The future of PR? Well, it’s not PR for starters… Frankie goes to London to find the answers

Frankie GFrankie Gallucci is the 2014 Liquid Ideas Employee of the Year, she is 24 and tomorrow night is a finalist for Best New PR Talent at CommsCon, the industry’s Logies. But she doesn’t reckon we should be in PR, or be called PR. . . . This is a good thought piece for those of us interested in, and fascinated by, the changing way we consume media and marketing messages:

The future of PR? Well, it’s not PR for starters…

Having studied advertising at University I grew a strong distaste for PR and those studying it. Advertising was more creative, we had more fun and the end result was clear – it was everywhere – on TV, billboards, you get my point. PR on the other hand was an unexplainable part of the marketing mix. I knew very little about what it entailed except for two words it was defined by: earned media.

I got my job at Liquid Ideas through the Communication Council Graduate Program knowing very little about public relations. The graduate program pairs up recently graduated hopefuls with advertising agencies but the year I entered one PR agency had entered the mix – Liquid Ideas. The decision to put Liquid down as my number one preference on the day was complete impulse, having only ever wanted to work for an ad agency, but Stuart Gregor somehow won me over in with his unique persona, scatter brain and ability to differentiate himself from the pack. I had never met anyone like him. Except maybe my dad. My dad played huge influence on why I wanted to enter the advertising world – having passed away far too young, he is well remembered and respected in the advertising and media landscape in Australia.

So, the point of my three paragraph introduction – had you asked me two years ago what public relations was I would have said earned media – simply getting other people to say nice things about your clients, while crossing my fingers behind my back hoping that I could ‘fake it until I make it’ at Liquid Ideas. Little did I know or expect that two years on I would be on the other side of the world in London sitting with 30 PR professionals from around the globe discussing the future of public relations and the communications industry.

Liquid Ideas is the Sydney partner of IPREX – a global consortium of communications agencies from around the world. A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend and participate in a global leadership conference in London. Over two days, together with my peers from Europe, America and New Zealand, we listened, learnt and discussed the future of public relations through the lens of ‘Beyond silos: operation and managing in an integrated communication industry.’

The first presentation (and my favourite) was from Arun Sudhaman, partner and editor-in-chief at the Holmes Report, one of the world’s leading journals focussed on our industry. Arun confirmed something we all already know and practice but don’t necessarily advocate within our industry – public relations is no longer defined or restricted by the term ‘earned media.’ Instead we need to start thinking in terms of converged mediapaid, owned and earned all together.

To stop myself from writing a novel about what we learnt and my thoughts on the communication industry below are some summarised learnings:

  • The term PR as it stands is no longer relevant. If we want to keep referring to ourselves as PR practitioners we need to change the stigma associated with it. We need to show (and then sell) all of what we are capable of. Education within the industry and to our clients is starting point. PR is NOT Edina and Patsy from AbFab . . .we wish they never existed, despite how funny they might have been.
  • Recruit and structure differently. We need to stop only hiring people with a traditional public relations background. Let’s expand the talent within our agencies to those with expertise in  digital, animation, creativity, analytics, behavioural science, cultural anthropology and the list goes on. Currently, the biggest form of recruitment in PR is talent from other PR agencies. In order to adapt to the changing environment we need to explore new talents that expand our capabilities (as well as upskill and train ourselves). On a global scale, talent is overtaking economic conditions as the biggest challenge in public relations.

The question here is does recruiting differently mean we need to change the structure of our agencies. Do we need to develop new teams such as social, editorial, film-making, planning and insight? Or can these areas of expertise work best as freelance? Traditionally PR agencies are structured differently to advertising agencies – is this something we should learn from? There is no clear answer here but something worth considering.

  • We need to think about changing the way we charge our clients. Agencies bill clients for staff hours. But at the end of the day clients are buying an outcome not hours. This was an interesting topic of discussion with at least half the room of delegates agreeing that billing hours may not be the most effective way of charging our clients moving forward. That being said there is no clear answer or direction of where change could come from but it does makes an interesting debate – charging for the calibre of the idea as opposed to the time for the idea.
  • Measurement is a mysterious beast. One challenge consistent across all agencies is measurement, how do we accurately show the value of our work? This topic is still very much up in the air globally but two things were clear. AVEs (advertising value equivalency) is NOT the answer. As an agency this is something we don’t do however many clients still use this to compare PR value to advertising. The other outtake was that we need to measure inputs, outputs and outcomes. Often we only look at the first two as outcomes can be hard to track – how do we measure the effect an article had on a consumer’s purchasing decision. If the public relations industry wants to prove their value in the marketing mix we need to make sure we are searching for these answers.
  • Leadership and management is not the same thing. Real leadership happens in the conversations you are having with people while management is about managing and allocating resources, capacity, projects etc. Leaders ask what, why, how while managers ask when, who, where. Leadership starts with empathy, which builds rapport and then trust. If you took the hierarchy away (of management) would people still follow? The worst thing you can hear within an agency is “that’s just the way we do it here.”
  • There is no such thing as a new idea, but there are new ways of thinking. Invest in creativity. Full stop.

The definition of public relations may be changing but the fundamental building blocks of what underpins our industry – understanding influence, relationships and storytelling remain the same. And public relations is not alone, traditional advertising and media agencies alike are also facing an unknown future as we no longer stand alone as silos. The black and white lines of the marketing mix have turned to shades of grey as the communications industry is at a tipping point of huge change.

A big thank you to IPREX Global President John Scheibel who created the wonderful GLC forum for me (and my peers) to discuss and learn what I just (briefly) touched on above. IPREX is a wonderful extended family that Liquid Ideas is lucky to be a part of. Check out more info here: http://iprex.com/

And Stuart Gregor – thank you for letting me take over your blog this week and for giving me the invaluable opportunity to represent Liquid Ideas at this year’s GLC.

Final words from John Scheibel, an age-old truism with a unique Ice Hockey slant:  “Skate to where the hockey puck is going…not where it’s been.”