1983 - 2008: So what's changed?

In the past 25 years the PR industry has been transformed. PRWeek and Electric Airwaves assembled a panel of experts to identify the key changes and their impact. Alex Black reports

Live Aid
Live Aid

It may be a young industry, but PR has still been through some significant changes over the past 25 years. What was once the domain of ex-hacks on boozy lunches is now a UK industry that turns over £1bn annually, and helps shape the way consumers, businesses and the Government interact.

But what are the big breakthroughs since the early 1980s? To answer that question, PRWeek teamed up with media trainer Electric Airwaves – itself a veteran of 25 years in business – and assembled a panel of PR luminaries (see box overleaf) to discuss the evolution of the sector.

Evolution of the PR agency

For Trevor Morris, visiting professor of PR at Westminster University, the arrival of the big US marketing groups in the late 1960s and early 1970s was the catalyst for ‘upping the game of UK PR agencies’.

Euro RSCG Biss Lancaster chairman Graham Lancaster recalls that in the early days, the majority of PR agency chiefs were former hacks who understood the way newsrooms and deadlines worked, and had mates on Fleet Street.

But by the 1980s company bosses started to need people who also understood branding, marketing plans, business strategy and budgeting. So the small bands of ex-hacks started to become large, professional UK PR agencies such as Biss Lancaster, QBO and Paragon.

Even then, says Deborah Saw, MD of Citigate Dewe Rogerson (corporate practice), a smaller agency could probably ‘muddle through’ without what it would regard as unnecessary paraphernalia such as employee benefits, pay structures and career development.

Look carefully and you will see parallels between the agencies of 25 years ago and the ones now, though not necessarily ones agency bosses are happy about.

‘Thirty years ago, fees of £3,000 to £5,000 a month were the average,’ recalls Lancaster. ‘That’s not untypical now. It’s fair to say fee levels have deflated in real terms over the past quarter of a century.’

Evolution of the PR officer

The skills and personalities of the PROs who have come through Electric Airwaves’ doors over the past quarter of a decade have changed, according to its MD Andrew Caesar-Gordon. ‘They are more confident, but it is noticeable how many of them lack media relations skills,’ he explains. In fact, Caesar-Gordon believes most junior PROs have never been inside a newsroom.

‘This doesn’t seem to bother them,’ he says, ‘because understanding the processes journalists go through is now a small part of what many of them do.’

Or, as V-P of corporate comms at Unilever Tim Johns puts it: ‘Young people aren’t concerned they haven’t been into a newsroom – these days a newsroom comes to them.’

Saw recalls that the 1980s, on the other hand, was all about ‘owning the channel’.

‘Newspapers and broadcast were the only ways people had to find out what was going on, and all that mattered to us was who was making the programmes and what the editorial agenda was. Now, when I talk to new joiners they are much more interested in social media,’ she explains.

The in-house PRO is a completely different animal from 25 years ago. For one thing, says Johns, before the 1980s barely any senior in-house PR jobs existed outside the Government.

The agency boss has evolved too. There are fewer mavericks around, but there is more entrepreneurial spirit, says Lancaster. ‘Now people will build up agencies with a view to selling them on as part of a five-year exit plan,’ he explains. ‘In the 70s that would never have entered anyone’s head.’

Evolution of the job itself

For a perspective on how the industry has changed over the past 25 years, Johns refers back to the 14th century to show how the basics of communications still apply.

‘I’m not very brave and I’m not good with my hands,’ he jokes, ‘so I’d have worked for one of the big corporations of the day – the Church or the State. I’d have being trying to do the things I do now: building networks, making alliances, using the distribution channels of the day to tell a compelling narrative, and keeping the people in charge informed about the issues of the day.’

Morris uses a more recent historical reference, Irwin Ross’ 1950s book on communications The Image Merchants, to show how today’s PRO has a similar job to their predecessor. ‘Take out a couple of
references and that book is timeless,’ says Morris. ‘PROs need to be sociable, good with clients, and have a nose for a story. The industry’s scale, speed and sophistication may have changed, but there is a lot to be said for the core skills.’

But Johns also believes the past 15 years have been ‘something of a cul de sac’ when it comes to the way the job gets done.

‘We’ve specialised in media relations or corporate affairs or whatever –and have become focused on the delivery methods and channels,’ he says.

Saw agrees: ‘The industry has done itself a terrible disservice over the past decade or so by slicing and dicing itself. Our own internal demands have created a mess we are only just feeling our way out of.’

Evolution of the consumer

Twenty-five years ago, says Lancaster, the trend in communications was to protect consumers by telling them what to do.

A public service announcement here, advice in the newspapers from a government department there.
In 2008, the emphasis is very much on giving consumers enough information to make their own decisions – something PR is custom-made to do.

Saw says: ‘We weren’t dealing with a knowledgable, quality-obsessed consumer in the 1980s. Now people have a vast amount of information at their fingertips, and we have to guess what they read, what they buy and how they buy it.’

Evolution of the supply industry

The cuttings services, coverage evaluators and media trainers have grown up with the industry, gradually taking these services away from the PR agencies themselves.

Morris believes this is no bad thing, despite the fact that in the 1980s between 35 and 40 per cent of his agency’s profits came from ‘ancillary services’.

‘These were things we didn’t really have the skills to provide, so they were gradually taken away by people who did,’ he says. ‘The knock-on effect was to make us focus on PR itself, which in turn made us more professional.’

From Caesar-Gordon’s point of view, things have definitely become easier. ‘Seven years ago I had to explain what media training was and why it would be beneficial before I could actually do any training,’ he says. ‘Now I just do the training.’

Conclusion

What does this retrospective teach us about the future of the industry?

Johns is adamant this is the ‘golden age of PR’. ‘We don’t have to rely on the media to reach consumers and stakeholders any more,’ he explains.

This presents the industry with a prime opportunity to use social media to reclaim the dialogue with audiences.

To borrow Saw’s phrase, PR is closer to ‘owning the channel’ than it ever has been, but if the past 25 years has taught us anything, it is this: PR is not about content management any more; there is either a compelling narrative or there is not.

The Panellists

Graham Lancaster Chairman of Euro RSCG BIss Lancaster

Co-founded Biss Lancaster in 1977 with Adele Biss. Started off as an engineer. Spent seven years at the Confederation of British Industry.

 

 

Deborah Saw MD of Citigate Dewe Rogerson corporate

Started in the public sector, before joining Charles Barker, and then Reginald Watts Associates. Has joined and left Burson Marsteller twice and is on her second stint at Citigate.

 

 

Tim Johns V-P of corporate comms, Unilever

Ran the private office of John Sainsbury. Previously head of corporate and consumer PR at Sainsbury, head of comms at Homebase, and consumer PR and media head at BT.

 

 

Andrew Caesar-Gordon MD of Electric Airwaves

Has been at the helm of the UK’s largest media training company for seven years. His background is in public affairs and corporate PR, both in-house and in agencies.

 

 

Trevor Morris Visiting professor of PR at Westminster University

Became a PR consultant in 1982. Joined Quentin Bell Organisation, bought out Bell, then sold to Chime in 2003. Also an author of books on PR.

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