Colin Byrne, Weber Shandwick: Not just business as usual

The challenges faced by the PR industry today make it a formidable profession of tomorrow.

Colin Byrne, Weber Shandwick: Not just business as usual
Colin Byrne, Weber Shandwick: Not just business as usual

When we talk about the future of PR, it is often in the context of the decline of 'traditional' media and the flight to digital and social media. This is only partially true. Our recent 'Inline' research shows that the biggest influence on consumer purchasing decisions is online advocacy, but there is also a significant influence exerted by other non-media audiences.

PR planning needs to reflect this increasingly complex mosaic of influence: one reason why I advocate professional strategic planning resources within the campaign team mix.

Our research was conducted with nearly 5,000 consumers in half a dozen European markets; more than 1,000 were in the UK. They were asked which channels directly influenced their decision to purchase one product or service over another. The results across markets were very similar.

Online advocacy scored the highest influence rating with 26 per cent. 'Friends and family' scored broadly the same as magazines, print and broadcast media combined: around 20 per cent. Interestingly, shop staff were deemed more influential than brand advertising: 13 per cent versus nine per cent.

Obviously these non-media audiences, both onand offline, are themselves influenced by PR and advertising, so the subtle influence of aboveand below-the-line marketing is even stronger than our research headlines suggest. But the growing influence of these non-media audiences, including employees, bloggers and other potential brand advocates, means we increasingly have to see PR in its broadest and true definition, above and beyond just media relations. Brand managers need to do the same when planning marketing budgets aimed at riding the wave of returning consumer confidence. It is not just business as usual in PR.

Another driver of change in PR is it is increasingly being seen as a strategic tool at the top of companies and organisations. In-house expertise has grown, forcing agencies and consultancies to rethink their 'value add'. In-house PR teams tend to be intimate with wider business objectives of their internal 'client', and consultants have to think the same way. Secondments between in house and consultancy teams are becoming more frequent, and we have found them terrifically beneficial for creating a greater understanding of how a PR campaign fits into an overall business strategy or corporate objective. PR education and training should increasingly focus on corporate strategy, not just PR tactical expertise. Recruitment needs to be more broadly based.

Finally, commercial PR needs to think again about what it can glean from the purest form of PR in action: politics and political campaigning. It may seem an odd thing to say at a time when politics is widely discredited, but PR can still learn much from political campaigning. People often assume I am talking about professional 'spin', Obama-style social media outreach - another Weber Shandwick Inline poll among UK voters shows social media having the greatest impact on voting intention - and the strong likelihood that we may soon have our first professional PR as Prime Minister.

But the key lesson is about proactivity. Today, great PR is about more than just an increasingly PR literate, vocationally educated talent pool. It is about a proactive mindset that looks broadly at initiatives that drive a political campaign approach, a 24/7 battle for hearts, minds and pounds, always focused on key business objectives and increasingly connected directly with non-media audiences in new, compelling ways.

These are all nice challenges to face. The constant need to rethink, relearn and innovate makes PR a real profession of tomorrow.

Views in brief

Which three words describe the perfect account manager of the future?

Smart, proactive, passionate.

How comfortable do you feel pitching against agencies from different disciplines?

Very. If I were in-house, I would do the same. PR should be able to hold its own against any discipline on any integrated brief.

What were/are the essential elements of your most productive client relationship?

Partnership, mutual respect, mutual stimulation, mutual joy at great results.

Colin Byrne is CEO, UK and Europe, of Weber Shandwick

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