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The evolving PR brain

2016 taught us that a lot can happen in a year, let alone a quarter of a century. The type and level of work a PR exec would undertake in the 1980s makes today’s world of PR look like rocket science. Even 15 years ago, there was no Facebook, no social media management, no Slack, no Marketo, no Basecamp. Nowadays, we need to understand data science, algorithms, how off-site SEO contributes to Google rankings, sales funnels and customer journeys. So how are PR brains having to evolve to keep up? Claire Walker, CEO of PR agency, Firefly, discusses how things have changed and the new skills PROs need:

“There was a time when we talked about the pace of change accelerating exponentially. Change and speed is now a constant challenge, so all PROs and communicators today have to focus on learning new techniques and skills, learning about new channels to audience, learning about new media and digital or social tools or if we’re not learning and changing, then being left behind. We are not just PROs, our role is more broad, we are comms people, and multi-specialists. We’ve seen reports predicting the death of the printed national by 2020, and whether or not this prediction is completely true or the date is premature, it’s a fact that media relations makes up less and less of our role today.”

The rise of the influencer

Walker describes her own evolution: “I look back at my career lows of stuffing envelopes, and the toxic highs of coverage boards lashed in spray mount; whilst there’s a place and a function for editorial coverage, it’s now a much smaller part of a larger ecosystem where content is also reused across paid, owned and social channels.

“Recent trends on the rise include content marketing, marketing automation and social campaigns incorporating bloggers, vloggers, Instagrammers and other highly focused networks. New trends for PROs to get their heads around include automation campaigns, integrating ABM and machine learning in coverage tracking (Signal Media, I’m looking at you). Of course, there is a still a place for the printed word for reaching certain specialist or niche groups, but PR and comms professionals have had to evolve fast to become influencer planners and strategists in the purest sense of the word, rather than straightforward press hounds.”

‘If you don’t know your pandas from your penguins, expect clients to walk’

Describing other modern demands on a PRO’s brain, Walker says: “In this digital and social world, we have been widening our SEO efforts, using online PR to help clients’ websites rank higher and attract more traffic. However, this also never stops; Google is getting smarter and thinking more like a human, so PROs producing high-quality content are well-placed to cash in on this trend. If you don’t know your pandas from your penguins, expect clients to walk.”

“This leads onto analytics and interpreting data. Google analytics now allows us to track results as they happen, meaning that reporting (and to an extent, evaluation) has become real-time. We were very excited to see that Google Data Studio is free, as of January 2017, allowing us to create far more in-depth and accessible reports than has previously been possible. Modern day PR should be about what we can do to align with and help achieve clients’ business goals, such as increasing sales or generating business leads – albeit from further up the funnel. Targeting national publications, for example, may still be a part of it and aid your clients’ business plan, but PROs today have to be much more strategic about who to approach and with what content. There are far fewer opportunities.”

Walker concludes: “It’s interesting to look at what is and isn’t part of a PRO’s remit – for example, social media management and paid social media campaigns are now part and parcel of a modern PRO’s job – 10 years ago, this would have been unthinkable. We’re constantly diversifying, but also have to keep a firm hand on spreading our skills too thin, so that we remain multi-specialists, rather than shallow generalists. We may not be able to predict the next disruptive technology, but PR agencies that aren’t constantly developing their staff and helping them understand, learn and apply new skills might as well dig their own graves.”

Industry debate

Three senior agency professionals discuss how they think the PR brain is adapting in 2017.

 The new PR brain 

You have to think in 3D says Sarah Harris, group commercial director at digital comms agency TVC

“I've been in the PR industry since 1994. John Major was prime minister. Tony Blair was elected leader of the Labour Party, Four Weddings and a Funeral launched Hugh Grant's career and Manic Street Preachers played Glastonbury. I sound 1,000-years-old right? Should have retrained as a yoga teacher/photographer/ (insert this year's career change option here). So why stay in PR? What's changed? Everything and nothing. The principles still ring true – know the audience, understand the media, write well, be creative, tell the story, a picture tells a thousand words.... but the process of getting there has morphed. In the 1990s and up until maybe just five years ago things felt more linear, more step by step. Sure you had to be creative but the day-to-day followed a relatively straight path – think Windows XP. Now a communications challenge has so many more facets – our brains have to function in 3D, 360 degree and VR. Media channels have morphed to include UGC and influencers, now micro-influencers. Content has expanded way beyond the written word – who'd have thought an infographic would be standard, that multi-platform content is expected and demanded. I love the way I have to know about what's new, what's nearly possible and how the boundaries of communication are being pushed and blurred. It's a long way from a franking machine, photocopied press releases, faxes and transparencies. Could it be a more exciting time to work in PR?”

Greater technical knowhow is important says Helen Frear, senior PR, social media and content executive at agency The Comms Co:

“A PRO’s job is no longer confined to media relations. The changing macro environment has dictated a need for us to move beyond traditional PR practices and demonstrate an understanding – and application – of a broader mix of marcomms tools including digital content and social media. As PR becomes an ever more integrated business, we need to become more creative and agile in our thinking, and tailor our services to needs changing client needs and market developments.

“As an increasing amount of what we do is online, it’s also advantageous for PROs to develop a greater technical understanding of CMS, social media and analytics tools, and even email marketing platforms. As a profession, we need to become more digitally focused, yet remain personable given people ultimately still buy from, and build relationships with, people not processes”

You must embrace change says Sally Maier-Yip, founder and MD at PR agency 11K Consulting:

“Fundamentally PR is still about managing other people's or companies' reputations. However, because of the rise of disruptive technologies, public relations has become human relations. We trust our immediate contacts such as families and friends for information and recommendations more than ever, as opposed to established media such as FT and BBC a decade ago.

“President of a country, or a rising star, we need to engage with clients' target audience like our family members. We need to react at real time, show our characters and vulnerability, and be totally personal and authentic in our tone of voice.

“This is even more so in leading digital innovation countries such as China, which is currently home to 668 million internet users and has more social media users than the US and the EU combined. This means people demand immediate engagement and information. There is no more crisis management as such as things can evolve at no time.

“Our PR brains need to be more proactive, personal and prepared more than ever. The key to success in PR is to embrace change.”

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