During the more than five decades I have been active in public relations, there have been a great number of changes, many highly significant. One of the most important has been in the area of client-consultancy relations.
Today's clients are far more demanding. When I started, it was the norm for a company to retain one PR firm to handle all of its communications. This is no longer the case. Now large organizations might have three or four consultancies, some handling government relations, some financial relations, some handling digital. And in the case of healthcare companies, some have different agencies for different products.
Budgets are much higher, so clients are far more results-oriented. Programs must clearly delineate what the key objectives are and results must relate clearly to those objectives, not just how much coverage has been obtained. This has had a very positive effect, as PR firms have become far more professional and far more effective than when I started.
It has become necessary for pitches for new business to become far more skilled. It is no longer sufficient to spell out who you are, who will be on the account, and what your past successes were. Now you must detail exactly what you are going to do and what it is expected to achieve. Burson-Marsteller, the company I had been international chairman of for many years, makes proposals on evidence-based PR which is the result of significant research spelling out to the prospects what their key needs are and how they will be met.
Today, the importance of reacting quickly has become key. Digital cameras, Facebook, Twitter, and the speed that news moves internationally, some of it unfavorable, necessitates instant responses. One important US company had a major problem occur at its Indian plant, and this received coverage even before the US management was aware of what happened.
Another major change is the significance of the in-house PR department. When I started, most CEOs did not take much guidance from their PR department. It was also very rare for anyone to leave a major consultancy to go in-house, where salaries were lower and the role less important. Not today. Recently two very senior consultancy executives left to join Bloomberg and Microsoft. In England, a client of mine who led a major company left to become CEO of another large company, and the first person he hired was his former PR chief.
What is a necessity today is the realization that the public's attitude towards large companies and especially the CEOs has changed dramatically. When I started, the CEO was God and not to be questioned, and today he has moved way down the religious ladder. It is vital that CEOs go through what I call "message training," not "media training.” For as one wise pundit said, "There is no such thing as a stupid question. Only a stupid answer."
PR firms must ensure companies do a better job of in-house communications, as well. Company loyalty is a thing of the past and is now dead. When I started, if you worked for IBM or AT&T, it was a lifetime job, and if you weren't a star, you just weren't promoted but you stayed until retirement. Now any company can fire you at any time if they feel it's necessary. In today's market, it is vital to keep key employees and they often stay because they believe in the vision of the company. So it is important to work with the human resources department to ensure they realize the vision and to make sure key employees are included in developing that vision.
Of course the world of digital has become key. The website has become the face of the company and that face must be constantly massaged. All major PR programs also now include digital planning.
Now, more than 50 years later, corporations believe more in PR and are willing to pay for it, so the future of public relations looks highly promising.
Bob Leaf is the former international CEO of Burson-Marsteller. His memoirs, The Art of Perception, were just published.