The Blog

Are We Out of the Woods? PR After 2016

Like so many folk involved in corporate communications - or in any business sector, really - I marked the start of the year by laying out a few thoughts about how our industry would fare in 2016. Now, in the midst of drafting entries for several of the PR league tables, I've had a chance to revisit my thoughts from early January, and I'm glad to say I stand by earlier observations: the main challenges we face this year are securing market share in a slow growing market, fighting off procurement and worrying about global financial markets, as well as finding and keeping the best talent. But I've also had a chance to think about bigger, longer-term, issues for the PR world - in other words, the challenges and opportunities in the mid-term, after 2016.

One thing to say right away is that unlike some vocal PR practitioners I don't believe PR is dead. But I of course believe it is changing, and doing so in a number of ways.

Most importantly the old distinctions between PR disciplines are breaking down, and breaking down fast. Having skills and expertise, in, for example, public affairs, investor relations, consumer engagement and so on, is still a key priority; but a 'pure-play' agency, able to operate in only one area of knowledge and experience, is likely to end up in a cul de sac. Can any of us seriously imagine a 'public affairs' challenge that doesn't call on media relations skills, or a 'financial PR' gig which wouldn't benefit from thought leadership, a consumer perspective, or employee engagement? The best agencies are already increasingly looking to cover communications with all stakeholders, and the firms which master collaboration and integration will unquestionably be the most successful in the future.

Amongst those key internal barriers that is fast evaporating is of course the one between consumer PR and the rest. Injecting creativity and a sense of consumer focus into even the driest corporate and public affairs brief is a huge and increasing trend for our industry. And similarly bringing together PR and disciplines from elsewhere in the marketing and communications canon is enabling new and exciting approaches to campaigning.

Even the most 'corporate' clients increasingly demand big ideas, imaginative creative approaches, and approaches to execution which engage the target audience as well as talk to it. And at the same time consumer briefs more and more seek to address big issues to deliver brand love and loyalty, such as societal impact, sustainability, supply chain responsibility, and so on. In a few years' time how often will we talk about below, above or even through the line campaigns?

Another big trend for the next few years will be the way what we sell and how we sell it is changing. In the old days we would agree retainers, significant parts of which would go on mid-level activities like programme management. Now clients are more savvy, and demand and will pay for creativity and innovation, as I've described, and for senior strategic advice that really makes a difference. This ought to lead to a new approach to pricing, where we are valued more for the outcomes and impacts we deliver and less for the time we serve. At the same time those who really buy our services, the frontline communications teams, Chief Executives and senior management, seem to be winning the battle against finance and procurement.

In short, the fixation since 2008 on obsessively driving down costs, no matter what, and on outputs that are easy to count, is slowly giving way to a renewed focus on value for money and outcomes delivered. There are grounds for hope that before too long clients will think about communications strategies as they should any business activity, in terms of their likely impact on the bottom line. Fingers crossed.

One final thing that needs to change about our industry is the way we look and feel. In particular, it is all too often the case that teams remain largely white (often from the UK, US and Australia, it seems) and middle class. This limits creativity and leftfield thinking: we all know there are plenty of studies to show that diverse teams are capable of greater innovation. It also means that agencies are not representative of the communities they claim to be able to communicate with on behalf of their clients: after all, watching a middle aged, comfortably off, man talking about how to reach out to disengaged 'yoof' is always mildly embarrassing. So there are good business reasons to do more to promote social and racial, as well as sexual, diversity; it is also morally right. Over the next few years I expect agencies to embrace the need to change, and the industry will be all the better for it.

So there are some big trends that will affect our industry in the next few years. I haven't even mentioned the threat from marketing on the one hand and management consultancy on the other. That can be for another blog, but in truth we ought to have little to fear. Good PR professionals, excellent corporate communicators, are trusted advisers to their clients. We have often worked with them for years. If we change now and in the coming months and years, and offer them an ever more commercial, more creative, more strategic and more representative service we should be well-placed to work closely with them for many years to come.