The Future of PR

By Nikki Wright

This year’s Public Relations Institute of New Zealand (PRINZ) conference fielded a rich array of presentations on PR and communications. But the talk that caught my attention as an agency owner was Holmes Report's CEO and Editor-In-Chief, Arun Sudhaman, on the future of PR.  The Holmes Report taps into agencies and other research globally to identify trends, changes, issues and the industry's direction. Sudhaman's presentation in particular tapped into the thinking of the top performing agencies in the world and the findings were fascinating - and comforting.

Not surprising the industry is beset - as many are - with change, driven by a rapidly changing media and business marketplace, technological innovation and the burgeoning role and power of data.

The list of important trends within the top agencies that Sudhaman cited began with investment - both into the working environment and the people within the organisation. That included experimenting with new capabilities in the agency - video suites or in one case a "hot content" team - and retraining in certain areas to better support clients.

Collaboration was a big factor in success, as agencies partnered with other organisations that brought niche skills to the clients' requirements. But the potential partners included some unusual bedfellows for PR: Sudhaman talked of the need for greater collaboration with anthropologists and behavioural economists for the insights into behavioural change that drive marketing.  And marketing was definitely a target for agencies, he said.

Top agencies put a premium on competing robustly for business, with a determination to move beyond simply seeking a share of the PR budget to making a play for the broader marketing dollars - generally a much larger spend in organisations. Hand-in-hand with that driver was the need to have a strong growth strategy and willingness - and globally mergers and acquisitions were the common pathway, particularly in South and Southeast Asia.

Again unsurprisingly, innovation and creativity also rated highly in the list of areas the best agencies were focusing on. Sudhaman said that required nurturing and perhaps a different approach to recruiting - looking for people with skills that might be useful to the client's requirements.  He suggested a comedian as an example - "they make great story-tellers." It meant looking at new career paths within the business, perhaps evolving new roles that reflect the changed focus in the market. But he also alluded to the need to avoid silos within your agency - a risk where you specialise in IT or healthcare PR for example.

Sudhaman brought some other interesting insights from the Holmes research.

One was the list of skills PR professionals felt would be necessary in the next five years for success, which included written communications - controversially ahead of social media skills.  The durability of writing as a core and key skill to our game makes sense - content is king as Bill Gates famously said.

But Sudhaman also told us two-out-of-three PR professionals felt the average person wouldn't be able to distinguish between what was paid media (such as advertorial) and what was earned media (unpaid such as editorial articles) and shared media (e.g. company publications).  Perhaps scarier was the finding that only slightly fewer PR people felt the average person didn't care if those different sorts of media could be clearly distinguished.

As noted above, Sudhaman's story was comforting for me as a kiwi agency-owner because much of what he sketched in as the future pathway has been organically happening within our business.  Distance from the global powerhouses of PR is not the disadvantage it once was.

We have seen the value of our collaborative relationships with organisations like the Australasian Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility (ACCSR) and Colmar Brunton, and have anticipated our clients changing needs for more than just PR solutions - getting the messages across - to helping them achieve their end goals.

We're also alert to the risk of silos and our CSR specialisation doesn't reside in one corner of the office - it's across all the work we do.

The intriguing and challenging vision Sudhaman put forward is around recruiting differently - what are those unexpected skillsets and roles that might embellish our agency work? As for that connection with anthropologists: if there are any behavioural economists out there…we'd love to hear from you!

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