Charting the future of public relations
Industry blues in a time of plenty
Arun Sudhaman
Holmes Report
President/Editor-in-Chief

Industry blues in a time of plenty

Arun Sudhaman

Is the PR industry’s long-term viability in danger? A recent flurry of soul-searching appears to suggest so, despite the growing acceptance that enlightened public relations is a central tenet of any successful organization. Much of the discussion stems from the UK, following a Holmes Report interview with Ketchum EMEA digital head Stephen Waddington. In an earlier blogpost, Waddington issued a bracing call to arms to PR firms, noting that the “turf war” with advertising and digital firms is not over, with the latter two disciplines continuing to out-think and outmanoeuvre comms players where digital is concerned. You will forgive a measure of weariness on my part, because I feel like we have been having these conversations since I first started covering the marcomms industry a decade ago. It is, furthermore, difficult to be too pessimistic about the PR sector when the numbers continue to look good - aided by impressive growth in emerging markets, and undeniable expansion into digital media. Yet, for the UK market at least, it is also hard to completely disagree with Waddington’s contentions. I would suggest that PR firms in other markets have proved more adept at digital transformation. In the US, for example, the absence of natural national media has made digital channels much more critical to a company’s consumer outreach, and much better funded. Waddington’s concerns have been further amplified by posts from Stuart Bruce and Jed Hallam. It is Hallam’s effort, provocative headline and all, that encapsulates the scenario facing the industry. Specifically, the last few years have seen the discipline of PR decouple from the PR industry. Everyone, it seems, accepts the value of public relations as a discipline, from CEOs talking reputation at Davos to CMOs at Cannes testifying to the value of ‘earned media.’  That acceptance does not, though, necessarily translate into a natural elevation of the PR industry. Instead, we are seeing many types of firms - advertising, digital, media - attempt to build PR capabilities as part of their offering. In doing this, they are aided by a PR industry that, as Hallam correctly points out, has tended to focus too much on tactics rather than strategy, and does not usually have the natural route to big budgets that a CMO relationship affords. Yet I would quibble with a couple of Hallam’s claims. If it is that straightforward for an advertising agency to hoover up strong PR talent and launch a truly integrated offering, why is this so rarely the case? And do ad agencies really have stronger CEO relationships than PR firms? I am reminded of the comments of Adam & Eve founder James Murphy, who said that the one thing ad agencies envy about PR firms is their ability to provide CEO counsel, even if that typically occurs in a crisis situation. Finally, I think it is also worth noting that the situation is perhaps not as grim for the PR industry as many of our UK prognosticators would make out. We see a considerable amount of innovation in the industry from a variety of worldwide markets, from firms big and small. Even if the majority of players stand still, those agencies that realise the need for change can expect to prosper in a time of plenty.
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