The reinvention of public relations

The CIPR East Anglia group invited me to open its Reinvention of PR conference in Cambridge today.

It was a cracking event that pulled in speakers from Cambridge University, eBay, Kantar Media, Santander and Three UK. My thanks to the East Anglia group for putting together such a great event.

Here’s my speech. It’s on a similar theme to events in London and Manchester where I’ve spoken recently.

Speech to the Reinvention of PR conference, Cambridge – 27 March 2014

Thank you for your invitation to speak today. I want to share with you 10 areas of the reinvention in public relations.

I’ve got 20 minutes so I’m going talk about what we’re up to at the CIPR and then try and hit a topic per minute and leave some time for questions.


I’ve spent the last three months working with Alastair McCapra, the CIPR Council and the team at the CIPR, getting back to basics and focusing the organisation on its vision and purpose as outlined in the Royal Charter that we received from the Privy Council in 2005.

We started a consultation exercise with members around modernising our governance yesterday.

The CIPR is unusual, like other Chartered organisations, in having its vision and purpose enshrined so formally. But that focus is helpful in defining our priorities.

Our purpose is to promote the highest level of professionalism in public relations through skills, knowledge, and research. We exist to serve the public interest and advance the expertise of our members.

In my view, best practice in public relations is about skills, not just experience. Media fragmentation and the increasing recognition of the value of reputation in boardrooms is an awakening for the public relations industry.

Organisations, like markets, are becoming networks, and traditional hierarchies are breaking. There’s a role for public relations within every department within a modern organisation.

I firmly believe that we’re at an inflection point in the profession. Public relations is no longer defined by media relations. It shouldn’t ever have been.

It’s a strategic management discipline focused on building influence and reputation by promoting mutual understanding. I tell anyone that will listen that there has never been a more exciting time to work in our business.

I’ve developed this thesis as part of a series of blog posts on the PRCA web site in response to Robert Phillip’s Trust Me, PR is Dead project. You might want to check it out.

To support that case today, I want to talk through some of the areas that I see as critical from the CIPR State of the Profession surveythe PRCA 2013 PR Census, the recent report from the European Communication Professional Skills and Innovation Programme, and my own work at Ketchum.

So here we go. Ten areas of reinvention in ten minutes. Set your watches.

#1 Workflow

Despite almost 20 years of new forms of media, communities, and the emergence of new influencers alongside journalists, public relations remains wedded to workflow that is more than 100 years old. Ivy Lee sent the first press release in 1906. That tactic remains a cornerstone of our profession. Change is coming but it’s slow.

Modernising public relations agencies and communications teams is one of the biggest challenges that the profession faces.

#2 Big data an illusion

Big data emerged as a hot topic for public relations last year but little data is where the action lies. Public relations practitioners need to use tools to deliver insights from data relevant to their publics; tools such as Lissted or Traackr for analysing networks, BrandwatchRadian 6 and Sysomos for listening, Unmetric for benchmarking, and Google Analytics for tracking web traffic. There’s a significant third-party tools market emerging. That’s a good thing.

#3 An academic and a historical perspective

One of the characteristics that mark out an industry from a profession is a memory and body of academic work. Other professional disciplines such as management consultancy aren’t shy about incorporating theoretical models into their proposition but when it comes to public relations more often than not we rely on instinct rather than academic rigor and data.

Practitioners joining the industry should have, or quickly acquire, foundation knowledge. There’s a related point, the role of universities isn’t to turn out industry ready graduates. Instead there needs to be a period of training as there is in any other profession. The simple fact is that academics and practitioners need to work better together.

#4 Insight and creativity

Social business analyst Altimeter published data last year that suggested that we are exposed to more than 3,000 brand messages per day. Most are corporate nonsense that don’t resonate with their intended audience, or publics, and are lost in the noise. Those that do are almost always based on a creative idea that is integrated and engages with its intended audience across multiple channels.

Content in all its forms is the drum beat of modern public relations campaigns. We need to get out of our comfort zone of text and images. We all carry devices with us capable of creating audio, images, text and video. Experiment with creating these different forms of content.

#5 Brands need a human voice

Hands up if you spotted a brand sharing an image of a pancake on Shrove Tuesday? It’ll be bunny rabbits and Easter Eggs next. It’s hardly very creative or original is it? Social networks are based on relationships between people. To be successful in this form of a media a brand needs to be authentic, original and human. Copy should be conversational and not mangled by corporate approval process.

#6 Social sciences

Ever since the era of Edward Bernays, public relations has been about putting psychology and the understanding of human nature at the heart of our work. My Ketchum colleague, European CEO David Gallagher believes that we’ll see social science take on increasing prominence in our strategic work. Concepts like nudging and framing are increasingly common in the way we are planning and designing strategy. Candidates with credentials in psychology or anthropology are increasingly sought after.

#7 Measurement

Your public relations campaigns don’t need a content strategy, or a channel strategy, you need a strategy that meets your organisational objectives. That should be based on measurable objectives and rooted in audience planning, listening and measurement. The key skill, often overlooked in discussions that focus on metrics, is to understand how to define measurable objectives and tie them into business objectives.

The Association of Measurement and Evaluation of Communication (AMEC) have produced template models for campaign measurement you should investigate. Ultimately if you don’t understand how a business makes money you’ll always struggle to justify your position.

#8. Paid media

As media fragments networks and publishers are figuring out new ways of making money. If you’re Facebook that’s sponsored content, for Twitter it’s promoted tweets, for The New York Times its native advertising, and for The Daily Telegraph its content amplification. These new formats are different attempts by organisations to create a sustainable media and if they provide the most effective means of engaging with a public we need to embrace them. The future of the media, like the future of public relations, is a work in progress.

#9 Power of internal communication

Social media has no respect for the traditional hierarchies within an organisation. Organisations are porous. Messages are shared via text, email, and social networks. There is no longer any distinction between internal audiences or publics, typically employees, and external audiences. With the right communication strategies, content and engagement, employees have the potential to be the most powerful, and crucially, trusted advocates for an organisation.

#10 Slow march to professionalism

Public relations practitioners rightly want to claim their place in the boardroom. And yet we don’t hold ourselves accountable to the same standards set by professions such as finance and legal.

That’s foundation knowledge, a code of conduct, a community of knowledge, including exchange between academia and practice, qualifications, and continuing professional development. The building blocks for professional practice are in place but many public relations practitioners are yet to be convinced. That’s the single biggest challenge that I face as President of the CIPR in 2014.

My ask to you is to consider what professionalism means to you and sign up to the CIPR’s CPD scheme and start your own journey toward Accredited and Chartered status, helping the shift towards professionalism.

You’ll get 10 points for participating in the event today. You’re already well on your way.

Photo via mariosp/Flickr with thanks.

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Professional advisor for agencies and communication teams, Wadds Inc. Author: #brandvandals, Exploring PR and Management Communication. #PRstack, Share This, and others. Visiting Professor, Newcastle University.

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