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Look at the bigger picture

Telling engaging stories in a visual way will see film-makers become increasingly important.

I was lucky enough to hear Marc Pritchard, global marketing and brand building officer at P&G (not a client) speak recently. He showed a short film, Raising an Olympian, which was part of P&G's London 2012 sponsorship campaign. It is a beautifully told story about Lolo Jones, an athlete from an underprivileged background and the mother who fought to make it happen. I was moved. As soon as the film ended, I grabbed my iPad, searched a link on the internet and emailed it to my wife.

When I worked in political comms in the early 1990s, my friend and mentor Peter Mandelson told me to 'think television, think in pictures'. TV was - and remains - the biggest influence on people's political views. TV reporters and their graphics people have to tell complex stories in 1:40 packages.

Fast-forward. Cisco now predicts that within the next two years, 90 per cent of internet traffic will be video. With video storytelling, people will find it, watch it and share it. Just as I did.

A major feature of PR's future will be visual. Not stunts but telling engaging stories in a visual way. We used to hire journalists for their contacts and knowledge of newsrooms. Now we need to hire documentary film-makers to help tell those stories. At Weber Shandwick, our 'social studios' are at the heart of our work. As communicators, we have to move on from the 'broadcast model' to broadcast thinking.

Also key to PR's future will be aligning skills. This has to happen on two levels. For agencies, we need to break down the skills barriers and provide clients with diverse but integrated teams, geared to the brand or issue, with creative storytelling at the heart, but with the right mix of consumer and corporate brand experience and specialist knowledge. This mirrors how clients are breaking down the old corp comms and marketing divide internally.

Second, we need to see marketing breathe in the essence of PR - engaging conversations, proactivity, collaboration and 360-degree thinking - and for PR to learn the discipline of marketing. True PR skills will become more prized by companies and organisations.

Third, PR has to become more diverse. We are making progress on this, but not enough. We must stop thinking graduate recruitment and start thinking young talent. With the barriers to university facing talented working-class kids, we should be looking to sixth-form colleges for our next generation. With digital being at the heart of what we now do, we need to recruit true digital natives, not just Oxbridge firsts with a Facebook page. We need people who understand the technology, know instinctively what might be the next Second Life as opposed to the next Twitter. PR departments and agencies need to look less white, middle-class and, at certain levels, male, and start to look more like the audiences we claim to understand.

And with firms now looking to new markets, we need to have people with a passion and cultural understanding of China, Brazil and so on.

Fourth, our future must involve us getting more serious about the 'science', as we do the 'art' pretty well. Everything from data analytics to behavioural science, as Weber Shandwick is with its 'science of engagement' programme. Our future is the intersection of comms art and science.

All this takes a different mindset. To think pictures and poetry in storytelling, not just key messages and 'likes'. To learn from marketing best practice.

Primarily, to rise beyond our internal structures, social, cultural and geographic boundaries. To have more self-confidence in our value-add, but also a sense of humility and responsibility about our growing role in society.


Views in brief

Digital comms - specialist resource or embedded throughout the agency?

It has to be embedded throughout specialist practices and wider staff mindset, but some functions, such as our social studio and tech build, are a central hub.

With integrated agency working now becoming commonplace, what have you learned about how these teams can operate most effectively?

It works best when the client encourages a collaborative 'best ideas' approach.

For what qualities will a job ad for PR agency staff in 2020 ask?

'T-shaped' people - deep expertise coupled with a broad interest in the world. Creative thinking and the ability to tell an engaging story.


Colin Byrne is CEO at Weber Shandwick UK & Europe

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