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Is PR Dead or Mid-Transformation?

This article first appeared on The Drum

The PR industry is mid-transformation. Former Edelman head Robert Phillips is plugging his new book asking if PR is dead. The best in the sector describe what they do as reputation management, business critical communication or global conversation, with little or no mention of the letters P and R.
 
Yet PR is booming. PRCA membership is at an all-time high, growing by 6,000 individuals over the past two years. And across the world, organisations want greater engagement and dialogue with their key publics, a ‘PR’ approach to their communications.

Last week, the PRCA’s PR Council, the think tank of the PR industry, announced its four priorities crucial to the future of the industry. In each area, a dedicated working group will seek to further industry thinking and develop debate. The four are:

· The Science of PR – how can data can be used to increase PR’s effectiveness;
· Evolving an integrated offering – integrating PR, digital and advertising for the perfect service;
· The economics of reputation – how reputation contributes to the bottom line – and how PR can operate more effectively in the Boardroom.
· What will the in-house communications function of the future look like?

The selection of the four areas is a window into the soul of an industry mid-transformation. Central to the thoughts of PR leaders is development of a truly integrated service, selected by 80 per cent of PR Council members as a priority. It faces everyone in advertising and the other marketing services too, of course.
 
In the social age consumers see organisations as one, yet organisations themselves often still work in silos and have not joined up. Subjects the working group, led by Louie St Claire, Harvard PR’s managing director, will look at include what does “integrated” mean (my Lansons colleague Scott Mckenzie recently blogged it as “just another buzzword?”) and how to work best with other agencies. We’ll also look at how to capitalise on the natural speed of PR agencies, and thoughts on how to unleash bigger ideas.

Alongside integration, reputation management is key to the future of those who currently call themselves PR. Engage with an organisation to protect and further its reputation and you’re talking about fundamental issues at Board level. Talk about media coverage or advertising creatives and more often than not, you’re down the food chain. PR guru Ian Wright, former Diageo Corporate Relations Director and now Food and Drink Federation Director General, believes that reputation needs to be part of management’s scorecard and bonus, to change behaviour and deliver reputational improvement.
 
Last year a YouGov survey for the PRCA showed that reputation delivers a more widespread set of concrete benefits than organisations appreciate (see this infographic for more information) – or than PR agencies can prove, hence the working group title: the Economics of Reputation.

60 per cent of PR Council Members plumped for the Science of PR, and how the industry uses data, as key to PR’s future. This working group headed by Laura Petty of Westminster University will look at data through the process, from planning to proof. Howard Kosky of Markettiers4dc tells me that an average tweet is seen by 7 per cent of followers, and he’s right that we don’t use insight enough to validate our advice.

The PRCA comprises both agency and in-house members, evidenced by the fact that the PR Council vice chair is David Hamilton, head of Public Relations and Engagement at Action for Children.
 
Last year the Council looked at the future PR agency and the project (led by Danny Whatmough of Weber Shandwick) pointed to something very different from the PR agency of today. This year, our working group led by Gabi Ioan, Programme Engagement and Change Consultant, Vodafone, will look at the in-house communications function of the future. If indeed, in our integrated, social world, organisations will have communication or marketing departments rather than broader ‘no silo’ business functions.

And what of tomorrow’s future? Maybe the subjects bubbling under in this year’s Council vote give a clue. Content marketing remains core to consumer PR thinking as does social and digital. But perhaps the rising importance of employee engagement is the most significant trend in the industry. Delivering every single employee as a brand ambassador and reputation protector would surely ensure today’s PR industry becomes tomorrow’s crucial adviser.