‘PR should be a creative force for good’: new PRCA chair Rachel Friend sets out her vision

Friend, who says communications has never had a more important role within organisations, plans to champion the industry’s creative and purpose credentials as the industry body takes a “more proactive role”.

New PRCA chair, and W Communications chief executive, Rachel Friend
New PRCA chair, and W Communications chief executive, Rachel Friend

The coronavirus crisis, Black Lives Matter movement and the increasing importance of corporate reputation to boardrooms has elevated the role of communications and corporate affairs and present new opportunities.

That’s the view of the PRCA’s new chair, W Communications chief executive Rachel Friend, who says the industry body is developing a “more action-focused agenda”.

Friend takes over the chair from Jim Donaldson, UK and Middle East chief executive at FleishmanHillard Fishburn, but has closely worked with the body as deputy chair.

“Clearly, it's been a very tough year. Our industry's ability to operate in an agile way, and the nature of the work we do, has helped us to weather the storm slightly better than other disciplines,” she said.

Citing a recent PRWeek COVID-19 and Comms study, which shows the industry will encourage more flexible working and, in some cases, downsize offices – Friend says now is a time of evolving working models, and she is buoyed by industry optimism.

This evolution includes the role of the PRCA itself, which has gone through its own downsizing as a result of the economic hardship of months of lockdown.

Friend says that, while traditionally the PRCA has taken the role of shining a spotlight on industry issues through its research and events, this would shift to a more “action-focused” agenda, in terms of leadership and encouraging best practice.

“While the industry focuses on our value and what we can deliver, the PRCA is really doubling down on what it delivers for the industry,” she said.

“In recent months our content has been available to members both nationally and internationally, which creates a real sense of community; and I am encouraged that will continue.

“I also think the industry needs more diverse young people coming into it. And the PRCA is not just continuing an apprenticeship scheme, but is acting as the representative body for the industry for agencies to apply to the government’s Kickstart Scheme.”

Another recent example of innovative thinking is the PRCA’s COVID-19 response taskforce, which gathered more than 100 agency leaders across the world to provide free, confidential consultancy and take part in industry events.

It is this collegiate and collaborative approach that Friend would like to see more of during her tenure. 

The ‘power of creativity’

Speaking to PRWeek about her plans, Friend said her immediate focus is on three areas: improving the diversity of the industry, supporting mental health and “harnessing creativity to make a positive impact".

Friend, a highly respected creative leader who was UK chief executive of Weber Shandwick before leaving in January (she then joined W in July), said the industry is well-placed to flex its creative muscle, even though marketing purse strings are more likely to have been tightened as a result of the pandemic-induced economic downturn.

“If there was ever a time for our industry to create a positive impact – now is that time,” she said. “Communications is uniquely connected to all stakeholders internally and externally. We have a key role in advising businesses to understand their purpose and contribution to society and the environment.

“I think that purpose has really grown up from a ‘nice-to-have’ to data-informed, measurable impacts, which affect reputation and the bottom line. There's an amazing opportunity for PR to prove its value.”

Friend believes it is PR's relationship with a broad range of stakeholders (internal, shareholders, consumers, societal) that places it in an ideal position to create campaigns that can drive behavioural change.

She also said that comms is best-placed to take stewardship of the purpose agenda as strategic partners of the C-suite.

Diversity and mental health

The PRCA has been making some progress on her other immediate priorities: improving diversity and supporting mental wellbeing in the industry.

The body has taken strides to address diversity within its own leadership ranks in recent months, and Friend is determined for the industry to continue to champion change in an industry that historically lacks ethnic diversity, with only about 10 per cent of its practitioners from BAME backgrounds.

The PRCA has recently formed a Race and Ethnicity Equity Board (REEB) and overhauled the composition of its main board to better reflect the diversity it would like the industry to embrace.

Friend admits the industry has plenty of work to do, but is confident that leaders such as REEB chair Barbara Phillips will continue to agitate and push for change.

On the mental health front, Friend points to the PRCA's Mental Health Toolkit – which has had 20,000 views – as one example of how the organisation is helping support the industry.

It’s an issue that industry leaders are increasingly concerned about heading into a possible winter lockdown.

Nonetheless, Friend is optimistic that the sector will come out the other side of this pandemic stronger after the period of upheaval and change. She is also actually aware that hard-up members will demand more value from their industry body.

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