The future is unwritten, but PR will survive

PR agencies will cease to exist in the next ten years. That was the bold assertion my former colleague Rob Lowe, PR director of Eleven PR Australia, made in a deliberately provocative piece he penned recently. 

He noted, quite rightly, that the traditional media landscape is shrinking and suggested that PR companies are being compromised by advertising, social media and even SEO agencies encroaching on their previously exclusive domain.

I like Rob immensely, regard him highly (he just won two gongs at Cannes for ANZ’sd GAYTMs) and think he made some valid points.

Suggesting that PR agencies will start to position themselves as ‘earned media creative agencies’ was one, although the words weren’t quite right.

Another was based on the belief that the best earned media creative campaigns provide clients’ brands a beneficial role in their consumers’ lives.

However, he failed to acknowledge the pivotal role PR plays in helping businesses and brands, day in, day out, manage their financial profile and corporate social responsibility, provide high-end corporate reputation counsel, mergers and acquisitions or employee engagement services, to name just a few.

It was as if the work undertaken by corporate communications teams (either consultancy or in-house) were somehow consigned to irrelevancy and that the only agencies assured a future were creative ones.

Edward Bernays, who started out as a journalist and then went on to become the godfather of the public relations industry, boasted in one of his manuals: “When Napoleon said, ‘Circumstance? I make circumstance,’ he expressed very nearly the spirit of the public relations counsel’s work.”

The PR industry has kept expanding ever since Bernays enjoyed influence and success (he was named one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century by Life magazine) and it’s now an $11 billion global industry.

The 2013 Creativity in PR report, co-authored by the Holmes Report and Ketchum, was based on a survey of 600 PR people from 35 countries and it revealed that creativity is critical to how businesses perceive PR value, even as the PR industry struggles to find a business model that can help it genuinely prove its creative capabilities.

Change is the one constant that is driving every agency, whether they’re in advertising, media, digital or PR. Everyone is scrambling to reposition themselves as the integrated answer to every client problem. PR agencies are hiring advertising creatives. Media firms are building experiential departments. And ad agencies are entering (and invariably winning) PR awards.

So without question, the PR industry in New Zealand has to evolve and it has to become more confident and contemporary in the way it positions itself. Creativity is already becoming an increasingly important part of that shift as it is often one of the main things clients can’t do in isolation.

In an increasingly complex world, with a media landscape in constant flux and conversations about business and brands starting anywhere, PR is more important than ever. And of course, it’s now easier than ever to share a brand’s story so you better make sure it’s a good one. However, the public affairs, financial, advocacy and engagement services provided by PR consultancies are just as important as creative ones.

I don’t know what the industry will look like in a decade. Nobody really does. But the traditional PR model is undoubtedly eroding, without question. At its heart, PR is still based around how an organisation or individual talks to people and steers and guides them in ways before they connected with you.

And the 3,000 earned media, PR, or corporate communications practitioners in our country who do that authentically will be the ones who succeed over the next ten years.

The labels don’t matter. Offer real value and tangible benefits that clients appreciate and your future will be assured.

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