see it. At least, not for the better. My model is far closer to the Melbourne Mandate than any I’ve seen as part of the research I do in to the industry as the founder of THINK DIFFERENT [LY] or any I saw in more than 10 years working in the mainstream industry.

          If you have people that are adapting then I’d love to be connected with them because it’s kinda lonely right now. I’d love to be part of any initiative that can make our industry better.

          Best wishes, Lyndon

  3. I’m curious, Dan: How closely do you think Paul Holmes’ advice fits in with the Global Alliance’s Melbourne Mandate?

    Second question: Is it equally applicable to in-house practitioners as it is to agency/consultancies practitioners?

    Thanks for agreeing to do this post–combined with the live tweets I witnessed, it’s the next best thing to being there.

    • Judy, sorry for the delay in replying. It won’t surprise you that my views are aligned with Jean’s about the Melbourne Mandate, which has become the Global Alliance’s vision of what a truly communicative organization looks like today. Melbourne reflected a widespread consensus that PR had to evolve (as Heather writes above) to reflect the changing needs of organizations and their audiences and stakeholders; Paul is saying much the same thing, but framing it in sharper competitive terms. Like the Melbourne Mandate, Paul’s prescriptions take us further from old ideas about spin and obfuscation, and closer to the authenticity and transparency that are essential to credibility. Finally, Paul’s comments about the skills that we’ll need in PR are very much aligned with the professional development materials we developed to accompany the Mandate in 2013.

      I believe these ideas are as applicable to in-house practitioners as they are to those who work in consultancies. The issue is more pressing for agencies because of the financial impact of getting our positioning right or wrong; for in-house professionals, it’s more a question of how to gain and retain social capital and influence within the organization.

      Thanks as always for your editorial vision and skilled facilitation of these essential conversations within our professional community!

  4. Judy, You ask how Paul’s advice fits with the Melbourne Mandate. As the other co-chair of that process,let me add my two cents. I’m sure Dan will chime in if he has other views.

    The Mandate describes new areas of focus in public relations which we see as pillars. It does not mean those pillars are new. It does mean they are more in focus or perhaps more important these days.

    Listening has always been at the base of good public relations practice. Taking that listening infrastructure into action and engagement is the next step which leads to analysis. Again not new (think RACE) but essential to keep as a beacon in our practice.

    Helping to define the character of the organization is perhaps the newest of the areas we emphasize in the Mandate. It is the realization that values and ‘walking the talk’ are far more essential to one’s reputation than any one specific campaign or initiative. It is the key driver to sustainability of an organization’s license to operate.

    And of course ethics and the idea of accepting our responsibility in society, behaving with a higher set of moral values is our North Star or if you live in the Southern hemisphere, our Southern Cross.

    What Paul is outlining is that the core function of PR has not changed and I would argue the Mandate confirms that by focussing on the most enduring elements of a successful public relations practice.

    Paul also challenges us to look at our profession differently and make course corrections in the ‘offer’ of services for agencies. Perhaps this is akin to what we did with the Mandate. We did not re-invent the profession, we offered a new window or prism by which to see our role. Paul is advocating that we focus less on the traditional agency offering and opt for a more robust hybrid set of activities. He is also saying that being genuine is more important than anything these days given the scrutiny we experience daily. Dan is confirming that he is seeing many agencies make those changes and that is a good thing.

    At the core, public relations agencies offer counsel and services. I would venture to say that agencies still offer counsel and reputation advice- and perhaps the Mandate presents a higher and more strategic vantage point to present this counsel. particularly being genuine.

    Agencies offer services that a client values to the extent the client is now listening to the need for a ‘whole organisation’ view of social media, of engagement with stakeholders and a commitment to acting responsibly. Services need to adapt and the ‘offering by agencies also needs to be re-focussed on the new areas of value.

    • It’s now my turn to offer belated thanks, Jean and Dan.

      I bear witness to how you are truly aligned in the thinking, having worked with you both on the Melbourne Mandate “beacon” post.

      Jean, I really like your take on putting more FOCUS on certain things (including listening), and how these priorities are not necessarily new concepts. Agreed re: your take on “at the core, public relations agencies offer counsel and services.”

      Dan, perhaps the other thing the Melbourne Mandate can do is more closely align the overarching goals and objectives between in-house and agency public relations and in the process help to dilute, if not eliminate, the (primarily) consultancy-based stereotype in the general public’s mind that PR is mainly about media relations/publicity/marcom, not to mention the “spin and obfuscation” you pointed out. That seems to be another goal Paul Holmes is arguing towards.

      It’s not that these roles—obviously not the spin/obfuscation ones—don’t have a place in public relations, it’s more along the lines that they are often more tactical than strategic in regards to a truly communicative organization. And developing a “communicative” issues and reputation management counselling role for clients is definitely an area where more experienced/sophisticated consultancies can grow (which I suspect is what Jean was saying).

      I agree that the Mandate’s Professional Development Wheel is a tremendous resource—I keep pointing practitioners towards it, who were unaware of its existence, but indicate how impressed they are at its depth and prescient quality as to what skills and abilities should be developed for now and in future.

      And thanks for the kind words, Dan. Heather Yaxley, Markus Pirchner and I all appreciate that much of the authority of PR Conversations as both a resource and a place for informed discussions comes down to the calibre of the global contributors we recruit, who in turn attract readers and commenters.

      I put Jean and you both in that category, and hope you write for us again, together or separately.

  5. @Judy, I certainly plan to continue offering contributions and keep participating in conversations here and elsewhere. Thank you for the esteem and faith you have in the work that we do.

  6. Most of the people I have met over the years in financial public relations believe their job is to facilitate the dissemination of key messages and talking points to the public and specific constituencies. They often shy away from actually developing the messages and they often don’t understand how various constituencies, whether they are regulators, customers or the public at large, might react or engage with these messages.

    PR, in my mind, is having a strong understanding of how the public will perceive certain actions, behaviors, messages ect. and understanding how to shape those perceptions to benefit the organization.

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