I spoke remotely to a class of students at Georgia Southern University yesterday. Despite some technical difficulties, we had an interesting discussion about trends in international public relations.
In follow up, one of the class – Sarah Wilson – has asked me four good questions which I'll attempt to answer here.
1. What do you do to keep current on PR trends?
I'm a member of our professional body (the CIPR); I read books on and around the subject; I blog about PR and read PR blogs; I talk to practitioners and students; I teach practitioners who are studying for a PR qualification; I attend conferences; I'm a member of PROpenMic.
If I had to pick just one of these, books are still be best way to gain a deeper understanding of a subject.
2. How has PR changed since you entered the industry?
The principles haven't changed in 20 years – but the practice has changed a lot (though it still has some way to go). Looking back, for many years I didn't do public relations – I simply did media relations (and most of that was press relations).
PR has changed as the media landscape has evolved, most notably with the emergence of social media.
But as Sir Martin Sorrell suggested, there are other factors too: the internationalisation of business, the importance of internal communications ('change management'); the agenda around legitimacy and corporate responsibility; the rise of activism.
In summary, looking back I'd say I provided an important tactical tool to my clients. Yet public relations advisers are today in a position to provide key strategic advice.
3. Do you believe that marketing and advertising are encroaching into public relations (eg through relationship marketing)? If yes, please give an example.
This question is hugely significant to people who work in public relations and to public relations academics – since the future of the discipline is at stake. But I suspect it's of less interest to clients.
There is no question in my mind that certain promotional techniques have been losing effectiveness in our short-attention-span economy. Public relations – either through editorial endorsement or through other forms of third party recommendation – has been a beneficiary from the relative decline of advertising. Yet marketing is not standing still and relationship marketing, viral marketing, word of mouth marketing, social marketing, cause-related marketing etc are all ways in which marketing is seeking to colonise part of the space historically occupied by public relations.
I suggest you need to separate out the purpose for which PR is being used. If it's being used to promote sales, then this is a marketing function and PR needs to find its niche in the marketing mix (the traditional exclusive domain of marketing PR has been media relations, as discussed earlier).
If the purpose of PR is to ensure the organisation's social legitimacy (and thus its long-term survival and success), then I view this as the domain of public relations (or corporate communications), not of marketing. Your question asks about case studies – and clearly there's a need for these to demonstrate to others that public relations can play this more strategic role. Among academics, Charles Fombrun has done most to articulate the field of corporate reputation management and to provide tools for measuring corporate reputation.
The case study I would have talked to you about yesterday, had there been time, is a contradictory one. It's the award-winning PR campaign for Queensland Tourism ('The Best Job in the World'). It's contradictory because the winning team is a Australian advertising agency, CumminsNitro. PR may be a powerful tool, but there's nothing to stop others learning some lessons.
4. What three tips would you give to someone just starting in PR?
One. Start with your own public relations. Join networks and put energy into your chosen networks. Look to get known and take note of your Google search rankings.
Two. It's good to be open-minded and capable of learning – but you'll get hired for being passionate and expert. So look for a sector to specialise in. (As Weber Shandwick's Colin Byrne tells graduates, it's better to know everything about something than something about everything).
Three. Be curious and keep learning. Don't be afraid to ask!