Public Relations – More Evolutionary Than Revolutionary

The opinion of Kevin Welman, Managing Director of Fleishman-Hillard SA, drafted by Tom Manners

In many ways, the past year has been one of subtle transformation for those who work and play within the realm of professional communications.

Although we have yet to experience a ‘eureka!’ moment worthy of Archimedes’ bath time revelation, we’ve all noticed an understated, yet sudden shift in the very foundation underlying the strategies and approaches we have grown used to over the years.

Today, defining one’s self or business in terms of the once highly esteemed and respected divide between public relations, advertising and marketing is as archaic an approach as keeping your life’s savings under the mattress or sending a fax to a friend.

The simple truth is that the lines between these disciplines have been irreversibly blurred by the advent of the digital age. Rather than shy away, most of us have embraced this new paradigm as an opportunity to broaden client strategies and reach new audiences in increasingly meaningful ways.

All the excitement in the air has encouraged greater creativity within PR than ever before.  With this has come a maturity of sorts; the kind that will inevitably determine the difference between a ‘good’ and ‘great’ understanding of where corporate communications is headed in the years to come.

It’s no longer enough to simply shout ‘we’ve gone digital’ from the rafters while frantically brainstorming a social media strategy in the backroom. Clients have come to expect weighty concepts coupled with deeper insights and a presence that encompasses the full spectrum of the marketing mix.

There is now a very apparent need for agencies to operate throughout the bought, owned and earned media spaces. The digital revolution has given us the tools required to represent client messaging in every area of opportunity, instead of within the exclusive jurisdiction of earned media.

Agencies that fail to integrate both traditional and digital approaches into each of these spaces should expect an unpleasant awakening as the market matures. Those that focus on acquiring new skill sets and developing integrated strategies will reap the rewards time and time again.

We have also witnessed a shift in client expectations around insights and reporting. The real value in entering media spaces previously unknown or forbidden to PR lies in gaining a deeper understanding of the audience.

In the future, those who are best able to combine real analytics with a healthy PR mix will be the kings and queens of the marketing boardroom table.

Joanna Oosthuizen, Managing Director, Ogilvy PR says, “Research without proper interpretation is simply data and today clients require much more insight from all types of communication.  The only way we can measure success is with analytics and this means that we need to be calculated in all that we do.  As PR becomes increasingly more important all clients require that there is measurement and benchmarking to drive success and this guides what we do on a daily basis.

“If an agency simply reports outputs as opposed to outcomes the result is only going to focus on coverage as opposed to impact.  If PR is to show real value we need to clearly demonstrate how we bring business returns to our clients.”

This means gaining real knowledge of how, why and where the message is landing. Digital channels are just tools to be used to gain a better understanding of how to best position an emerging brand, or reinvent a cold fish.

Our apish ancestors knew that stone utensils were a means to an end. By using innovation to find food, they discovered more about the nature of the element they were interacting with. Emerging offerings within the online space are no different – these encourage conversation and should ultimately act as conduits into the hopes and expectations of those who choose to engage.

These factors also hold significant implications for traditionally focused PR efforts. Social media facilitates access to unfathomable quantities of information in a highly conversational manner. Using these networks to contact and present custom-made material to journalists should now play a significant role in every traditional strategy.

Daniel Munslow, Chief Strategic Communication Officer, Talk2Us and Judge in the 2011 PRISM Awards says, “There is no doubt that the lines between various communication and marketing disciplines are being blurred, and in the process are serving a move cross-functional purpose in support of the successes contributed by each. Increasingly, strategic communication efforts are working alongside marketing and advertising, thereby complimenting the key messages from different angles. Communication is becoming increasingly important in companies and campaigns attempts in reaching and changing the behaviours of selected target audiences.

“The Vote for Table Mountain successfully demonstrated the power of an integrated approach, including the use of social media tools such as Mxit to reach those who didn’t have access to computers. The community outreach element also complimented a strong integrated approach and in the process secured a number of implicit, as well as explicit wins – both for the campaign and the communities at large.”

If you are reading this as a PR practitioner, then you are more fortunate that you may realise. Although the changes we are living through may seem overwhelming, and at times intimidating, they are breathing new life into an established and reputable industry.

It’s moments like these when country music artist Paul Brandt’s infamous quote seems more relevant than ever.

“Don’t tell me the sky’s the limit when there are footprints on the moon”.