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Sunday, June 9, 2013

Why Public Relations must reinvent itself, or else R.I.P.

Many of us recall instances of repeated calls by insurance agents out to hard-sell a newly launched insurance policy, claiming to make our families ‘even more’ proud of us after we depart for heaven. The intense cajoling makes it seem as though the insurance policy is an eligibility criterion for entry to the heavenly abode. The divine discussion finally falls to the earth with a single question – what’s the lowest possible premium? Insurance is clearly the least valued investment option, rather, a necessary evil. Many Public Relations practitioners like to position P.R. as insurance against risks to corporate reputation from external factors. While that analogy may have some solid reasons, it is not surprising that the P.R. business in many parts of the world, stands commoditised as is the case with insurance.

Intense competition has meant that P.R. billings in hyper-competitive markets such as India are at their lowest. Faced with this scenario, it is only plausible to ask whether this low billing model is sustainable. Low billings would mean that growth in employee remuneration in the P.R. business would fall behind other key service industries. Moreover, the investments in training and development would continue to languish. In such a scenario, how can the business of Public Relations expect to attract or retain top talent? And without good talent, how will P.R. ever deliver results that will help it take centrestage in the communications strategy of clients?
P.R. is definitely not the first services business to be facing this situation. So, what is the solution? 
I certainly do not claim to have an answer but see no harm in trying to take a leaf out of the book of the insurance industry. Insurance now comes bundled with most financial instruments which seem to be far more amenable than standalone insurance. Perhaps it’s time P.R. is integrated with like-minded offerings – in other words its time to look at ‘Public Relations Plus’.

Till a few years ago the additional offering was primarily Public Affairs. However, that didn’t solve the problem of measurement. The new service offering, with a promise, is digital. As standalone, digital is heading for a similar cycle of commoditisation. But as part of P.R. Plus, digital gives P.R. teams the power to customize the message for each audience and deliver it directly with real-time measurement of audience receptivity. In culturally diverse countries such as India and the United States where marketers grapple with audience segmentation, the situation is set to get more complex with the growing penetration of the digital media. This complexity, in essence, has given P.R. its biggest opportunity.
If P.R. teams (comprising the PR firm and the in-house PR department) work in complete sync with a single-minded focus of showing the value of P.R. Plus to the C-suite in the backdrop of the increasingly complex external communications environment, there is a strong case for greater budgets being allocated and therefore better billings.
And it is this very message of P.R. Plus setting new benchmarks in communication that must be delivered to marketing and communications students. If setting new standards in communications is a student’s impression of success, then P.R. should be the career of choice. On the other hand, if PR teams continue to undercut each other and as a result fail to focus on demonstrating the strategic value of integrated campaigns, the community will do a great disservice to the P.R. discipline. Top talent will look elsewhere and the PR community will have only itself to blame.
On the digital front, while the debate continues to rage between marketers and P.R. teams as to who owns digital, the more plausible approach comes with understanding the purpose of the digital campaign for the company. Where digital is aimed at driving conversation with the audience, in other words the engagement is more social, it is up the alley of the P.R. team and where it is advertising-led or aimed at lead generation, marketers can take ownership with P.R. playing the supporting role. As companies gain clarity on the role of digital in their communication matrix, the differences are expected to be ironed out in due course.
We must remember that P.R. professionals would have to earn their place at the high table of strategy. The other option is to be prepared to get sidelined. We don't have much of a choice, do we?

This is an adaptation of an earlier post by me titled ‘Its time for public relations plus