April 12, 2011
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A rising PR industry trade journo asked me to answer some questions today. I don’t know how much of the material she’ll use, or whether it’s that interesting, but here it is, FYI:

What does the PR industry need to do to gain access to the C-suite and what are benefits for companies of doing so?

The first thing we need to do is clearly demonstrate the value that public relations adds to the achievement of tangible commercial objectives. C-level executives know in their hearts that PR is now more important than ever, but many just can’t articulate why they feel that way. Many hope for positive publicity, and perhaps more fear a ruined reputation from what we used to call ‘bad press.’ What they increasingly need these days is proof of how PR can promote their image and how it can protect their brand: numbers, charts, diagrams, and analytics. Digital is by its very definition about data and so the rise of social media gives us the power to plot outcomes and track progress during the life of a communications campaign. This is what is increasingly called ‘evidence-based communications.’

What are the current barriers to that?

Even though the opportunities are enormous with PR poised to be the breakout player in this new era of digital marketing, there remains this tendency within the industry to think small. It’s ironic; in my 21 years as a corporate communicator, I’ve never seen our profession stronger and more powerful than it is today, but not enough people in our field stake a claim to the leadership that can be ours if we transcend this stifling lack of efficacy about what we do for a living. Overcoming the legacy of what can be a ridiculous inferiority complex relative to the advertising industry is therefore key. The other challenge that we must meet is the establishment of higher professional standards so that clients can enjoy a certainty of positive outcome across the full spectrum of their ‘touch points’ with PR. Quality levels can be wildly inconsistent across firms, industry sectors, service spheres and geographic contexts. That costs the PR industry credibility and results in a dampening effect on prices that harms PR’s ability to attract and keep the best talent.

Has the situation changed in the recent years in how brands and top management view PR and how? Especially for Asian leaders, what have their attitudes been?

It is abundantly clear that senior people in complex organizations of multinational scale are investing much more in PR than they ever have before. PR is evolving from its roots as a craft of relationship artistry to becoming a measurable modern science of persuasion. More and more, we have proof based on numbers to support our sales contentions. In Asia, the problem is that even in more developed economies, PR often remains a developing industry that is poorly understood by elites in positions of power. In one country, PR might be confused with advertising or advertorial. In others, it might be seen as simple press-agentry or even purchasing coverage with cash. The good news is that in more and more places, the contemporary reality of PR is being refracted through a social media lens and that’s where we can see the true vision of our industry’s future. In the past I think PR people may have been branded in some quarters as hyperbole peddlers, media grifters, or social conveners. Fortunately, today’s serious PR professionals are increasingly seen as a curious hybrid of social scientist, communications counsel and management consultant.

From the agency POV, how have they evolved?

I think we agency people are finally wrapping our heads around the fact that with social technology we now have the tools, techniques, and talent building a consulting business on a digital platform the likes of which we have always dreamed of. In order to exploit the opportunity this presents to PR, we must deliver consistently high service and quality standards while keeping a brand promise in a business where firms have had difficulty honouring commitments in the past. Indeed, there is a lot of restless multinational PR money roaming around Asia, switching from one agency to the next, fed-up with mediocrity and looking for certainty of positive outcome across borders. In some Asian markets, there are few or not enough post-secondary institutions offering PR education, so the smart firms are taking matters into their own hands and building their own training capability. For example, we have BMU [Burson-Marsteller University]. Education is at the heart of building a premium PR brand in Asia. At B-M, training the team to keep setting the PR standard for quality is my #1 priority. I often remind myself of what one of my Korean clients once told me: “Aim for the money, and quality suffers; aim for the quality, and the money will always come.”

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