Twelve months ago a number of us argued that this would be a ‘good' recession for PR. Advertising monies seemed set to migrate. Marketers suddenly agreed — to borrow from Lord Lever's famous phrase — that a lot more than half their money was being wasted in a world of ‘continuous partial attention,' where social media had entered the mainstream. Prodded by the need to cut costs, clients were forced to rethink not just where they spent their money, but why.
The digital revolution has driven profound behavioral change. Of course, we know this. The new ecology sees a hard realignment of interests and a far less stable (and less easily identifiable) set of influencers. Old agency models relied on this stability to both target audiences and sell to clients. We can no longer be in the audience business; we all have to learn instead to ride the ripples, waves, and occasional tsunami of influence.
Now, with these changes, only an evolved form of PR can deliver against corporate and brand needs across this new sphere of influence. At Edelman, we are calling this “public engagement.”
In a hyper-connected world where corporate reputation and brand marketing have converged; where citizen activists and/or NGOs can hold both businesses and governments to account; and where the continued rise of the peer, the employee, and the customer has confirmed the shift from a shareholder to stakeholder society, there are certain parts that advertising and other ‘old' disciplines cannot reach. The urgent need to “act” and “tell” demands a mix of policy and communications skills; digital outreach and content development; a new kind of intelligence and insight altogether. The dots are now joined between a whole array of interest and advocate groups. Content supplants the role of advertising. And ‘PR' agencies must reconsider our own structure and purpose to re-configure as navigators and champions of this new ecology of shared interests.
Public engagement today is thus about working openly in coalition with a network of protagonists and antagonists to advance shared interests (preferably for common good). It also demands structural reform from the client organizations as well as from the agencies. Together, we must build teams that are multiskilled across the sphere of influence, not expensively and silo/ discipline/ audience focused. This will in turn create both greater efficiencies, better campaigns – and more relevant and compelling outcomes.
Robert Phillips is CEO of Edelman UK