How is the future of PR measuring up?

The future of PR is possibly one of the most discussed topics around at the moment. Why? Well PR people do love a good debate. And the recent CIPR presidential election campaign certainly brought it to the fore.

To be fair, there is a lot to talk about. None more so than how does PR remain relevant in today’s converged digital landscape?

Diminishing media returns

Media relations has traditionally been the bedrock of PR, and the media has been changing faster and further than most over the last few years. First, the appetite for print began to plummet as their audiences fragmented into social media and the wonders of the internet, plus the many alternative ways people and businesses can now get their news. Next, advertising budgets dropped as brands reacted to the diminishing audiences by redirecting investment into Google, Facebook and emerging digital native news outlets such as Buzzfeed and The Huffington Post.

The combination of these factors squeezed the numbers of journalists and made many commentators call into question the standing and influence of these fallen giants of media. So, if the efficacy of the media is under threat, it follows so is the viability of most PR agency business models, right?

Marketing on the pull

At the same time, marketing and advertising types have woken up to the limited effectiveness of expensive promotional activity. The big-budget-branded-blanket approach is giving ground to smarter, cheaper, issues-led digital campaigns. This ‘pull rather than push’ model is fuelled by the digital convergence and ready-made for the connectivity of communication. New sub-sectors have emerged — content marketing, inbound marketing, account-based marketing — to name a few. All of these centre on pushing out content digitally to engage and inform audiences; to start discussions and comment on issues, rather than blast out brand messaging. The trouble for public relations is this subtler sell is usually our preserve, but these guys are smart and do not think twice about parking their tanks on the PR lawn.

To make matters worse for public relations, these two worlds are colliding.

Responding to their commercial challenges, publishers and news outlets are now exploring the revenue potential of leveraging their editorial credentials to find new ways for brands to connect with their readers/viewers through issues-driven content, rather than brand-fuelled advertising. Content that looks and reads like editorial, but has been made possible through marketing investment. Traditional media giants including The New York Times and The Guardian have invested substantially in ‘content lab’ operations to capitalise on this approach. At the London Evening Standard, ‘commercial’ journalists even share the news room with their ‘traditional’ colleagues to maximise revenue potential, while treading the fine balance with editorial integrity.

Add into the mix the rise of the digital influencers, individuals born from social media and boasting substantial followings. These digital natives now command the attention of audiences and brands alike. And are comfortable with commercial partnerships over sponsored content that further dilutes and challenges the influence of traditional media relations.

So, you have traditional media relations viewed by many as a dying art, marketers adopting PR principles, media owners happy to create news on the right issue for the right price, and a new breed of influencers who are disrupting the PR relationship playbook.

Who would want to work in public relations with all this going on?

The ideal of PR meets reality

Many would argue that public relations is more than simply media relations: this was certainly a core tenet of the recent CIPR election campaign. That it can transcend tactical activity and provide organisations with strategic counsel across all operations; orchestrating entire communications efforts to maximise commercial gain and preserve reputation.

I do believe that public relations has this potential, but also recognise that the vast majority of firms do not bring the PR guy or agency into the inner corporate circle, or hand them the keys to marketing comms-mobile.

But is this station such a bad thing? Why should PR believe it merits a place at the boardroom table? What have we done to earn it? How can we prove we have a claim?

Proving your worth

What we should see from the maelstrom of modern media is the need for proof: return on investment. This is the language that board members understand and use to evaluate performance. And this has been an Achilles heel for public relations for as long as I can remember. There remains a disconnect between the business of public relations and the business of business.

However, what the digital explosion has been fuelled on is data. Big data, small data, it’s all readily available. The potential to quantify impact and engagement and to evaluate campaign activity like never before.

Now it’s not perfect, as seen in Facebook’s reluctant mea culpa over feeding clients data on video content performance that may only have been 20 per cent accurate, for TWO years. But, used intelligently and analysed properly, data presents a real opportunity to apply ROI to public relations.

Take, for example, the AMEC social media framework.

Part of the pursuit of universal measurement standards, this framework clearly and coherently uses data metrics to measure each stage of a campaign – or customer journey, if you are that way inclined – across social channels, campaign phases and a tacit link to business goals.

This would not have been possible just a few short years ago. Yes, it uses marketing language, but you cannot argue with the potential for evaluating PR efforts.

So, as often has been the case in our industry, public relations practitioners have the opportunity to prove their worth in this fragmenting digital ecosystem, or just keep talking about it.

I know what I’ll be doing.

Till next time