Despite my long-held belief in the transformative power of communications for collective and societal good, these are worrying times for the profession of PR. While the evolved form of Public Relations, Public Engagement, remains central to the restoration of trust and the advancement of the true sustainability agenda, there is a real danger that this will become a niche corporate play and eventually only narrow both the definition and ambition of PR.
We have reached something of an inflection point. While the much needed re-calibration of the relationship between ‘science’ and ‘humanity’ within communications (see blog posts passim) holds the potential to propel PR forwards, the failure to do just this could damage the industry, already fragile in reputation and fragmented in belief, forever.
2013 could be the watershed year.
I make no apologies for having spent the past twenty-five years arguing for the ascendancy of PR over all the other marketing disciplines but, without the re-imagination of a more scientific hybrid model, we may soon bear witness to the onset of terminal decline and the eventual, but inevitable, death of Public Relations as we know it. Few, of course, may mourn its passing.
This is no longer a question, philosophically or practically, about the role PR (invariably rather ill-defined) plays within in the communications mix. This discussion was always distracting and occasionally irrelevant, mostly born from a long-held inferiority complex (or a superiority complex arrogantly inflicted by the mad men). Nor is it about the ‘death of spin’, for that is a myth properly slain by an open society. Nor is it about ‘Engagement’ versus ‘Relations’ – that it a battle actually won – nor about whether all media is now social (it is). Instead, it is principally because today’s version of PR suffers from a vulnerability to forces of technological change. With the thirst for scientific evidence now properly in the ascendant, and the internet of things a mere chip away, just talking about ‘conversation’ or the democratization of influence is no longer enough.
For too long, many of us happily articulated both the storytelling art and the calculated science of PR but, in truth, we obfuscated and allowed the science to nearly always play a subservient role. This was at its most acute in the endless lip-service paid to the challenge of measurement. We were obsessed with the art – the clever words, smart positioning and opaque layering – and brushed aside the science. Today, other residual issues notwithstanding, art without science will simply not cut it. Where we should see an axis within communications (with science and humanity occupying the same continuum), we instead perch atop a see-saw, badly lop-sided, almost creationist in our ignorance of the science.
Moreover, decline will only accelerate if we fail to address a lingering cultural inertia within the PR industry – a disturbing but real inability to recognize, reorganize and reform from within. Rather than serve as its liberators, we perversely hold the potential to deadlock Public Relations in much the way that advertising colleagues found themselves doing with their profession less than a decade ago: as elegantly-dressed dinosaurs standing in front of the mirror, reflecting and congratulating themselves on their own beauty. We owe it to ourselves to do better.
To avoid the dinosaur trap and to properly address issues of reform, PR must confront its structural weaknesses. There are four, and the first two deal specifically with the challenges of science. They are the Achilles Heels on the footprint of our industry.
1. Outcomes over Output
PR needs a unified and coherent measurement system. It must be Outcomes based. This should be urgently adopted as a global standard and endorsed by all the professional bodies. The measurement must be scientific, provable and defensible. It must be delivered to scale and speak to convergence. Advertising Value Equivalence and/ or Opportunities To See should be banished forever. Any Public Relations firm using AVE/ OTS metrics should be discredited. ‘Stuff’ like media is nothing more than an (increasingly commoditized) output – and an oddly imprecise and anachronistic one at that.
I would suggest four clear Outcomes on which to measure success: Increased Trust; Deeper Communities; Behavior Change; and Commercial Success. (You can happily challenge these but, hey, let’s start somewhere). Dashboards can and should be generated to scientifically understand, quantify and track each – individually and collectively, as part of a common purpose. Right now, any of the marketing disciplines can justifiably find routes to these same ends. If PR fails to seize the Outcomes moment, it will simply move itself to the margins of relevance as others spend bigger and better getting the measurement of these same outcomes right. They, not us, will then hold the real power to persuade.
2. The truth of Data
PR does not need to move into the full-on data business and it must surely avoid sympathetic platitudes and clichés about the world of Big Data, treating this as the brightest and shiniest bandwagon on which to jump. Instead, (readily accessible) data must now become the foundation stone for fresh insight and for the evolution of analysis for the always-on conversation; it must speak to communities and to networks and should be used in real-time in order to drive relevance and resonance. Data will certainly transform the role of time within communications – both servicing the instant gratification society and satisfying and ameliorating our increasingly innate attention deficit disorder.
Partnerships with data providers are the inevitable consequence for those PR firms who strive to get it right. Data providers will come in all shapes and sizes and will most likely include the social networks who increasingly guide, if not govern, everyday life – culturally, vocationally and socially – as well as the brands and the corporations who will embed data-gathering tools and techniques within their products and services. PR folk can be wise about the security and privacy implications of this neo-Orwellian world but that is to miss the main point: data will guide and direct; understand and re-balance; inspire and inform. Do not be surprised if a social network makes a play for a PR agency group in 2013. It would be a smart move.
3. The imperative of Organisational Design
Too much hollow rhetoric is spewed on the geometry and hierarchy of the communications landscape. I have been guilty of this myself, on more than one occasion. The shape of the pyramid of authority and/ or the speed of dispersion and diffusion of influence is interesting but not paramount. What is certain is the long-term shift away from traditional elites and towards regular people, not least in the workplace. Philip Stephens nailed this beautifully in a recent piece in the Financial Times – a “megatrend” of individual empowerment, a development that will change fundamentally the way societies are organised.
No PR campaign will therefore be complete without strong and sensible guidance from experts in organizational design – as businesses turn themselves inside out and as both states and industries begin to look at themselves, if not from the bottom-up, then certainly through a more relevant and democratic lens. Accountability to the ideas and demands of the workforce as well as the workplace will become increasingly vital and unavoidable – and businesses that listen properly (and in real time – see above) will gain appreciable competitive edge.
Intelligent PR firms in 2013 will be those who arm themselves with real expertise in this space and can deliver the plan, not just the theory.
4. The triumph of Ideas
Somewhere along the line, we seem to have lost sight of the idea, replacing it instead with either fragmented actions and/ or jargon and/ or slogans and/ or a technocratic pseudo-psycho babble. Or, occasionally, all of the above. We have mistakenly grown to see platforms not as ownable sources of creative energy and monetisable idea flow, but either as transient technology channels or as confluence points for otherwise random tactics. Innovation has become more about a rush to market with piecemeal thinking, than about building a sustainable programme for competitive brand or corporate advantage. And yet we wax lyrical about the creative industries, the knowledge economy and the notion that the best brain always wins. We need to take heed of our own advice.
I suffered some sobering moments recently, while judging a clutch of industry awards. There was so much ’stuff’ (aka output) but so few genuine ideas. Worse still, the essence of PR had become badly polluted: here was a blancmange of ad campaign amplifications; phony product launches; ’news’ stories around, well, news; and a clutch of celebrity embarrassments. There was a sad but noticeable lack of original thinking – no genesis the likes of a Marks & Spencer Plan A, an Eco-Imagination, a Nike+ or a Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, conceived by PR folk – and a weird disconnect persisted between the commercial need (awareness, loyalty, sales etc) and the idea itself. We seemed to have grown ourselves into a vacuum.
The PR industry – our profession – needs to think about where have all the big ideas gone and what is now closing our minds to their generation? We must re-connect the big idea with commercial need. Conceiving and curating The Big Idea is what we can own for and with our clients and their communities. And, after all, it is the stuff that makes us all famous.
There is, of course, more to discuss besides and much more to fix within the world of PR. I have made only passing reference to networks and almost no comment on the relentless drive to mobile. Maybe these are just hygiene factors now, just as the fact is that all media is social. I have posted before on the rise of the Chief Citizenship Officer and the increasingly central role played by the Water Energy Food nexus and its associated concerns. Likewise, there are some fundamental challenges to be faced on the diversity front – which, if not properly addressed, will only further marginalize PR through a narrowing social and world view. But all these will count for little unless and until we address the fundamentals head-on: the four heels of Achilles.
In past decades, PR has managed to find its own, renewal gene: the shift away from green-washed Corporate Social Responsibility and towards a more genuine Sustainability agenda is one such example of this; an appreciation of social business (and not just social media) is another. PR (or Public Engagement) was in many ways also inadvertent beneficiary of the Stakeholder Society, as other communications disciplines struggled to understand/ articulate/ deliver multi-lateral outreach. On each occasion, renewal then led to regeneration – but this time, if we fail to grasp and grab the science, understand and articulate outcomes and return to cherishing the Big Idea, our last Houdini moment may have actually passed.
When we grapple with ‘what matters most’ in 2013 – watch this space and these four: Outcomes over Outputs; the truth of Data; the Imperative of Organisational Design; and the Triumph of Ideas. Our humanity will henceforth be rooted in scientific fact as well as in original thinking. My conviction is that we can wear it well if – and only if – we properly rise to the challenge of recognition and reform. The clock is ticking.