What is the new definition of PR?

PR ain’t what it used to be. Or is it? According to some, PR is mainly about reputation management, so no change there. Yet others say traditional PR is dead, and now it should be renamed Public Leadership. Senior PROs debate what PR is in 2015. We spoke to a range of PR professionals about the evolution of public relations.

PR is reputation management

Today, PR is mainly about reputation management says Lisa Elliott, director and partner at PR firm Lansons: “It was Richard Branson that previously said that ‘your reputation is everything, you’ve got to fight to protect it’, and these words will ring true for many businesses this year who will find themselves under increased scrutiny.”

“Unfortunately, some companies don’t understand the real value of their reputation until it is too late and they have put it at risk. As the country gears up for another General Election this also adds a whole new dimension. Government bodies, politicians and NGOs will be calling for more transparency on a variety of issues impacting different sectors of UK business.”

PR is dead, long live Public Leadership

For Robert Phillips, co-founder of strategy consultancy Jericho Chambers, the term “PR” is defunct. He explains: “The existing model of PR is no longer fit for purpose. It is effectively an analogue function in a digital age. There are five reasons for this. First, PR's failure – and financial impotence – to fully embrace data and therefore be driven by real-time insights. Second, a continued and misplaced obsession with outputs over outcomes. Third, its pointless defence of hierarchies (and command-and-control communications) rather than fully engaging with networks of influence. Fourth, its inability to deliver to scale. And, fifth, a chronic shortage of talent to initiate the changes needed. PR will of course survive as an industry (people ‘buying’ PR services) but that does not make it either relevant or compelling as a practice, in its current form.”

Phillips suggests an alternative model, “Public Leadership”: “This is activist, co-produced, citizen-centric and society-first. It has been developed to understand the chaotic way the world is, not the way the world was. It can be measured through Public Value, which is all about accountability to wise crowds of diverse stakeholders and escapes the madness of absolute and often irrelevant metrics. Radical honesty and radical transparency sit at the core of these new models. Organisations are judged by what they do, not what they say. It is all about actions, not words.” 

PR is conversation

The digital age is transforming PR, and for Alex Myers, managing director of PR agency Manifest London, PR means less broadcasting, and more discussion: “In today’s social economy, where the lines traditionally drawn between online and offline experiences, between earned and owned media and between the whole spectrum of marketing disciplines are all blurring, PR has taken on a more strategic and significant role, built around conversation rather than broadcast. We now live in a world where brands need a soul to succeed. While people simply buy a product, they can join a cause; and PR is the only marketing discipline with the capacity to build one.”

PR’s definition is in flux

Grant Whiteside, product and development director at internet marketing agency Ambergreen, agrees that digital has changed what PR is about these days, but the discipline cannot be defined neatly, as it is still in a process of change: “Public relations now has measurable outcomes that need to be aligned to many other parts of the sales, marketing and communication process across an organisation. Brands are now more informed with greater support from the boardroom decision makers. They are looking for clarity of the service offering as more agencies feel obliged to provide a ‘full service’ digital comms and marketing value proposition. This trend will continue to grow, but PR and how it is perceived as a service and who provides remains in a state of flux.”

PR is trust

Sally Maier-Yip, Europe-Asia PR specialist says that online world doesn’t change the essence of PR, its main focus is still trust: “The true purpose of PR will remain the same despite the rise of more new technologies. Trust is still, and will always be, the true purpose of public relations. PR must always be able to build, manage, protect and influence the trust between brands and their audiences.”

PR means social, personalisation and accountability

James Kelliher, CEO and chairman of agency Whiteoaks PR says there are three key elements to PR these days. Social media, personalisation and accountability: “First, as long-standing media demarcations blur, more and more clients will utilise the multi-channel approach to engage with end-audiences. Second, audiences that are overloaded with information will expect content that is far more personalised and addresses their needs, desires and pain-points. Third, PR will have to demonstrate it is having a tangible impact.”

“More and more organisations we talk to are demanding we establish a link between PR outputs and business outcomes and in most cases that is going to be measured through revenue. The PR industry must develop a methodology to meet these expectations. Overall, the PR industry has to mature and can no longer be the moody business discipline in the corner that few people understand. If it wants to be taken seriously, measurement will be at the heart of it.”


What does PR mean to you?

Ann Longley, director, digital and social communications at agency Eulogy&Onlinefire:

“Creativity has never been more important in communications. PR knows how to come up with cut-through ideas, but now we need to ensure they are supported by digital assets that can be socially shared. Our job is to help brands be entertaining or useful, because being quiet is not an option.”

David Wiles, director at agency Shine Communications:

“We as PROs have had a number of strings to our bow for several years now and this has only escalated as we have, rightly, taken control of our client’s social media strategies. We focus on the powerful communications we can deliver for clients when the skillsets of PR, social media and SEO combine.” 

Nicola Koronka, director at PR agency Missive:

“PR is now underpinned by conscious reputation management. Brands are being forced to conduct themselves in a constant public spotlight. This ‘nowhere to hide’ culture, fuelled by the rise of individualism and emboldened expression through social channels, brings with it pitfalls not easily navigated by business leaders. Businesses will become more duty bound to communicate their perspectives on social, economic and environmental issues. As a result, PR practitioners will be called upon to sense-check to a far greater degree and offer broader business-wide advice.”

To join in an industry debate about the definition of PR (#PRredefined) go to www.PRredefined.org

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