This post is courtesy of Paul Holmes and originally appeared on The Holmes Report.
May 3, 2013
The financial, political, technological and media worlds have changed dramatically since the start of the 21st century. The global economic crisis, stagnation in the developed economies and growth in emerging markets, the rise of digital and social communications channels and the fragmentation of mainstream news outlets—these changes have all prompted new threats, and opened up new opportunities, for the public relations business.
But to take advantage of these changes, public relations firms need new business models, new—and more diverse—talent, and new ways of thinking. To put it mildly, a public relations agency designed to meet the major challenges of the 20th century is unlikely to succeed in the 21st.
Yet many of the world’s largest agencies, and a surprising number of midsize firms, continue to operate as if little has changed. Their infrastructure is a legacy from a different age, they have the same practice areas (often conflating actual practices such as corporate communications and product marketing, with industry sectors such as healthcare and technology), the same geographic structures, the same silos that served them (not always well) a decade or more ago.
And many of them have failed to integrate new ideas, new technologies and new media, into the way they do business—often treating changes that ought to disrupt existing models as if they can simply be bolted on to the old model.
Every time they do that, they miss an opportunity to create something genuinely disruptive, and they double down on their investment in traditional, vestigial, thinking—increasing their vulnerability to new firms with new ways of thinking.
Many of the firms in this volume are already acting on some, perhaps many, of the ideas presented here. Some have radically restructured their business using their own ideas of what the future will demand. It’s doubtful whether anyone has all the answers when it comes to creating a new model for the public relations firm, but there are several ideas that all agencies should be exploring or considering.
1. Big data at the center
Three years ago, I found myself in Davos—at a conference called Communication on Top—debating the future role of public relations in a shifting world. My own optimistic view was challenged by Marshall Sponder, an expert in web analytics. His major complaint: that PR people did not understand how to use big data; his big prediction: that within a couple of years, every PR agency that wanted to be taken seriously would have a chief data officer, playing a significant role in the leadership of the organization.
To say that progress on this score has been mixed would be extremely generous to the industry as a whole. There has been plenty of evidence that putting data and analytics at the center of communications can be incredibly powerful—the Obama re-election campaign is the most obvious example—but there has been incremental progress at best when it comes to using data to drive marketing and corporate communications more broadly, and only a handful of firms have anyone in a role roughly equivalent to Sponder’s chief data officer role.
2. Insight to drive meaningful creativity
One reason data is important is that it lays the foundation for the kind of insight—into stakeholder attitudes, values, beliefs and actions—that ensure relevance.
For too long, many public relations people—like the baseball scouts in Michael Lewis’s Moneyball who believed that they could identify a good baseball player based on little more than attitude, posture, and physique—have operated on the assumption that their years of experience alone meant that they knew a good PR campaign when they saw it.
But all too often, the ideas they generated were creative just for the sake of it. They resonated with reporters, but not with the wider audiences they were intended to reach. They provided entertainment value but didn’t do anything to influence behavior. They were “great” PR ideas with no business benefit.
Great data alone will not ensure great PR programming. But better data will lead to better insights. And better insights will lead to more creative public relations ideas—ideas that solve real business problems.
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