PR isn’t dying, but PR agencies might…

by Jed

Let me set one thing straight right up front; I work in an advertising agency, but I still consider myself to be a public relations practioner. I started in public relations (at Wolfstar Consultancy, under the excellent guidance of Stuart), and I’m still thinking and acting in the same way I did then, the only difference being I’m doing it in a different setting. With different budgets.

Now, with that out of the way (and hopefully any haters satiated), I’ll begin…

Firstly, there is no ‘lead role’ in communication between a brand and its audience anymore – this ‘power’ has been effectively disseminated across the whole organisation – that’s the challenge. It used to be that public relations was the pipeline to the public, but now that’s no longer true. So the role of PR now has to become more strategic. It has to evolve and has to take centre stage at a more strategic, and senior level.

This opportunity has been here in excess of five years. Easily five years.

The challenge from advertising agencies

Stephen is right when he states that the advertising industry isn’t ‘backwards in coming forwards’ – advertising agencies are increasingly hiring those with public relations brains to work alongside (and in) planning and creative departments. This is a massive risk to public relations agencies – what if all the talent gets vacuumed up into different disciplines?

Stuart talks about how bigger budgets allow advertising agencies to experiment more, but I think there’s more to it than that (and, in my experience, those big budgets actually allow different types of people to ruminate on things longer, rather than experiment). I think it’s more to do with the psychology of price and the associated perception of the importance of different disciplines. In his fantastic book, How We Decide, Johan Lehrer talks about how the distraction of numbers gives us twisted views on the value of things (the perfect example being a study where people were asked to read out their social security numbers, then asked to predict the price of a bottle of wine – the higher their social security number, the higher their prediction was for the price of the wine) – so when a healthy public relations retainer  (~£20-50k per month), is compared to a healthy monthly media budget (usually at least six figures) – the perception is that that discipline is more worthy of attention.

The difference in skill sets and responsibilities 

Then there’s the issue about job roles and skill sets. An advertising agency is (I’m massively over-simplifying) run by three types of people; account people, planners, and creatives. They all have different levels of seniority, but each is (usually) confined to that individual type of work – they do it all day, every day. So when a senior planner is rolled into a client meeting, the client feels like they’re getting an exceptional level of strategic advice. And they are. The planner knows everything about the market, the client, and the audience.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the same isn’t true of public relations agencies, but because the structure of most public relations agencies centres around executive, manager, and director (which is mirrored by account management structures in most advertising agencies), client meetings can feel like the same people are telling you about strategy, creative, and account management. Again, I think it comes down to psychology.

With both of these things in mind, as social rises up the agenda of most CEO’s, who has the ear of the CEO? The advertising agency, the media agency, and the management consultancy. All three can then charge more for social media strategy and activation, because the budget holders are used to spending a large amount of money with those types of agency. Then, because the social media work can be put through the planning, creative, and account management departments, it feels safer, like specialists are taking care of everything.

Who owns social?

Again, Stephen is right, the whole conversation about ‘who owns social’ is a complete distraction. It’s a distraction that many PR people have been basking in for more than five years, and in that time, other disciplines have stolen the march.

The bigger problem is that all disciplines are going to have to work in harmony – the whole idea of who ‘owns’ social breaks down when you accept that your social strategy should be aligned with your business and brand strategy (two areas traditionally owned by management consultants and ad agencies, respectively). When social is aligned with those two fundamental parts of a business’s strategy, social splits into two areas;

  • Strategy
  • Channel tactics

The conversation then becomes split in two – which type of people (with which skill set) need to advise on how to align the social strategy with the wider business, and then which type of people (and with which skill set) then activate that strategy across different social channels? As businesses move closer to becoming more ‘social’ as a whole, this challenge is only going to get bigger. If public relations isn’t careful, it’s going to find itself at the tactical activation end of the chain. Again.

Those working in senior public relations positions need to start proving their merit in strategic guidance – there is no question that public relations is an incredibly important management function, but it needs to step up the game, bring the swagger, and start proving its worth across the business.