The financial, political, technological and media worlds have changed dramatically since the start of the 21st century. The global economic crisis, stagnation in the developed economies and growth in emerging markets, the rise of digital and social communications channels and the fragmentation of mainstream news outlets—these changes have all prompted new threats, and opened up new opportunities, for the public relations business.
But to take advantage of these changes, public relations firms need new business models, new—and more diverse—talent, and new ways of thinking. To put it mildly, a public relations agency designed to meet the major challenges of the 20th century is unlikely to succeed in the 21st.
Yet many of the world’s largest agencies, and a surprising number of midsize firms, continue to operate as if little has changed. Their infrastructure is a legacy from a different age, they have the same practice areas (often conflating actual practices such as corporate communications and product marketing, with industry sectors such as healthcare and technology), the same geographic structures, the same silos that served them (not always well) a decade or more ago.
And many of them have failed to integrate new ideas, new technologies and new media, into the way they do business—often treating changes that ought to disrupt existing models as if they can simply be bolted on to the old model.
Every time they do that, they miss an opportunity to create something genuinely disruptive, and they double down on their investment in traditional, vestigial, thinking—increasing their vulnerability to new firms with new ways of thinking.
Many of the firms in this volume are already acting on some, perhaps many, of the ideas presented here. Some have radically restructured their business using their own ideas of what the future will demand. It’s doubtful whether anyone has all the answers when it comes to creating a new model for the public relations firm, but there are several ideas that all agencies should be exploring or considering.
1. Big data at the center
Three years ago, I found myself in Davos—at a conference called Communication on Top—debating the future role of public relations in a shifting world. My own optimistic view was challenged by Marshall Sponder, an expert in web analytics. His major complaint: that PR people did not understand how to use big data; his big prediction: that within a couple of years, every PR agency that wanted to be taken seriously would have a chief data officer, playing a significant role in the leadership of the organization.
To say that progress on this score has been mixed would be extremely generous to the industry as a whole. There has been plenty of evidence that putting data and analytics at the center of communications can be incredibly powerful—the Obama re-election campaign is the most obvious example—but there has been incremental progress at best when it comes to using data to drive marketing and corporate communications more broadly, and only a handful of firms have anyone in a role roughly equivalent to Sponder’s chief data officer role.
2. Insight to drive meaningful creativity
One reason data is important is that it lays the foundation for the kind of insight—into stakeholder attitudes, values, beliefs and actions—that ensure relevance.
For too long, many public relations people—like the baseball scouts in Michael Lewis’s Moneyball who believed that they could identify a good baseball player based on little more than attitude, posture, and physique—have operated on the assumption that their years of experience alone meant that they knew a good PR campaign when they saw it.
But all too often, the ideas they generated were creative just for the sake of it. They resonated with reporters, but not with the wider audiences they were intended to reach. They provided entertainment value but didn’t do anything to influence behavior. They were “great” PR ideas with no business benefit.
Great data alone will not ensure great PR programming. But better data will lead to better insights. And better insights will lead to more creative public relations ideas—ideas that solve real business problems.
3. Understanding the human brain
Edward L Bernays would insist loudly to anyone who would listen that public relations was “applied social science.” That was true in the industry’s early days, when Bernays and others were pioneering a new discipline, and it remains true today.
What has changed is that we have new ways of understanding how the human mind words, how people decide what to believe, how they process information, how they make choices.
Most PR people could benefit from going back and reading Bernays’ classic The Engineering of Consent. But they should also be reading more recent volumes such as The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, Made to Stick by Chip Heath, or Contagious by Jonah Burger. Or listening to neuroscientists like David Eagleman, who presented at our first Global Public Relations Summit in 2012 and provided numerous insights—some of them quite shocking—into the ways emotional responses can overrule the rational mind, and the unconscious supersede the conscious.
Understanding the latest thinking in this area is essential for anyone hoping to change attitudes and behaviors.
4. Managing reputation is about more than just communicating reputation
There are two necessary preconditions if a company is to have a good reputation (by which we mean a reputation that strengthens the relationship between a company and its key stakeholders, reducing risk and providing greater opportunity). First, it must earn that reputation; then it must communicate what it has done to earn it.
The first of those things is by far the most important; traditionally, public relations firms have spent far more time and energy on the second. There is probably still a very good living to be earned that way—effective communication remains important; but firms that can help their clients earn the right kind of reputation—by helping to shape policy rather than explain it—will deliver and derive far greater value in the future.
This requires an understanding of corporate culture, and corporate values, and how to communicate them so that executives communicate them through their words and—infinitely more important—their deeds; employees believe in them and live them; and external stakeholders understand them and believe that they are authentic.
5. Becoming real brand journalists
The public relations industry has always recruited former journalists. But historically, it has demanded that they stop acting like journalists. Their perceived value was their ability to craft stories that their former colleagues would find interesting or appealing.
But that approach ignored their true value. Real brand journalism is not just about telling good stories, it’s about identifying and researching and developing those stories.
By hiring people who think and act like journalists, and encouraging clients to allow these “brand journalists” full access, PR firms can provide tremendous value. A PR person who looks at a client from a true journalistic perspective should be able to unearth both positive news (authentic stories that reinforce the messages a company wants to communicate about itself) and not-so-positive news (helping clients identify areas of reputation risk).