The road ahead

There is much uncertainty facing the PR industry, as it grapples with constant change. Keith O'Brien asks 10 leaders to map out the profession's future

There is much uncertainty facing the PR industry, as it grapples with constant change. Keith O'Brien asks 10 leaders to map out the profession's future

Holding companies

Harris Diamond
CEO, Weber Shandwick; CEO, IPG's Constituency Management Group


Harris Diamond believes that the PR profession's worst period ultimately helped it develop into the established industry that exists today. Diamond was CEO of BSMG when the agency merged with Weber Shandwick in 2001, during the sector's worst downturn.

“It made us be very cold realists with respect to trying to decide what the future was,” he says. “If we had the merger in 2000, we might have had a slightly different view.

“We do see tremendous opportunity for us,” he adds. “There are more and more content users every day, and more of a need for people who understand distribution of content.”

Diamond says the holding company structure provides great opportunities for PR firms.

“Clients come to sister agencies and ask for marketing help,” he explains. “Frankly, when you're part of a family, it's easier to work [together] on behalf of a client.”

Overall, Diamond believes PR is primed for significant growth.

“We have the traditional offline, with the new opportunities online,” he says. “My sense is PR is the fasting-growing discipline in the marketing services industry.”

Marketing mix

Jon Iwata
SVP of marketing and communications, IBM

As head of both marketing and PR at IBM, Iwata has insight into the future of the marketing mix. While he sees all marketing tactics as complementary disciplines, he is bullish on PR.

“There are many things that advantage people with training and a career in communications,” he says, citing the need for a company to reach multiple stakeholders simultaneously in a real-time conversation. “Marketing [can] create the message and determine the duration and placement. That's a world of control. We're in a world where you can't so neatly segment messages and audiences that way.”

From Iwata's vantage point, the advertising industry is undergoing a transformation.

“Assumptions about what things cost and their efficacy have changed,” he adds. “There is a huge disruption in the advertising world; they know that their models have to change.”

While Iwata says this doesn't imply an impending victory of PR methods over advertising, he sees great opportunity for PR firms.

“The PR agency world has the chance to retool itself and gain business – not through stealing business from each other, but moving into adjacent spaces,” he says.

Trade associations

Kathy Cripps
President, Council of PR Firms

Like PRWeek, the Council of PR Firms came into existence in 1998.

“The way we have evolved is to look at the member needs and the industry needs, and to help agencies become better counselors,” Cripps says of the Council, whose membership has grown from 39 firms in 1998 to 103 in 2008.

Cripps explains that all trade organizations need to evolve and provide constant counsel to their members.

“A trade association has to be something that's sustained over time,” she says. “We are always looking at building member services.”

Cripps notes that many PR agencies have made great strides to prove their worth as strategic partners by helping clients understand social media and other tactics.

“Over time, the agencies have become better counselors. They understand how they need to help their clients solve problems,” she says. “PR [pros] will lead more integrated pitches, be leaders of a lot more solutions, have more business acumen, and reach more stakeholders. As agencies are working with more clients on the inside [via employee communications and corporate reputation], they'll be much more integrated.”

Cripps believes that the future holds opportunities for all types and sizes of PR firms.

“Firms are constantly adapting to the needs of the clients,” she says. “That's why you see so many kinds of agencies now. Firms that are doing business the old way, or are not excelling in client business, are going to have a hard time.”

Reputation

Leslie Dach
EVP of corporate affairs and government relations, Wal-Mart

Leslie Dach says that the C-suite's appreciation of PR's value is growing, due to consumers' increasing focus on corporate reputation.

“The emergence of sustainability and CSR as an organizational responsibility and opportunity to participate in those issues – that's been a driver of this change,” he says. “There's been a recognition and respect for a need to communicate effectively. It's the core part of an institution's responsibility.”

Driving that increase is the ability to better quantify PR's role in managing trust, Dach explains.

“People across the board have recognized the importance of reputation and trust in a brand, as well as the importance of transparency,” he notes.

Dach adds that management realizes the limitations of traditional advertising. He expects that will provide more opportunities for the PR function.

“On the marketing side,” he says, “as the belief in the almighty power of the television ad diminished, businesses have placed a greater need to communicate through other sources.”

Overall, Dach thinks that PR pros need to insert themselves in conversations about strategy as early as possible.

“The real opportunities come when understanding that expectations become part of shaping behavior,” he explains. “When you have the opportunity to be part of the discussion, you can help shape those policies and behavioral changes.”

Corporate communications

Maril MacDonald
CEO, Gagen MacDonald; president, the Arthur W. Page Society

“The future is here, it's just unevenly distributed,” Maril MacDonald says.

“We have some people in our profession who are... living what the future will be,” she adds. “I don't think that's any different than any profession. Things are changing very quickly, and the people who are the pioneers are going to survive.”

She predicts that firms will increasingly be differentiated by the types of services that they offer.

“There are still a lot of agencies that sell services that corporations look at as commodities, while others are moving to more consultative models,” MacDonald says. “We're finding there's bifurcation of the work between strategy and execution.”

MacDonald warns that while the PR industry has the skill set to serve organizations' growing communications needs, there is competition afoot.

“That's going to be a lot [about] engaging stakeholders to co-create what the business should be,” she says. “More corporations are realizing their greatest asset [is] the ability to tap into all of their stakeholders. Therefore, there will be a large premium for those who can do that.”

Media relations

Howard Rubenstein
President, Rubenstein Associates; chairman, Rubenstein Communications


Ensconced in his 55th year in PR, Howard Rubenstein has bore witness to the industry's transformation in the latter part of the 20th century.

“I've seen a good many dramatic changes in PR over certainly the last 10 years, and certainly over the past decades,” he says. “PR professionals can walk into any boardroom now and are welcomed with a great deal of respect as important participants in key decision-making. They have been brought into the inner circle of management, and are now treated as generals [on] the front line.”

The major factors impacting the industry, Rubenstein notes, are the increased intensity and global reach of the media.

“With bloggers and cable news channels, the demand for news is enormous,” Rubenstein says. “Major publications are monitoring the bloggers, and they report on what the bloggers are saying.

“Truth is an important factor,” he adds. “If [something] is exposed, what happens in Brooklyn goes worldwide. A PR person should understand what happens in [his or her] local environment because of the demand for the flow of constant news.”

Social media

John Bell
MD and executive creative director, 360° Digital Influence, Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide

John Bell believes that social media is an integral part to the industry's future.

“The elephant in the room is the impact social media and search has had on our business,” Bell says. “Agencies have that opportunity to add that domain to their expertise or pass at their own peril.”

“Clients from the C-suite to chief communications officer are all extremely eager to make sense of how they can efficiently use social media today,” he adds. “Anyone with a measurable way to look at communications deserves a lot of respect and deserves that seat at the table.”

Bell, who teaches graduate communications at Johns Hopkins University, says the PR talent pool is diversifying – most of his digital staff comes from a marketing, advertising, or digital background, or startups. He advocates that PR professionals get a better understanding of competing marketing disciplines.

“The new burden on PR professionals is for them to be measurement gurus,” he says. “We need to prove the effectiveness of all the techniques we bring to bear. We can't rest on the laurels of impressions anymore.”

Diversity

Rochelle Ford
Associate dean, John H. Johnson School of Communications, Howard University

Rochelle Ford feels that while there are better conversations about diversity in the industry, actions are lagging.

“Everyone is recognizing the problems, but growth has been slow,” she says.

According to Bureau of Labor statistics, 3.7% of PR managers are black or African American. In advertising, that figure is 5.6%, and in marketing it's 5.1%. Ford says that figure is disappointing, considering how much scrutiny the ad industry has faced over its own diversity issues. Of other minority groups, 4% of PR managers are Hispanic and 4.2% are Asian.

Ford believes that if diversity numbers in the industry are to improve, it will require making diversity a bottom-line issue. She adds that agencies should make recruiting and retaining diverse talent a criteria that determines bonuses.

Asked to map out a best-case scenario for increasing diversity in the industry, Ford said the necessary requirements are a pipeline of diverse candidates coming into the industry, and organizations providing inclusive environments, where “people will be able to bring [his or her] whole self to work.”

Evolution of PR

Dave Senay
CEO and president, Fleishman-Hillard

Dave Senay says an industry legend was prescient about how PR would fare in the Internet era.

“Edward Bernays defined PR as informing [and] persuading people, and connecting people with people – that sounds like a terrific description of the function of the Internet,” he says. “It's about relationship building, not a transaction – we do that. Influencing the influentials – we do that.”

But Senay adds that the industry is at a crossroads of sorts, given the graying of the marketing mix.

“The notion of PR has to be a little more elastic than some of the purists want it to be,” he says. “You won't see the term public relations on our business cards. We're not abandoning that, but we're applying our principles in ways that I don't think our industry's founders ever dreamed of.”

This pull toward integration will allow the industry to go offensive in the traditional territories of other marketing disciplines, while likewise defending the traditional PR turf against encroachment, Senay says.

“I'm predicting that you are going to see a convergence... of capabilities, mostly because of what we're seeing in the pitches,” he says. “We just pitched against [consulting firm] McKinsey; we're pitching... across the spectrum.”

Education

Jerry Swerling
Professor and director of PR Studies; director, Strategic PR Center, Annenberg School for
Communication, University of Southern California


Jerry Swerling believes the PR academy is at a crossroads. With the digital environment holding unprecedented sway over the direction of the industry and organizations expecting more business acumen from PR professionals, Swerling advocates a savvier education.

“We need to help our students understand how to work in [an] organizational, agnostic way,” he says. “Well-thought-out PR strategies can work as much for the local nonprofit that has no money as they can for the Fortune 50 company.”

Swerling says professors need to both support the industry and pursue the freedom to criticize it in constructive ways.

“Those who teach PR need to help the profession resolve the big issues the industry is facing,” he says. “We can't be seen as tools of the profession; then we lose the opportunity to pioneer change and take risks.”

Swerling advocates that communications departments foster tighter bonds with business schools or other departments that provide a strategic value to communications.

“We need to build the best programs we can wherever they find the best home,” he says.

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