MIAMI — The 2017 Independent PR Firm Forum kicked off today at the sixth Global PR Summit by exploring how a spirit of experimentation is vital to the future health of the public relations industry.

TheNetworkOne CEO Julian Boulding led the session by noting that public relations has never been more important, and yet considerable disruption threatens the conventional assumptions that underpin its operating models.

"What is the future of a people business that can’t attract good people?" asked Boulding. "There’s definitely a need for PR but is there a need for PR agencies?"

Responding to that provocative question were a range of executives who hailed from a variety of backgrounds. Acorn Strategy MD Kate Midttun, a marketing strategist, admitted that public relations remains challenged by a lack of serious metrics, compared to other disciplines.

"The biggest problem is that it’s very difficult to measure what the effect of PR is in the ecosystem," said Midttun.

That challenge is only amplified, said Shattuck Groome — partner at media agency Generator Media — by consistent client concerns. "Our clients need transparency, the need to understand what is being done with their money and they need measurable impact."

Clarity Media Group's Jodi Applegate, meanwhile — a former national TV journalist — added that public relations skills have to respond better to a multi-channel environment that remains threatened by the rise of fake news. 

"It’s still about message discipline and giving vivid examples that bring to life the stories you are telling," said Applegate. "But the stories have to have some truth to them, or at least I hope so."

Lift World founder and CEO Salvador da Cunha responded to the need for experimentation by launching an influencer marketing platform that has grown rapidly by focusing specifically on unpaid influencers. Yet, he noted that PR agencies need to balance the long-term need to guard reputation with short-term sales objectives.

Underpinning all of these concerns, added CCgroup CEO Richard Fogg from the floor, is that PR agencies "have to remember its our responsibility to continually evolve."

"The interesting people in the business are those experimenting with new ideas and new techniques," concluded Boulding.