A response to: ‘PR, Not Communications’

Richard Edelman has written a great post about what he envisages as the future of his agency in PR. It’s a very good read and is particularly interesting to an international audience because the post was prompted by questions from staff in his London office rather than a North American viewpoint. I personally think that the problem outlined and the solution to it is more nuanced:

  • If you understand PR as public engagement then I would agree with you. In fact, I would go as far to as to say that organisations are moving from being ‘marketing orientated’ – focused on the consumer, to being ‘PR orientated’ – focused on relationships and those relationships driving success. I would further argue that ‘we are all PR people now’ (the we being the larger organisation). This does bring the question is PR now too important to be left to PR people, in the way that the same question was asked of marketers previously?

Here is where the nuance comes in:

  • There are many people both within and outside the industry that don’t define PR as public engagement but influencer engagement. I have heard marketers call PR free advertising and digital marketers call it press release distribution. Or worse still, PR is media relations or reputation, which is a codification in many cases for business publication media relations and fire-fighting. In the UK at least, I would argue that the ‘brand of PR is broken; partly because of this mis-definition, but also because of a lack of trust in society: government spin, corporate cover-ups, corruption. The institutions involved may have regained their reputations somewhat, but PR as a profession hasn’t. In fact, Stuart Bruce of Wolfstar mentioned that the PR brand has been broken for the past 20 years, so it isn’t likely to be fixed any time soon

I think that it’s significant that this request for redefinition Richard Edelman mentions in his article was raised in the UK, which is one of  many countries that are less sophisticated than the US in terms of PR.

So what does this all mean?

  • When the UK government legislated around online media and social platforms for marketing purposes, the CIPR wasn’t consulted and in the end had to try and insert itself post-process. This is precisely because PR is seen to be defined by its channels rather than relationships or engagement and this view is perpetuated from the top of the industry

The brand of PR or public relations holds businesses back in terms of growth and scale.

As I’ve talked on this blog recently about the PR brand and its effect on scale / growth potential:

The way it was once put to me was like this: going and buying a campaign from an advertising agency is like going and buying a car from a BMW dealership. You will go to an impressive commercial space, be reassured by the clean room-esque environment of the service area and pay a large amount of money over for your car. Buying a campaign from a PR agency is closer to buying the same BMW in front of someone’s house as a private sale. You turn up, it doesn’t feel particularly reassuring and pay by banker’s draft at an appropriately discounted price.

Edelman’s UK offices in Victoria are not indicative of the state of the PR industry in the UK. Most PR businesses are small operations with sub-1 million GBP turnovers.

PR is often not seen by customers as a strategic spend. The budget is often assigned after media planning, purchase, creative, advertising etc, corporate communications and corporate/social responsibility (CSR) is often used as a sticking plaster when systemic change in product and process is what is really required.

All of this has led to a bleed in talent in the PR industry (at least in the UK agency world) which again I’ve highlighted recently:

With many of the most talented social and digital people in the industry leaving PR and heading towards media planning, search marketing, word-of-mouth marketing and digital creative roles in in-house marketing teams and agencies. Whilst the PR industry does gain from the occasional influx of journalists, they won’t bring the necessary skill sets and expertise that the industry is losing to other sectors.

Having spoken with friends who’ve made the move; I’ve come to the conclusion that all but the biggest agencies in the PR industry is losing an arms race in terms of:

  • Investment in tools
  • Ability to learn from other marketing disciplines
  • Larger client budgets
  • Salary inflation driven by other disciplines looking to expand into PR-related areas

In terms of the client budgets, having spoke to a friend who runs social for a large media buying agency the difference seem to be a factor of ten! This trickle is starting to become a flood, I know of half a dozen people currently making the transition out of the PR industry, which in the relatively small ‘digital / social people in UK PR agency’ world is a significant number.

I suspect that the accelerated convergence driving these agencies to hoover up PR talent is because there is much less budgets to fight over. Generally multi-national companies want to present a good face in the US where they generally have a listing since they would otherwise be worried about equity analyst perceptions. They also want to spend in high-growth markets like east  and south Asia. This means that there tends to be proportionately less money spent in the ‘old Europe’ as a US politician once put it.

In addition there was a more local effect, up until the the general election last year; the UK government had been propping up the advertising and media industry by spending over 1 billion GBP per annum on marketing and advertising. So there is a considerable shortfall in revenue that needs to be made up, by getting more of the available marketing spend. There will be local accelerating effects in other markets: no banking sector to speak of in Ireland and government deficits being reined in across the rest of Europe.

Because of this the UK and Europe are likely to be a fast-moving marketing laboratory experiment showing what will happen over time in other parts of the world.

In the UK, we’ve seen businesses who fit within the digital PR space having to change their model dramatically or are struggling to survive. Whilst Richard Edelman considers his agency to be a PR agency, I’d imagine that the external perception has managed to transcend PR, just as it has for many of the larger agencies, so his argument is probably a mute point. The company I work for is a chimera: half interactive / social, half PR in terms of the face we present to the world and the the work that we do. For many smaller agencies that isn’t a luxury that they enjoy.