Transforming the PR industry through upgrading our reputation and demonstrating an understanding of value

This blog started as a BTL response to Mike Love’s blog posted on Linkedin. Mike is a senior communications advisor with remarkable experience and a very good way with words. We come from different places politically and adjacent spaces professionally, but I’m always interested in his thoughts, especially as they’re usually communicated with humour and intelligence. Suggest you click on this links before you read the rest of this post.

Right, you’re back. I’m sure none of you are surprised that I pretty much agree with Mike’s core arguments about the value of communications, how we win and earn trust and that we need to demonstrate our relevance to the core balance sheet / share price correlation to be considered genuinely strategic partners to management. It’s too easy to be labelled as either sales marketing / support or “fluffy”; for which the Germans have no word apparently; either of which suggests the function should be managed significantly below Board / leadership level.

The bit that really caught me was less in the piece itself, but was in the linkedin note that encouraged me to click in the first place: “Nobody cares what PR is called, how many events and seminars it has, or whether it is a “profession” or not. What they care about is whether it can do anything for them and their businesses. Trust is something earned by delivering business benefit – Show me the money!”

I might be wrong, but this feels like a dig at the fairly high profile constituency of senior PR professionals that is extremely keen on the upgrading of PR, especially when compared to other industries; such as the law, banking etc.

As some of you might know, one of my major hobby horses as regards the PR industry is its lack of diversity. We are an extremely white middle class industry, due in part because graduate salaries are so low as to need a certain amount of parental support, especially in London. In an ideal world, we’d be able to persuade a 22 year old from to choose Bell Pottinger over Goldman Sachs. To do this, we need to fundamentally change the perception of PR as an industry and the value of the service it provides. For the industry to have a future, we have to be able to persuade the best and brightest 22 year olds to consider communications as an equal to finance and law.

The reason we have to change this perception is somewhat financial. The perceived value of law / corporate finance etc means they can charge higher fees. Whilst Senior PR people earn well into 6 figures, getting them close to corporate financier / legal eagle levels; at the graduate level there’s a massive disparity of up to £50k. An ex colleague Stephen Waddington had it exactly right where he tweeted recently “enhance perception of value, enhance fees, pay staff more”.

So how do we do this?

Mike has the core argument set perfectly. PR can and should be seen as a strategic management function, just as much as law or corporate finance. What we need to do is harness this strategic understanding and vision, remove the cynicism which is hardwired into Mike’s political soul and then combine with the modernising and proselytising zeal of the Stephen Waddington type communications industry advocate.

If we can effectively demonstrate the balance sheet value of strategic communication, the PR Industry will be more highly valued by those that “buy” it than is currently the case. Then we can reshape the industry to something more equitable.

Oh look, a unicorn!


Imagine Brand Was Worthless….

This is going to be a fairly brief blog that might turn into something longer that involves proper research depending on feedback from peers and (ex)colleagues.

3 months after leaving agency for a new role in house, I’ve had a few offers of support from my communications advisors. I’m always happy to meet and chat, although as I’ve told everyone, I’m not looking for external support at the moment. My initial role as an inaugural Head of Comms is to properly define the value proposition of communications to my new employer. They’ve shelled out on me and the associated costs of hiring, I’m not in a position to justify further investment at the moment.

Anyway, a few people I’ve met commented something along the lines of “if I had any spare budget that had to be used by the end of the year, they’d be happy to take it off my hands”

I know it was a joke, sort of, but that line has combined with some long standing misgivings about our industry and associated trades (marketing / advertising etc) and has led to the title of this blog.

I wonder how much communications / PR / marketing / advertising work carried out in London has virtually no value – or at least nowhere near the value of the services that are actually paid for?

Take a fundamentally commoditised product sold wholesale to cost conscious clients. There is no difference between this product and that sold by rivals. They both create the same outcome. Often they are created in the same place and traded multiple times. They are entirely interchangeable. Let’s say this product might be quite close to my heart and professional experience.

Does brand really matter in this case? Is there truly a justifiable benefit for the $millions spent on any number of communications services designed to help drive sales of this and many similar products?

I’m honestly unsure of the answer. I have deep respect for senior ex colleagues & peers who have had very successful careers doing exactly this sort of work. I also respect a number of the companies that have committed both philosophically and financially to this approach. Obviously it gets more complicated if one is dealing with a consumer product, however I still have this little nagging voice at the back of my mind.

This isn’t about agency or in house. It’s not about big or small agencies. I’ve now worked for a small agency, one of the world’s largest and I’ve just gone in house. It’s about communications as an industry and whether we can be accused of maintaining a loop of self justification for what can be extremely expensive products that have limited discernible benefit?

Of course evaluation methodology is improving but equally this could be included in the self justification argument; as to be truly objective, we should consider what the commercial outcome would be without a communications solution, or at least a more limited baseline. Think about that for a second. Would products still be sold if our work didn’t exist? AMEC’s “Barcelona Principles” are a strong step in the right direction here, but I’m not sure they answer that nagging question in the back of my mind.

This isn’t a Jerry Maguire moment. I’ve seen people fall out of love with PR and say, “It’s all a load of BS; I don’t believe in what I’m doing and certainly don’t believe what my clients are selling” – this isn’t the case for me. I love working in the communications industry and I’m committed to doing the best job possible for myself, my employer, and more so now than earlier in my career, for the wider industry.

I would however welcome thoughts and feedback from peers or all levels, as this is the sort of thing we need to work together on. We’re naïve if we don’t recognise that communications can have a negative perception with those outside the industry – some of whom we need to persuade to sign off on budgets and / or hire us.

All thoughts welcome, thanks in advance