The ten most testing questions facing PR in 2015

From the trouble with Tesco's brand to the underlying causes of the gender pay gap, the industry faced some testing questions in 2015, writes Ian Griggs.

The ten most testing questions facing PR in 2015

1. Did the 2014 Christmas campaigns deliver?
As the tinsel was packed away for another year and people counted the cost of their Christmas overspend, the major retailers released figures for the festive trading period, prompting PRWeek to ask: did the supermarket Christmas campaigns deliver? Both John Lewis and Sainsbury’s enjoyed a 4.8 per cent hike in sales and a record week leading up to Christmas, respectively. But Marks & Spencer and Tesco saw a 5.8 per cent and a 2.9 per cent slump in their like-for-like sales.

The following week, Tesco’s newly installed chief executive, Dave Lewis, announced a major relaunch of the supermarket amid the triple woes of an accounting scandal, a plummeting share price and lost consumer confidence as shoppers turned to discount retailers such as Lidl and Aldi.
Experts advised that the supermarket rebuild trust with shareholders and stakeholders as well as reconnect with customers by setting out its offer to them more clearly and delivering on its price promise.


2. Why is mental ill health more prevalent in PR and comms?
An exclusive PRCA survey revealed that the rate of incidence of mental ill health in the PR and comms industry was around one in three, which is greater than the one in four who experience mental ill health in the national population. Respondents to the survey revealed they had experienced depression, anxiety and panic attacks among the most common forms of mental ill health, but some also reported bipolar disorder, PTSD and suicide attempts.

We asked why mental ill health was more common in PR and comms and what practitioners could do to guard against it. The PRCA said the culture of fear and silence that prevented people speaking out about a condition must be addressed, while the charity Mind said employees should consider using the Equality Act to force bosses to make "reasonable adjustments" for a mental health condition and for bosses to develop Wellness Action Plans for their staff.

3. Does PR have a PR problem?
Another exclusive survey for PRWeek found that 69 per cent of the public did not trust PRs and placed them in a similar bracket to journalists, although not as low down the trust tree as their regard for politicians. Did this constitute a crisis in confidence in the industry? Not a bit of it, said PR professionals, who argued that the public only mistrusted PR because it did not fully understand what its practitioners did. If people were asked whether they would like to hear about a breakthrough cancer treatment, the answers might have been different, argued one professional. 


4. To debate your political or opponent on TV or not?
As the general election loomed and David Cameron dithered, public affairs professionals debated the merits, or otherwise, of the Prime Minister taking part in televised debates with the other party leaders. Charles Lewington, John Major’s former press secretary, argued that expectations of former Labour leader Ed Miliband were so low that all he would have to do would be to avoid tripping over his shoe laces in the debate to enjoy a polling bounce and that Cameron had been correct to try to avoid being drawn into them.


5. Who’s bringing home the bacon?
A salary survey revealed that financial PRs were among the best-paid professionals in the industry, with corporate PRs catching up fast and in-house and consumer PRs bringing up the rear. The survey found that half of respondents felt underpaid and nearly 40 per cent were unhappy with their pay rise, revealing widespread dissatisfaction with salary levels. But why do financial and corporate PR bring home the bacon? The answer, financial PR specialists told PRWeek, is that the pool of talent in that sector is smaller than in other disciplines and that there are relatively few good practitioners at a senior level.


6. Is flexible hiring the new flexible working?
New research suggested that PR and comms were among the worst industries for offering staff flexible working conditions at the point of hire. A study of 3.5 million jobs by Timewise found that only two per cent offered staff flexible working conditions at the point of hire. 


7. How do you tackle the gender pay gap?
A fresh study shed light on the staggering extent of pay disparity between men and women in PR and comms. Despite the introduction of the Equal Pay Act 45 years ago, a survey by recruitment firm, The Works Search and Selection, found an average pay gap of £10,000 persisted across the industry and that it rose to a staggering £65,000 for bonus payments. A survey later in the year, organised by PRWeek, the PRCA and Women in PR, found that employees overwhelmingly supported agencies publishing details of what they pay men and women to drive down the gender pay gap. The PRCA’s Francis Ingham promised to name and praise agencies that agreed to do so.


8. Does the VW’s scandal reflect on the motoring industry?
In short, yes, it does. Reputational experts agreed that the media spotlight was now firmly on the motor industry and that any company that had been found to emulate VW’s practices would likely suffer the same fate, e.g. a third wiped off the value of its share price and customer trust in tatters. The European emission testing regime was also found to be wanting during the entire debacle. 

9. Should you be scared of the disruptor brands?
Chief executives regard the emergence of disruptor brands such as Uber and Airbnb as a crisis worse than a cyber attack or increased regulatory scrutiny, according to a report by Burson-Marsteller. The best advice from the experts when faced with this situation was: don’t panic and don’t try to ‘out-disrupt’ the disruptors.


10. Supermarket sweep
Tracking by Brandwatch for PRWeek found that the John Lewis Christmas campaign, once again, trounced its rivals when it came to share of voice on social media but how does it keep doing it? One expert went as far as to suggest that John Lewis has, over the years, created a pop culture moment with the public eagerly awaiting the retailer’s new campaign in the run up to Christmas. And that is talkability that is very hard to buy.

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