PR must wake up and smell the coffee if it wants a piece of the comms pie

Sir Martin Sorrell says the PR industry has the opportunity to play a greater role in the wider comms family because the digital age makes corporate comms more like political campaigning.

James Frayne: Former director of comms at the Department for Education
James Frayne: Former director of comms at the Department for Education
On the current trajectory, that’s all it will ever be for British PR – an opportunity.
That’s because the industry in Britain has done little to overcome the barriers standing in its way. 
Three stand out.

Firstly, and most importantly, PR has neither collectively framed the comms challenge facing modern businesses, nor positioned itself as the solution.

PR should argue that the explosion of web and social media has led to brand image being shaped in permanent conversation with ordinary people, where businesses face public praise, criticism, attacks and hostile campaigns – and where they must respond and fight back. 

In this world, people don’t want to be told what to think; they want to talk and decide for themselves.

Advertising and marketing still have a place, but top-down comms is losing its power. 

Public-focused PR is overwhelmingly required now: experts that can shift opinion by generating trusted endorsements, creating persuasive news and comment on independent platforms and engaging in two-way conversations with millions of ordinary people.

PR hasn’t done this even nearly enough. So many senior executives think of the challenges of the digital age in a narrow way, as if acquiring technical web expertise was the answer. 

PR needs to show that the digital age is really the age of public opinion power. 

Businesses have a people problem, not a technical one.

Secondly, PR has made little effort to own the 'scientific method' of testing, targeting and metrics. 

The public conversation online is vast, fast-moving and varied; it is imperative that businesses get answers to the following: what are people saying about us? Who is saying it? Where? Why? What impact are they having on key influencers and customers? What should we do in response? How should we measure it?

These basic and fundamental questions require expertise in opinion research, audience segmentation and targeting and accountable metrics.

Unfortunately, few British PR consultants have the vocabulary of this area, let alone the expertise – the advertising and marketing industries completely wipe the floor with PR here. 

Without credibility in this area, PR can’t lead any broad client campaign.

Thirdly, PR has largely left the crucial skills of business strategy and organisational design to the corporate world. 

Major businesses are likely to take on management consultants to advise them on their overall comms structure, rather than listen to the people who do this for a living. 

This makes it more difficult to be taken seriously by the most senior executives.

Some will say British PR has these skills. 

They’re not totally unheard of but, reality check: they barely exist. 

PR needs a serious cultural change if it is going to exploit the opportunities in front of it.

James Frayne was director of comms at the Department for Education and is the author of Meet the People, a guide to public opinion

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