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Has PR got harder?

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” wrote LP Hartley, and this is certainly true of PR. The past PR world seems so much simpler, with its focus on media relations and press cuttings. On the other hand, old technologies were labour intensive, and now you can communicate to vast audiences in a fraction of a second. PR’s evolution means there is a lot more work for PR people to do, but more challenges also mean more opportunities. PR chiefs debate how the industry has got harder, and the ways it is improving

Is PR harder than it used to be?

Yes it is!

There is a lot of pressure on PROs to learn new skills says Jenny Fieldgate, head of technology at communications firm Red Consultancy: “I think it’s that the competition for clients is getting harder – not just from PR agencies, but from SEO agencies that promise link-backs, ad, digital and marketing agencies. And as businesses see more value from a comms function that is integrated and co-operative across disciplines we’ll all be increasingly stepping on each other’s toes. What does this mean for PR professionals? We need to step up and learn a lot of new skills, make further inroads into our clients’ sales and marketing functions, as well as retain focus on why we exist in the first place – our core competency of media and influencer relations. While this makes the day job more challenging, it’s also exciting. And what PR person doesn’t like a good challenge and an opportunity to learn?”

There is so much more to do, says Ked Mather, senior account director at agency MWWPR, but the good news is that this increases the value of PR: “Yes, PR might well involve more tasks with the boom of social and digital media. However, the most important thing is that this is exactly part of the reason why PR is becoming more credible as a discipline, and how we can matter more to clients by adding a new layer of value.

“As an example, monitoring and responding to negative sentiment on social or digital channels – and in real-time – is now the norm for PR practitioners. A never-ending task, especially if working with consumer-facing clients, where consumers could have issues (day or night) which are shared via their owned channels and in turn, then blow out into a full story on the Mail. No longer is it just about briefing and responding to journalists (or even bloggers) but consumers might, knowingly or unknowingly, become the catalyst of a major issue which a PR professionals need to resolve. They can be journalists in their right. Just look at the American Airlines fiasco!

“Essentially, by undertaking such tasks exemplifies the evolution of the PR role – and value – of practitioners to go beyond ‘media relations’ and play their part to manage a brand’s reputation by taking advantage of every possible channel available to them.”

New technologies offer great new tools, but it is exhausting keeping up says Sophie Church, account director at communications firm Lansons: “In theory, the way the PR and comms industry is evolving should be making life easier. We hear news in real time, as media outlets are informed; have access to stakeholders’ views and opinions at the click of a button and can analyse consumer behaviour with tools which weren’t even ideas five years ago. This means our capabilities as practitioners grows, our value increases and we become more important to our clients; a winning combination, right? Yes, if you can keep up.

 “As agency practitioners, we work across various different sectors and industries and all our clients have different objectives and priorities. Traditionally, this has been manageable. But the changing communications landscape and the ‘social media boom’ we are still referring to, means consumers operate in a fast-paced 24-hour environment, which our clients have adapted to meet. Agency practitioners have met this shift with open arms. We’re our clients’ eyes and ears on the ground, but having a view of all activity across their sectors in an increasingly ‘accessible’ world can sometimes feel like playing whack-a-mole. To keep up we must remain agile and make a concerted effort in our professional and personal lives to always be one step ahead.”

Any decent PR agency needs to spend a lot more time on analysing data these days says Jake Setterfield, digital account manager at communications agency Acceleris: “With the days of the industry floating [insert generic brand] down the Thames and faxing releases to journalists a bygone era (thank God), we’re now seeing a shift towards a data-led and analytical approach.

“As an industry, PR now encompasses such a broad range of skillsets and there is so much more to do than the traditional draft/issue/repeat cycle of press releases. From bolstering a new business approach or adding value to current clients, it’s easy to underestimate the value of insight as a skill when engaging with audiences and helping to influence on and offline tactics more effectively. With the wealth of digital tools at our fingertips, and even free ones such as Moz and Google Trends, this arsenal enables us to delve deeper than ever before into a brand or client and makes our jobs easier in the long run.

“This comes with a lot of research and number crunching, a far-cry from the stunt pedalling a lot of agencies did in the past. Practitioners shouldn’t rely solely on good writing skills; they now have to corroborate their work with SEO and digital marketing skills too, once the preserve of media buying and ad agencies.

“All too often, agencies go straight for the throat, delivering a stunt/release/content campaign without due care and attention or diligent campaign planning to see what effect it will have on stakeholders and audiences.”

PR professionals have fare more demands on them to be multi-talented and flexible says Sally Maier-Yip, founder of UK-Asia PR agency 11K Consulting: "PR is getting harder and more exhausting than before because the pace of change in technology and almost everything else in life is getting faster and faster. The past "less is more" has become "the more, the better", which makes our job even more multi-tasking, demanding and exhausting. While new technology and social media do provide us more opportunities to help us engage with our clients' target audience, it can also create more confusion or even crisis more easily, as information gets diluted and scattered in the Internet world and on gadgets.

“The solution is to embrace change and be open-minded. That means if your PR agency or you do not have strong digital marketing capabilities, don't freak out. Think of partnership and alternatives – can you become the strategic or content brain and partner with other digital specialists to deliver the work? Can you train yourself up to acquire those new skills? In today's fast-changing world, it's even more important to stay focused and identity your strengths that help you stand out among the increasingly crowded and competitive PR environment in the long term, both in the UK and internationally." 

Yes and no…

Media relations may have got more complex, but the need to focus on storytelling has not changed says Pat Southwell, director of strategy at communications agency Berkeley: “Remember the good old days? When long, boozy lunches were the norm? When coverage flowed in and clients never worried that much about what all those clippings were achieving? I hear this type of stuff all the time. There was more time for relationship building (and drinking). There was a greater focus on media relations. There were also more journalists to pitch to and, arguably, less cynicism.

“In this respect, media relations has got harder. But at the same stroke, PR professionals have many more tools available to them. We create content, develop social campaigns, organise and implement influencer activity – and much more. Arguably, this makes PR easier. We have a greater breadth of channels than ever, which are far more measurable. It’s easier to reach goals as a result.

“In summary, is PR harder these days? Yes and no. Media relations is harder. New ways to communicate and affect change makes things easier, but skills can be hard to come by. What never changes is the need for a great story. If you have this, whatever you do will be successful. Focus on that and the rest will follow.”          

Digital offers so many opportunities, this does mean more work, but many tasks are simpler says Jill Coomber, co-founder and director, OneChocolate: “As the industry evolves, it’s true to say things get easier and harder at the same time. We love that clients are getting more PR-savvy, so more understand what is possible and what is great work. Also, digital has opened the doors to so many more coverage (in the broadest sense) opportunities: PROs have always been the kings and queens of content. Social also gives us lots more insights into what journalists and influencers are interested in which is fantastic. And we love all the data for insights and measurement, and tools that automate and make all our lives easier.

“On the flip side, PROs are not traditionally very good at ‘data’. If data isn’t interpreted well, so stats rather than maths skills, it leads to ‘Tactical, Hopeful and Opportunistic Random Number Syndrome’ (THORNS). This is the use of good sounding numbers to report, when the overall results are not really indicating the same. To a savvy client, you can quickly become unstuck. The use of percentages in particular is in danger of becoming the industry’s new AVE issue. We all need to recruit more data people and those rare PR polymaths that are good at data too.

“The ideal nowadays is to be a traditional PR and new digital hybrid. This makes it tougher to start as there is so much more to learn vs the days when media was king. There’s also a lot of great agencies out there but a finite set of tactics and tools. This makes creativity more important to content year on year – from stunt to product launch – so your creative skills need to be world class.”

Things were definitely simpler in the past, but this does not mean that anyone wants to move backwards. PR is a more exciting and dynamic place to be these days, even if it is much harder work.

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