Revolutionary Measures

Time for PR to change its name?

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to explain exactly what public relations is (and what it isn’t) to generally well-informed and otherwise clued-up friends, relatives and people at events. No, it isn’t just Absolutely Fabulous, Max Clifford-style celebrity scoops in the tabloids or undercover lobbying on behalf of big business. Instead it should be a core business function – a way of getting your messages out to the right audiences, through the right channels and at the right time, with the aim of engaging people, managing reputation and achieving business goals.

That’s why the CIPR’s new #PRPays campaign is a welcome step in the right direction. It aims to demonstrate the strategic value of PR to organisations through interviews with senior managers at some of the UK’s biggest companies. The first video, with John Holland-Kaye, the CEO of Heathrow Airport is great. It shows that he sees and understands what PR brings to his business in multiple areas, from communicating change to supporting expansion.

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However, there is a big ‘but’ coming. Holland-Kaye keeps talking about communications in its widest form, from talking to passengers and other stakeholders to getting key messages across to employees and politicians. This got me thinking – why are we even talking about PR at all? At best it is a loaded term (see examples in the first paragraph), and at worst it puts a barrier up between the industry and the people we are trying to talk to. Why don’t we simply replace Public Relations with Communications? I can see four good reasons why we should:

1          It is simpler
Everyone communicates – it is one of the key human characteristics. So, people understand what the term means and the skills that it involves. Yes, that could be said to remove mystique (and as the saying goes, where there is mystery, there is margin), but to be honest the barriers to entry in PR are low to non-existent anyway. All you need is a phone, a laptop and an internet connection, and despite the admirable efforts of the CIPR to professionalise PR, that is unlikely to change soon.

2          It is comprehensive
“No, I don’t do that – that’s internal communications/public affairs/social media (delete as applicable).” That’s been the response of many PRs when clients ask for something that it outside their skillset. But rebranding PR as communications gives us the legitimate right to extend what we do into these neighbouring fields, at both a strategic and tactical level. The basic idea of understanding a company’s aims, and then creating and communicating messages that will successfully deliver these objectives is common to many areas of business – as communicators we should be applying our skills to help organisations in all of them.

 3          It is clearer to business
John Holland-Kaye’s interchangeable use of PR and communications shows exactly the issue that the profession has. Even those that champion what we do are a bit vague about exactly what the borders of our work are. Therefore, if we want to be seen as a strategic imperative for businesses, it makes sense to be clear in our own messaging and language. Talk about communications, and business leaders will see the value, helping the profession to be seen as a key part of successful organisations and ultimately boosting status and budgets.

4          It gives us room to grow
The rise of the internet has clearly transformed communications and given rise to wholly new disciplines such as Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and social media. Agencies mushroomed to take advantage of the budgets that clients were looking to spend in these areas. Lots of PR companies missed out, either because they didn’t see the opportunity or didn’t understand the technology. Communicating is now more important than ever – and at the same time no-one knows what the future will bring. Will brands need to convince the likes of Amazon or Google to feature their stories on voice assistants? How will AI transform how organisations communicate with their publics? No-one really knows, but if PR acts now and widens its scope, it will at least have a fighting chance of being at the forefront of future changes, rather than looking back in 20 years time to find it has been marginalised.

As I said, I applaud the CIPR’s efforts to demonstrate the strategic value that public relations brings. But I think the whole profession needs to go further – we’re communicators, so let’s be upfront and adopt a name that reflects what we do and gives us room to expand in the future. From now on, I’m not a public relations consultant, I’m a communications consultant.

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September 26, 2018 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Three ways PR can take a big step forward in 2018

For those of us working in marketing, and in particular PR, the advent of digital and social media should be creating a golden age for us. Why? Because of the ability (finally) to measure our work in a more forensic way and to link it more directly to business outcomes, thus showing the value we deliver. Whereas in the print-based past you had no direct way of measuring whether your piece of coverage led to sales, now you should be able to measure click throughs to your website or other actions taken after someone read an article generated by your efforts.Measurement_unit

What is more, the very skills that PRs possess, such as the ability to write persuasive copy targeted at specific audiences, are exactly what businesses are looking for in an era of content marketing.

However, I think three factors are holding back PR as a profession from taking a bigger slice of the marketing pie:

1.Faking it is easy
As the saying goes, “In God we trust, all others bring data.” And digital gives you the ability to measure data like never before. You can see views of an article, visits to a website, clicks on an advert, RTs or a rise in social media followers. However, as high profile cases in the advertising world have shown, it is relatively easy to game the system. In a recent blog, Stephen Waddington showed how simple it was to set up a Twitter account and buy 10,000 followers, for just $25. At a first look, his account (and its success) was plausible – and would have been even more so if he’d aimed to make his fake more believable. As CIPR CEO Alastair McCapra, points out, “It is precisely the things which are most fakeable that are most measurable. The cult of measurement is powering the tidal wave of fake.”

Clearly, this is not a problem that solely affects PRs, and I’m not suggesting that practitioners are deliberately engaging in full scale fraud. But simply measuring metrics such as the number of followers opens us up to accusations that we’re simply transferring the same mindset that measured the size of a cuttings book, to the online world.

2. Measurement needs to be more detailed
This brings me onto the second challenge. PR people need to go beyond measuring outputs to measuring real outcomes. And that means getting really involved in a business and investing time in measuring what matters. What is the overall objective and how can you create a PR metric to support it? It does mean more work, and potentially learning new skills, but at its heart it is about asking questions of your client/organisation – something that PR people should be good at.

3. PR isn’t a silo
In the past ongoing PR was often run separately from the rest of marketing. Obviously, there would be involvement in big events, such as a product launch, but the focus was on communicating with the press. But public relations can (and should) be a lot more – meaning that PR teams need to think in a more integrated way. How are you going to your message out in multiple ways to reach the right audiences? That means going beyond the press release to embrace social media, emails and slides for sales and other marketing tactics. It is up to PR people to proactively drive this and provide a complete portfolio of content if they are to be seen as central to the business, rather than peripheral figures. And if PR doesn’t act, other marketing disciplines such as advertising and SEO will move in and take responsibility and budget.

We’re already half way through January, so it’s a bit late for New Year’s resolutions. However, PR practitioners should take stock and rethink how they operate, making 2018 the year they step up and earn the respect and budgets that their role and successes deserve.

January 17, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The wages of spin

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When I tell people I work in PR I tend to be put in one of two groups – either seen as a purveyor of celebrity tittle-tattle or as a slick spinmeister changing government policy. Obviously I do neither of these – for a start I wouldn’t recognise most celebrities and my influence on government is limited to voting at elections. There’s no way I could compete with the likes of Malcolm Tucker when it comes to either Machiavellian behaviour or inventive swearing.

But government spin is currently back in the news, thanks to the involvement of lobbyist Lynton Crosby with Tory election strategy. At the same Crosby’s company works with tobacco firms and fingers have been pointed at the postponement of the switch to plain cigarette packets since he joined David Cameron’s team. Both sides deny any wrongdoing, with health secretary Jeremy Hunt (remember his denials over Murdoch?) saying that he has not been lobbied by Crosby.

At the same time parliament is discussing a new lobbying bill that aims to create a register of third party lobbyists and compel them to publish a full list of their clients. This seems a little delayed given that David Cameron suggested in the run up to the last election that lobbying was ‘the next big scandal waiting to happen’.

I’ve got nothing against lobbying per se. If government is making critical decisions of national importance it is vital that they have as much information as possible and specialist experience and knowledge is vital to deliver this. Equally, constituents need to be able to raise their concerns with their local MP, whether they are businesses or individuals.

Where it gets complex and unclear is when things are not open and transparent. For example, MPs that are engaged in consultancy work for shadowy organisations and then introduce helpful amendments to bills that benefit these clients or lobbyists that have dual roles as special advisers at the same time as representing specific business interests.

This isn’t just about PR or spin, but I think we need draconian change in three areas:

  • Not just a register of lobbyists but a blanket ban on advisers working for government and companies at the same time.
  • Given their well above inflation pay rise, MPs should be banned from taking on paid consultancy work with any organisations.
  • There should be a register of lobbyists and their clients, and this needs to be comprehensive and detailed. It needs to be clear who the ultimate beneficiary is of any lobbying, so companies can’t hide behind shell organisations and the length of time and budget involved should be published.

As a PR person who focuses on technology and start-ups I’m tired of being tarred with the same brush as parliamentary spin doctors who probably earn ten times my salary. And this isn’t sour grapes, more that if PR is going to be seen as a vital part of (above board) business, it needs to clear up its act in all areas. Time for trade body the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) to do some lobbying of its own to benefit the entire industry – unless we want to be pigeonholed as Malcolm Tuckers or Matthew Freuds for the foreseeable future.

July 17, 2013 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments