By Luke Budka, director at TopLine Comms
Future gazing articles are usually guesstimates at best, but the PR industry evolves quickly. This means some agencies have developed their service offerings while others are still practicing the same old-fashioned tactics. It enables you to look forward and back at the same time.
What did PR traditionally consist of? Depends on who you talk to and the area in which you work (i.e. there’s a big difference between political press office work and consumer brand agency work) but from an agency perspective, strategies and tactics have traditionally included:
Internal comms – an often overlooked stakeholder group
- Crisis comms – typically a specialist subject
- Social media – managing a social presence (am lumping things like Wikipedia management in this category)
- Op-eds – long form editorial designed to position your client as a thought leader
- Press releases – news designed to position your client as a thought leader
- Interviews – meetings between your client and the media or other external stakeholders that need to be influenced
- Business profiles – actual profiles of your client’s business with a focus on financials and/or founder’s background and aspirations
- Events – managing an events programme and potentially the events in their entirety from setup to actually running them
- Speaking opps – securing slots at events designed for a client’s target audience
- Awards – researching and entering awards on a client’s behalf to raise awareness with a target audience (could be customers or could be other important stakeholder group like VCs)
- Analyst relations – researching and liaising with analysts at relevant research houses in an effort to secure a magic quadrant or equivalent position for your client
- Experiential (stunts) – ‘creative’ stunts designed to quickly raise awareness of a particular thing (e.g. a new product or TV programme)
What do all the above have in common? It’s very difficult to work out return on investment. Yes it’s possible to measure referrals from social channels, yes it’s possible to generate leads and opportunities from events, but on the whole the benefit of PR is intangible.
We’ve all read the Barcelona Principles all heard PR practitioners talk a good game, but the proof is in the pudding.
The reason there are still huge international brands relying on metrics like advertising value equivalencies is because they believe in the power of PR, but they need to justify the spend to a finance director or board that’s interested in the numbers (consider that the updated 2015 Barcelona Principles, as linked above, actually advise on how to make AVEs as accurate as possible – an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one). I’m not saying this is universally true: for example, c level execs appreciate without expert management, a crisis scenario could send a share price sliding. But these are fairly niche requirements that can be handled by a few agencies. So where does that leave everyone else? The thousands of PR shops scattered across the UK still trying to sell age old tactics to CMOs who now expect to be able to measure everything they spend marketing budget on. Combine that with a much-reduced media (the numbers of journalists in full time work is decreasing all the time) and you have a pretty good idea of how challenging the market is.
But this doesn’t mean there isn’t a future for these agencies. The skillset required to execute the PR tactics above is a transferable one. It very much lends itself to other marketing disciplines like search engine optimisation (SEO) and content marketing. And, there’s no reason these disciplines shouldn’t fall under the auspices of PR anyway. If it’s all about influencing a public then surely today’s battleground is not the pages of a broadsheet newspaper, but in fact the first page of Google’s search results. You make sure your client’s appearing there and suddenly you have a very easy way of assessing PR RoI, ironically you go from becoming one of the hardest to measure, most expensive marketing spends, to one of the easiest to measure, best value options.
If an agency insists on sticking to the tried and tested tactics above, then they should at least get to grips with a client’s business objectives, decide in advance what’ll help them achieve those business objectives that PR can influence (e.g. would a greater share of voice vs the competition help; or maybe the reinforcement of a particular key message in certain titles; maybe a change in audience sentiment?) and then measure their success against these predetermined KPIs. They also (as a bare minimum) need to become proficient with Google Analytics and Google Search Console so they can measure things like real time website engagement (handy if your client has a broadcast slot), referral traffic and branded searches.
Don’t despair. The world of PR as alive and kicking, but the tactics involved are evolving. Associate yourself with agencies that realise this, and you’ll set yourself on a solid career trajectory.