September 15, 2014
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The PR industry needs to grow in many ways

On September 13th, I addressed the Public Relations and Corporate Communications India Summit at Agra. I was asked to speak about opportunities for growth in the public relations industry. Typically I deliver a speech extemporaneously, but this time I spoke from a prepared text on purpose so that I could also post it here. What follows below is what I talked about…


I bring with me the best wishes of our Group CEO Lord Chadlington, your keynote speaker last year.

Today I’ve been asked to talk about opportunities for growth in the PR industry, but growth in what exactly? Are we just talking about money again?

How predictable, how tedious, how completely unsatisfactory really. We need to grow in so many ways as an industry – ‘evolve’ might be a better word.

First of all, we need to grow our knowledge – and apply our intelligence

I think that PR people have the potential to be the world’s most powerful information workers, but do we act that way? Do we understand what is going on around the globe? Are we up-to-date on international affairs, do we follow politics closely, do we know the business of our clients and the key facts of their industries? Do we understand how commerce works and what the great forces of change are in society today? Qualitatively and quantitatively, do we know the peoples and the cultures and the characteristics of the communities with whom we seek to communicate?

Or are we altogether too often awash in superficial nonsense, drowning in drivel and too prone to jibber-jabber? Ignorance is the enemy of our industry’s growth, be it the account executive in Bangalore who doesn’t know the name of their biggest client’s CEO or the American counterpart who still sets the India PR budget according to outmoded stereotypes.

Clients want informed professionals working on their accounts, people who can ‘connect the dots’ between stakeholders and issues. The more they know, the more value they can add, and the more they can broaden the scope and expand the size of what were earlier thought to be finite and fixed PR remits.

We need to grow our focus – and do more thinking

We are so busy reacting and responding, we scarcely have the time to really think about things anymore. We are being swept along in the rapid current of this inexorable digital wave and are so absorbed in the diverting and mesmerizing stimuli of the latest smart phone technology, we haven’t been actually thinking about our work before we just start doing it. The result is distracted incoherence and a feeling of low efficacy as many PR people keep trying without success to be the masters – and not the servants – of what seems an oppressive daily routine.

We need to grow our listening – and hear better

PR professionals need to remember that listening to people makes them feel included, more likely to volunteer ideas, be open to persuasion and to share new sentiment with others. Dale Carnegie hit this nail right on the head back in 1936 when he wrote How to win friends and influence people and said that the key is “Make the other person feel important – and do it sincerely!”

How do we do that?

By remembering that communication starts with listening. The word ‘listen’ contains the same letters as the word ‘silent.’ But what do PR people tend to do instead? We talk and we talk and we talk and bore people to death – we repel them – by speaking about our selfish stuff instead of encouraging others to talk. But if we listen well, we can make sure that stakeholders hear the sweetest sound they’ve ever heard, and that’s not the sound of our voice – it’s the sound of theirs.

We need to grow our expertise – and deepen our domain capability

Here our industry has tremendous potential, because clients are subscribing to deep service capability – things we know how to do (like corporate communications and public affairs), across industry sectors – or who we do them for (like technology and pharmaceutical companies, for example).

What we have seen is a trend of creeping generalization, where we have too many PR people who are the ‘jacks-of-all-trades’ and the ‘masters-of-none.’ There’s still a market for that kind of consulting, but it’s more at the commodity end of the spectrum where price competition can be cut-throat and quality levels more ‘iffy.’

Some industry leaders from the largest firms boast that only they have the scale to succeed with specialization, but we all know that smaller firms can often be more nimble and agile and dynamic within certain spheres.

Big firms such as conglomerates without a PR strategy are road-kill for upstarts who focus laser-like on specific segments and build from there.

We need to grow in professionalism – and stamp out mediocrity

All too often, PR is lacking in professional standards. Or if we have them in theory, we’re not living up to them in reality. There are still too many documents riddled with typos, or cookie-cutter communications programs totally lacking in imagination, or lame excuses when it comes to poor turnout at client events. We need to create an atmosphere that is inhospitable to shoddy work and instead champions craftsmanship.

I don’t know how many times I have heard clients say they were unhappy with their previous PR agency. When I ask why, I secretly hope – for the sake of industry pride if nothing else – to find out they’ve been a slave-driving client who made all these delusional demands with a tiny budget. Unfortunately, though, I hear about poorly managed expectations, missed deadlines, and the ‘appearance of activity’ rather than the reality of results.

We can and must do consistently better.

We need to grow our leadership – and manage well

Let me ask you this candid question: honestly, does the PR industry have the strongest leadership? Even among some agency chiefs, pound for pound, are they really the best we can do as a profession? And do we have enough inspiring leaders? The answer I think is a resounding “no.” We need to change that and develop our next generation of rising talent. I am reminded of that quote about how “the best leaders don’t have the most followers…the best leaders create the most leaders” and we in public relations need more of them!

We need to grow our confidence – and define the largest vision for PR

“‘I’m just a PR person’ here to explain what others have decided.” Is that to be our fate? Or are we going to be really full-spectrum executives, serving the four functions which Harold Burson envisaged: (1) Acting as the sensor for social change like an early warning ‘radar’ role; (2) Serving as ‘corporate conscience’ when it comes to values and standards; (3) Being a communicator, which is the best known function; and, (4) Performing as a corporate monitor, almost like a stakeholder ‘ombudsman’ (and this is more relevant than ever at a time when the boundaries between previously distinct disciplines like HR and customer service are blurring).

In many markets of Asia where PR is being defined and understood for the first time (often from a starting point of complete unfamiliarity), I think this represents a tremendous opportunity for us.

That means we also need to grow our reputation – to become famous

PR is still such a scrawny and compact industry (is the agency business even worth $20 billion globally?), but we punch below even that weight worldwide and in Asia we’re often seen as subordinate and junior corporate function.

We need to grow our character – taking a principled stand

Not shading the truth or prevaricating or exaggerating. Not paying for play where nobody can see who’s really behind things. Not exuding a superficial charm inappropriately. Not, for example, signing lame declarations claiming we won’t work on campaigns denying global warming while taking money from clients who do – at the same time as we do nothing to apply our collective skill to help galvanize global action against it!

We need to grow the meaning of our work – public relations in the public interest

So we need to stand for something, more than just each other. More than just for our clients. Helping solve the communications conundrum of climate change makes a lot of sense. But the world has so many problems which seem bigger than any single institution’s ability to solve on its own, public relations has the ‘convening power’ to help rally people across society, to master what Richard Edelman called the ‘relationship imperative’ between different kinds of stakeholders.

We need to grow our talent – to be the best we can be

We need to educate them, train them, equip them, empower them and inspire them. Young talent need to see the future in it compared to the other things they could be doing with their lives. We also need to champion diversity so that firms have older people and not just the young, men too and not female ghettos, while at the most senior level, more women running the show. Offices in India with Americans and Europeans and Chinese, and offices worldwide with Indians.

We need to grow Asian global PR firms – and project them worldwide

All of the major global players are based in the West. Obviously I’m a Western person, but I’ve lived in Asia for coming on 13 years. Here on the front-lines of our business, we frequently see things differently than they do in London and New York. All too often we’ve been the ‘spokes’ here and they’ve been the ‘hub,’ where the Asian practitioner is supposed to be the student and the headquarters people the teachers. Times are changing, and while Asia is getting more important inside these firms, until there is a global PR firm based, owned and managed from this part of the world, we’re just not going to see our industry flourish to its full potential during this ‘Asian century.’

We need to grow with Asian multinationals – as they build global social brands

As of this year, there are 188 Asian multinationals on the Fortune 500 list, with China now having more companies on the list than Japan. India – with eight – is rising on the league tables, with more than Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand combined. How many of these 188 companies are already world famous? Very few indeed. Their emergence on the international stage represents the most exciting commercial opportunity for the public relations trade today. But will these firms embrace PR and invest in it like the way their western competitors have done? We can take nothing for granted. As PR practitioners we need to earn our way in and escalate from there.

Let us look at the rise of these new Asian global companies through the lens of media history: British firms became world famous courtesy of the print revolution, American and then Japanese brands became known in the broadcast era, and the Korean chaebol came of age during the early days of the Internet. Now the Chinese and indeed Indian companies will become the first global brands to be born in the social media era.

Where social media meets Asian multinationals is therefore the ‘sweet spot’ for our industry.

The bottom line?

If we want to make more money and grow our commerce, then we need to grow all the things I’ve mentioned, and then just watch the PR industry skyrocket. That growth will demand development, maturation, progress, extension, expansion, and proliferation.

I believe we have what it takes to succeed right across this broad range of self-improvement as an industry.

Thank you.

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