Hilmarie Hutchison, CEO of Matrix PR illustrates how the role of the PR practioner has evolved.
History shows that PR has stood the test of time and continues to do so. The role of a PR professional has been through wars, industrial upheavals and rapidly changing market conditions. This is due not so much because of its resilience but purely due to its effectiveness and the ability to evolve and manage change.
The services offered by Public Relations (PR) agencies have traditionally been considered as ancillary; an adjunct to the core business activities and operations, often receiving a step-mother like treatment when it comes to allocating resources. However, over the past couple of decades, as businesses emerge, establish, and grow – with multifarious stakeholders – the role of PR has expanded in importance. Even for smaller enterprises, PR expertise is strategically valuable.
The last few years, in particular, has witnessed a shift in many industries to appoint PR managers to senior marketing roles. This is mainly due to their expertise in crafting integrated communications and their specialist skills at PR analytics and media monitoring. Business leaders are increasingly acknowledging PR as a crucial factor in their business plans; a game-changer with the potential to make the difference between success and failure.
This trend has been gaining momentum in recent times due to the accelerating pace of change in the global and local business environment, increased competition, disruptions caused by rapid technological developments, and heightened consumer awareness. PR agencies have supported SMEs from the start of their business journeys through to scaling and beyond.
However, in order to meet fresh and sometimes unprecedented challenges, PR agencies have to up their game – reinventing themselves and incorporating agility in their organizational psyche – to efficiently serve clients and thrive in adverse market conditions.
PR agencies must go deeper into the skin of their customers. They need to understand subtle behavioural nuances, their business models and commercial drivers, so as to design appropriate solutions. For example, the needs of an SME will be different from that of a large organization. So too will the narrative, with SMEs preferring the personal storytelling approach.
The need of the hour is closer collaboration with customers, to identify and meet hidden and hitherto unrecognized demands. Perhaps it’s time to listen more? There is also the need to constantly re-evaluate the agency's way of working, to optimize efficiency and keep getting better at what they do and how they do it. This will not only help PR agencies stay abreast but stay ahead.
The advent of new technologies and proliferation of social media have added to these challenges. Where historically organizations would communicate with their customers and stakeholders through conventional channels like print, the communication landscape today has undergone a sea of change.
Working at the human Level
What’s significant is the people who work in the PR industry that make the difference. In an age when the race for digital tools and innovation is consuming today’s business leadership, PR managers have continued to drive change by working at the human level. That’s the telling difference!
Mass of data
Both the quantum of data and channels for dissemination have increased manifold. According to an IBM report, 90% of all data in the world today has been generated in the last two years alone, at a rate of 2.5 quintillion bytes of data per day. The generation and archiving of this colossal amount of data has been enabled by the mainstreaming and mass adoption of hitherto obscure concepts like digitization, automation, Big Data and Internet of Things (IoT), which primarily entail recording almost everything that human beings do in a digital format.
This mass of data is then churned into trends and statistics through data analytics, machine learning and associated tools, with the intent of garnering commercially viable insights. The sheer scope and volume of data and communication channels have placed it beyond the realm of generalists and industry professionals who run companies, mandating instead the presence of dedicated and specialized PR agencies. The practice of ‘one size fits all’ is well behind us.
The rise in the importance of data means that PR practitioners work differently from their predecessors. Conversations on brands now take place on more channels, frequently and rapidly. For most, blogging, social media and podcasts seemed to have caused an overlap of owned, earned and paid media but not so for PR professionals.Today’s PR reports looks a lot different and one sees that outcome metrics work hand-in-hand with activity metrics. This is turn has influenced the ability to monitor the behavior of consumers. Yes, the changing complexion of PR is evident!
Together, data and the digital evolution has armed PR with the tools to enhance customer engagement and influence public opinion; strengthened by the ability for a more accurate measurement of effectiveness.
SMEs generally won’t be equipped to manage these tasks, which presents an opportunity for collaboration with a PR agency, whose experts will interpret data and create usable tools for the emerging business. This kind of partnership can also support the company as it builds an online presence, social media accounts, and relationships with prospective and current customers.
Go easy on the sales pitches
It’s also time for companies to play the reluctant salesman. The transparency and easy availability of information on the internet implies that customers today are much better placed than ever to gather and evaluate information on their own, rather than relying on sales pitches and brochures.
The logical corollary of this ‘data revolution’ has been a gradual reduction in the importance of traditional sales and promotional channels (such as salespersons, dealer networks, trade journals, information manuals, and brochures), with customers making informed decisions by referring to websites, internet searches, dedicated apps, and so on. While this presents challenges to some businesses, it does aid SMEs – particularly those with limited staffing budgets – to take advantage of organic feedback and word-of-mouth promotion.
PR and communications has evolved into a field of sometimes overwhelming complexity, necessitating specialized knowledge and expertise in order to successfully navigate the maze of multifaceted demands and sophisticated methods and tools that are available.
PR agencies are expected to come up with innovative strategies, following by a multi-pronged approach that utilizes the entire gamut of social media channels and technologies at their disposal. Then again, the very essence of each brand’s narrative has evolved. In an era of decreasing attention spans, where consumers are bombarded with information, personal storytelling – as favoured by smaller enterprises – can be especially effective.
William Shakespeare’s famous quote about brevity being the essence of wit can now justly be extended to include the importance of incorporating more visual images and graphical depictions conveying the core message. The adage ‘a picture speaks a thousand words’ holds true here.
This calls for PR professionals to keep abreast of the latest technological tools and take recourse to digital tools like infographics, videos, podcasts, and blogs, while crafting the message and designing its delivery. For SMEs, PR agencies offer an opportunity to access the strategies employed by more established companies, without the financial burden of on-boarding permanent PR staff.
Yes, the rules of engagement have changed and so has the role of PR. Admittedly, some of the basics of PR are unlikely to change but the dynamics of today’s PR and its ability to tell compelling stories, nurture enduring relationships and build strong brands is clear.
Opinions in this piece belong to the author.