Progress but room to grow

The PR industry has come a long way, but there are still major challenges to overcome.

Digging through files from more than ten years ago, I recently came across an old paper from the PRCA Council. The PRCA Council, then as now, was composed of senior in-house and agency heads, and was chaired by Adrian Wheeler, a Fellow of both the PRCA and the CIPR. The paper addressed the question of how PR agencies would look in ten years' time.

In doing so, it doubtless wasn't the first inquiry into that topic, nor clearly was it the last - PRWeek addressed the issue four years ago after all. The paper raised issues that today are equally relevant to our industry. The need to prove value. The need to provide strategic advice from the outset, rather than fire-fight when things have gone wrong. The need to evolve sensibly. The need to attract the best talent. And the need - often overlooked - to be profitable.

All of those challenges remain today, along with some new ones. And facing them requires candour. So with that mindset, let's see where things have got better since the last PRWeek inquiry into this area, and where they've got worse.

We still do not value our advice enough to charge clients a reasonable amount for it. PRCA benchmarking data over the past ten years show us that hourly rates have barely shifted. If we genuinely believe that the counsel we offer is central to an organisation's future, then we should be brave enough to charge an appropriate amount for it - lawyers certainly don't hesitate to do so.

In a similar manner, our levels of access continue to be too low. We need to be advising the organ grinder, not the monkey. All too often, that just isn't the case.

What's got better? Well, we are finally beginning to fish in deeper pools of talent. Our PR apprenticeship programme, plus our paid intern programme, are helping agencies reach a whole new group of potential employees - people of talent who broaden their horizon, and offer agencies a fresh perspective on society and customers.

We are also beginning to grasp the thorny issue of evaluation. We banned AVEs from our awards last year, and the CIPR has done the same. This is definite progress. Working with AMEC and ICCO, we are developing credible and accepted alternatives to AVEs - metrics we can agree on as an industry, and then use to prove our value.

So what are the issues we have yet to address? In my view, they are digital and globalisation.

We have yet to address the rise of digital agencies, and what that means for our models. We are the natural owner of digital, and yet we have a problem with it. In too many cases, the people making the decisions at the top of agencies remain uncomfortable with the medium.

As Richard Stephenson, then at Royal Mail, now at AXA, said at a debate we hosted two years ago on the future of the agency, clients basically don't see the divisions we see. They don't care how services are provided, they just want them sorted. So agencies should be mastering and offering digital services to clients as an integral part of their work.

Globalisation. The UK and US stand head and shoulders above the rest. Our expertise, knowledge and networks give us a major advantage. We need to build on that advantage, sharing knowledge and best practice from whatever source geographically; making the most of the edge that our language and our time zone have bequeathed us. And again we at the PRCA intend doing so when we take over the 28-nation International Communications Consultancy Organisation on 1 January.

So - to a summary. Simple really.

A lot done. A lot more to do.


Setting the PRCA agenda

The PRCA National Conference took place a couple of weeks ago. It was devoted to just one topic - the future of the PR industry. It followed six months of work from different groups looking at specific challenges facing the industry. The conference was not in itself the end point. Instead, it will set our agenda for the coming years. All too often, membership bodies fall into the trap of being introspective; of dealing with crucial but mundane day-to-day management.

In doing so, they forget their role in shaping the future. Representing as we do more than 300 agencies, and more than 100 in-house comms departments, we are determined our members will drive events, not be buffeted by them.


Francis Ingham is director-general of the PRCA

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