For the last 18 years I’ve worked in the PR industry and it has become obvious to me that PR has huge problem, well three to be exact.
On the 4th of January 1999, I began my PR career when I started my first day as a press officer for the Progressive Democrats. My journey to that point had been circuitous, to say the least. I completed a business degree in the University of Limerick – specialising in marketing and agribusiness. My final dissertation was on fertiliser. I’m not kidding. Is it any wonder I ended up working in communications? (I might add I did get an A in the fertiliser thesis!)
At that stage I had thought my career was in my family’s farm supply business, but a love for talking and connecting soon convinced me that my path led in a different direction. After working at home for a few months I got an offer to work in the marketing department of Dubarry Shoes where I had interned while I was in university. I remember it as an intense and interesting experience, but product marketing just wasn’t exciting enough for 23 year old me.
I left it behind me and I came to DIT in Dublin to study a post graduate diploma in journalism. The minute the first class started in the autumn of 1997 – I knew I was in the right place. I had found my frequency. It was fast-paced, exciting and driven by the news agenda. You really never knew what was going to happen next. The Progressive Democrats were in a coalition Government and no one knew quite when it would end.
So to the problems with PR – what’s so troubling?
1. It’s not coming from the heart
My formative and defining experience in PR was in the rough and tumble world of political communications. When you work in realms of politic spin – to be a success it’s essential that you believe the message. In fact it’s so important, not believing would be like stepping on a rugby pitch without knowing how to tackle, or taking your dog for a walk on the motorway. It’s not going to end well. You only have to look at Jeremy Corbyn’s disastrous relaunch of his Labour leadership recently to see how not believing is an occupational hazard.
If political communication is successful it comes from the heart, it reflects the vision and values of a leader and it moves an audience. At its best it looks like “yes we can.’ Or dare I say it – ‘Let’s make America great again.’ It resonates, changes minds and gets people to act.
So where is the problem I can hear you ask? If this is such a good way to communicate why aren’t more organisations, and brands using the same techniques to connect with their audiences? The best brands do. Brands like Sugru, Hiut Denim, and Paddy Power. They communicate from the heart of their brand, sharing stories that reflect their mission, their values and reflect their personality.
The problem is that too many organisations are just tacking on PR to the outside of what they are doing and using it to change how they connect with customers. The real problem is that PR people and PR agencies are letting them do this. Great PR has an instinct for the audience and fully reflects what the communicating brand is about. It’s not about one television or newspaper piece in isolation. It’s about creating an overall mood that achieves the goals of your organisation.
2. Very few set objectives
That brings me to the other great problem with PR – setting objectives. For almost 10 years now I have been teaching and training PR people. The one question that is most often met with stony silence is: What do you want to achieve with PR? If you can’t measure what to what to achieve in advance, it is virtually impossible to succeed. Imagine the team’s manager not knowing what success will look like. It’s the exact same thing in business and in PR. If you are incapable of stating what it will look like if you’re successful your pathway is more likely to be a mediocre, and uneventful. Great PR people solve the problems that keep the senior management awake at night and are rewarded handsomely for it. Think of the political spin doctor who is trying to save a government or avert a crisis using all of their skill. The outcome is measureable and they are solving the biggest of issues.
3. The shrinking media and PR people accept fragmentation
For the last 10 years there have been a number of stark trends in the media industry. The traditional media is contracting – at a rate of knots each year. As a result of this journalists have become less influential, and digital and social channels are filling the void. This has seen the rise of a whole new industry, and many new career type. There are citizen journalists, community managers, digital experts, native advertisers and content managers. Every one of the communicating professions has scrambled to try and take some of this new territory. The problem is that the PR industry, in the main, is clinging to the life raft that is the traditional media, and letting the kids at the digital stuff. PR people are doing the same things, with the same old tools, with a little bit of digital just not to look out of place.
This is a huge mistake. All of the skills needed to master this new reality reside in PR, and PR people need to take on this challenge and capture and master this work.
So what’s the answer to these three problems?
I always pride myself in being positive and that’s why I’ve started a new agency – All Good Tales – to tackle these three problem face on, and to take ownership of the new reality the PR industry finds itself in. All Good Tales will work with organisations to drive stories, not press releases, from the heart of who they are. It will work to define success at the start, and make sure how we communicate always has the feel and personality correct, and delivers on the most important issues. It will also not just be about the traditional media, but it won’t be fragmented either. It will be about just one thing- stories, and how great stories can change minds, outcomes and results. Stories are the solution to PR’s three great problems.