The PR industry is back in the solid, double-digit space this year, gaining 11 percent growth on last year, overcoming a post-recession slump. Overall, agency sentiment remains positive as new revenue sources such as social media have resulted in an upward curve. The global PR industry is at record levels: worth $12.5 billion and employing more than 80,000 people, according to the latest World PR Report, jointly published by ICCO and The Holmes Report. Yet despite the record numbers, not everyone seems convinced PR has arrived yet.
Sir Martin Sorrell, in a recent interview with PRWeek, said PR had not reached its golden age, despite the remarkable growth by national and multinational PR networks. It is an old industry mantra: PR is facing multiple new challenges and needs to adapt quickly in order to stay competitive and remain relevant – a simple and worn-out cliché but worthy of reflection. PR, by definition, needs to adapt at all times. Our value as advisers falls and rises with our ability to shape opinion while reconciling changing public with private interests. And the changes are fast and profound.
Advertising and digital agencies have significantly raised the bar, making huge strides with engagement strategies that would have been considered classic PR campaign territory just a short while ago. This does not make it easier for PR pros to finally get that coveted seat at the boardroom table. At the same time PR is still the first victim of marcomm cost-cutting.
No surprise then those senior PR executives attending last week’s ICCO Summit in Delhi agreed that we must be the drivers of change. ICCO’s voice matters as it represents 2,000 public relations consultancies worldwide. There was consensus that the imminent future of PR consultancies will depend on how much we’re prepared to embrace change. After all, it’s the currency we are in trading in.
It could have been a summit with entirely predictable outcomes but the discussions in Delhi were every bit fascinating and engaging, thanks to an inspiring panel of speakers. Here is my take on the debates and what we must do to get digital right.
1. Turn up the channels, not just the noise -According to MSL Group’s millennial study, some 75 percent of the global workforce in 2050 will be made up by a generation that rarely uses email or picks up print newspapers but stays in touch via WeChat and Whatsapp, while shopping and reading everything on mobiles. To quote from the report: If you're not where millennials expect you to be, you're nowhere. It’s plain and simple. PR’s success will depend on our ability to provide something appealing to the tech-savvy and clever consumers who will be key decision-makers in the not so distant future. It is abundantly clear that today’s communicators need to adapt to the digital world, engage audiences rather than just communicate towards them, and get a real grip on social media in order to stay relevant. Point in case: how many of us still run ‘digital departments’ instead of fully integrated PR teams?
2. Advertising is taking on PR -PR is prone to introspection and pondering over challenges our industry is facing, especially in view of the advances that advertisers are gaining in ‘our’ territory. Seriously, I have never understood why we are wasting our time with that. PR practitioners have a unique and important role to play that simply cannot be filled by advertising. Of course that does not mean we own the space. We used to be happy with our core competency as storytellers but that clearly is no longer enough. The focus must shift to genuine, engaging, multi-channel conversations and an enduring commitment to openness and transparency. If we realize that and adapt, PR is not at risk from advertising and digital.
3. We keep debating the same topics -The global war for talent, the rise of Asian PR, the potential of China and India: astonishingly, these were the exact same topics discussed at ICCO’s 2006 Summit, also held in India’s capital. Twitter was just four months old back then. What does that say about us? The answer is simple: the topics are the same. What’s new is that social media has amplified their importance. There is little doubt that social media has democratized the exchange and flow of information and accelerated the interconnectedness of publics around the globe, especially in China and Asia where the demographics speak for themselves. And that is exactly the point. The younger a population and the more access it has to technology and social media, the more urgent is the need to speak in their language. Again, there is work to be done for PR pros.
4. Yes, talent is in short supply -Exceptional talent is rare and more valuable than ever but it does exist. Take Yuichiro Joshua Okada and Tetsuya Umeda; two millennials from Japan’s advertising giant ADK. The duo just won the prestigious Young Lions award in Cannes for their extraordinary and breakthrough anti-human trafficking campaign. We need to remember that young people like them won’t tolerate poor management, a lack of training or opportunities for personal growth. They are perfectly right to demand our best as we also demand the best of them. It is the job of agency heads, HR and practice leaders to identify, nurture and retain talent. If we find that all too hard, our industry will never realize its potential and we’ll be one step behind.
En route to Delhi’s airport on my way home to Dubai, in the backseat of an old battered Ambassador taxi, I had a chat with the driver, a turbaned Sikh in his fifties. I asked him what he expected from Mr. Modi, India’s newly elected Prime Minister.
“A lot”, he said with conviction. “But he he’s got no time. Look around you (referring to the traffic), it’s the same thing every day. How long to clean up this mess? He hasn’t got the time”. If I needed a perfect analogy to encapsulate what our industry leaders tried to get to over the two day ICCO Summit, here it was.
We know the challenges at hand, see pressure mounting to deliver real strategic value, and most would admit that time is running out. So what’s holding us back? The new PR game is data and social media-driven. We have the new tools and know how to integrate them. Now let’s focus on finding the right people with the right skills and give them the best PR training we can afford. And we definitely shouldn’t wait another eight years to get this right.