Is Australia’s public relations industry in crisis? Some suggest local PR agencies need to start doing things differently to be relevant.
Once again, there’s a public skirmish that casts doubt on the direction and effectiveness of Australia’s public relations industry. This time the debate is about how PR agencies and people are dealing with the ever-shifting sands of technology and audience demand – how they can give clients value while offering the public what it wants. All this at a time when the largest traditional consumers of their work – journalists at large or specialist media organisations – wonder how many of their colleagues will be coming to work tomorrow.
It’s no fun being the piggy in the middle if the ball and the throwers are moving targets, but that’s the predicament facing PR agencies and professionals in Australia. Their clients are becoming more demanding, expecting better results for less outlay, while their earned media options for placing stories are shrinking in quality and expanding in quantity. All the while, the ultimate targets of their messages – their clients’ audiences – are demanding greater personalisation and more worthwhile experiences. They’re spending more time on an expanding array of social media channels, seemingly devouring the thoughts of billionaire “influencers” while refusing to pay for traditional news.
Something has to give. So what role does PR play in all this, and do the things that once worked so well still have a place?
At industry event CommsCon in March 2017, a number of speakers spoke of the changing nature of PR. That the industry needed to end its fixation with attracting earned media coverage and listen more to its ultimate consumers. To coincide with CommsCon, a director of independent PR and social media agency Poem, Rob Lowe, wrote an article for the Mumbrella website that claimed “the press office is dead”.
“Over the past decade, I’ve come to terms with the fact that the ‘always on’ press office retainer has finally died,” Lowe wrote. “It was a good earner for PR agencies whilst it lasted – it used up a lot of head hours – but 12 months’ worth of pitch angles, fancy breakfast events, bland research stories, stunts, baskets of expensive presents and media mailers just don’t work any more.
“By condensing all those head hours and money clients spend each year on a monthly press office into more meaningful and impactful, idea-led spikes of activity, your work will be far more worthwhile, efficient and effective.”
Founder and CEO of Sydney agency Access PR Andrea Kerekes says it’s nonsense to say that the “always-on mentality” has run its course. She says it’s important that PR professionals continue to produce work for their clients that is consistent and relevant at all times to maximise media coverage.
“That will never change,” she says. “In fact, I think it’s more important because people have so much choice. They have so many things swung at them and they’re looking at less and less. They have their favourite two news sites, and their favourite online site or lifestyle site or whatever.
“I’ve never had a journalist say, ‘The last thing you should do is send me a media release’.”Andrea Kerekes
“I think you have to be always on, providing what you do is relevant. Nobody is going to stop doing what they’re doing as well, so it’s very competitive.”
Kerekes has been in the PR business since 2008 after working in journalism and copywriting. She says there has been a shift from doing work on retainer to more project work (one-off events and launches), but “media office” work dominates. “The vast majority of our clients are still [on retainer]. Five years ago maybe less than 10 per cent would’ve been project-based, but now it’s probably 25 per cent.” She says the global trend has been for clients to either pull their PR function in-house or outsource it to sole traders rather than move it to multifunctional agencies.
She says it’s fine in theory to say that “we should all be making these fabulously, intensely high consumer insight pieces of content and watch them fly” and that creative ideas pick up momentum on their own rather than need to be pitched out, which is what traditional PR did for decades. “Boards need numbers and results,” she says. “Our focus is still on earned media. But it’s not just ‘media’ any more – it’s any type, any platform.”
Kerekes says the changes that have had the greatest impact on public relations are shrinking media businesses employing fewer journalists and the integration of PR with social media and digital platforms. “It’s pretty seamless now,” she says. “It used to be more separated, but now PR consultants need to be good with content.”
Another factor is the rise in demand for quality video and visuals. “I think PR agencies are now looking for more creative input than they did five years ago.”
Old v new
Is the global PR industry in crisis? A global survey of 2500 professionals across 17 industries in 2016 by Sweden-based PR platform Mynewsdesk found that only about one in three PR professionals thought their PR efforts were effective. That means 64 per cent thought what they did for a living was somewhere between “somewhat effective” and “not effective at all”.
Respondents said their biggest challenges were a lack of resources or funds (62 per cent), finding the right measures or metrics to evaluate effectiveness (58 per cent) and a shortage of time to try new strategies (59 per cent). Just over half felt they had limited internal skills and competencies to deal with the new world order in PR. At least four in five PR professionals surveyed believed that companies will increasingly use technology to reach their various stakeholders.
Catriona Pollard well remembers a time when using technology meant something entirely different in the world of public relations. “When I started in PR, I was the junior standing in the hallway by the fax machine – faxing out press releases,” she says. “It’s such a vivid memory. We’re talking 25 years ago. It was very much about sending the same story out to a bazillion journalists.”
The author, speaker and owner of Sydney-based PR agency CP Communications says the growth of technology has had a bigger impact on public relations than most industries. The agencies and individuals that haven’t embraced change, she says, have seen an impact on their profitability and effectiveness. “I absolutely do believe that there are agencies that have not changed,” Pollard says. “I have conversations with clients and leaders virtually every day saying that they’ve dealt with an agency or PR person who didn’t really get the changing media landscape.
“I got involved in social media virtually from day one. I found it so fascinating, and I really saw how, as a PR person, I could be ahead of the curve. I almost got to the point [10 years ago] when I stopped having conversations with PR people about social media because they refused to acknowledge that it would have any impact. It’s only really been in the last few years that most PR people have changed their attitude towards how social media can positively impact our industry as opposed to it being a threat.”
“The key is going deeper and finding multiple layers of media angles that tell the whole story.”Catriona Pollard
One of the casualties of the social media era was supposed to be media releases. Why broadcast your corporate news to a dwindling number of journalists when you could speak to an audience directly through Facebook or Twitter? But it seems there is still a place for the PR professional’s traditional communication of choice.
“I think there is still a place for media releases,” Pollard says. “Especially if you’re a beauty brand, say, and you have a new product. What she believes no longer works is sending out the same story to random news email addresses. “That’s lazy PR. You’re just crossing your fingers hoping somebody is going to pick it up.”
Kerekes says Access PR doesn’t send as many media releases as it used to but they can still be effective. “Clients still want them, journalists still want them,” she says. “I’ve never had a journalist say, ‘The last thing you should do is send me a media release, I don’t want to know that’. They all ask for a media release.”
She says the shrinking number of journalists has made it easier to get client messages through media releases published in media outlets. “You’ve got to feed the monster, particularly online, for big news outlets,” she says. “The news cycle is so short now. I think there are some cases where, providing it’s really good content, whether it’s infographics, information or video, it will get further than it used to.”
Kerekes believes it’s as crucial than it’s ever been that PRs have healthy relationships with their media contacts and a good understanding of what they need – especially what they want like or don’t like. “Sure, if you’ve got a good story, you don’t have to know anybody,” she says. “But I think contacts are still very important.
“There are more brands and more PR agencies trying to get the attention of fewer journalists and less platforms that are of size – the ones that will impress the client. So having a relationship and them knowing that if you send them an email it’s not going to be crap, or knowing that don’t invite them out on weeknight because they’re a single parent but you can send them a media kit instead, that sort of stuff is really important still.”
Pollard says the changing media landscape – and the demand for greater human contact in business communications – has made it more important for brands to present themselves as thought leaders. She says that PR professionals have a vital role in identifying and cultivating their clients’ best media talents. “They have to present the visuals. They have to present background stats. They have to present potentially a client story, the human-interest element to it. They have to package the whole story. And then they have to find the journalist that’s going to be interested in it. The type of work is more effective now – not getting a million stories out there. It’s actually about getting some really amazing one-off stories that really have impact.”
Clients, however, can be there own worst enemy when it comes to messaging, Pollard says. “We call journalists our ‘clients’. We know what journalists are going to write and our clients don’t, but we’re the ham in the sandwich because we want to make our clients happy. We have to pitch a story a journalist will run.
“I think the key is going deeper and finding multiple layers of media angles that tell the whole story of either a thought leader or an organisation and pitching those story ideas, those media angles, over a period of time,” Pollard says. “The PR person’s responsibility is not about selling the client, and the journalist will never be on a story that sells a client or an organisation.”
Exclusives still play a role, too, because the level of competition across the various media channels has increased so much. “We only pitch one story at a time,” Pollard says. “We never pitch stories to multiple outlets because invariably the journalist will come back and say, ‘Who else have you sent this to?’ Our strategy is to ask which journalist is our ultimate for this particular story and for this particular client. I can’t even tell you how time consuming that is.”
The emergence of branded content – material produced by businesses on their own channels – is also influencing the role of PR. After all, if an exclusive goes out on a owned channel and nobody hears it, will it have an impact? “I have conversations with clients before I work with them,” Pollard says. “If you’ve got a blog, if you do podcasts, whatever content you produce, you need to tell me before it’s published. I want to be able to get at it first, before it goes live.
“The other thing is that branded content tends to be quite different to the stories we write and send to publications, even though it’s often about the same topic. It’s very rare that we’ll be able to pitch content [to a journalist] that an organisation has produced.”
The key to good PR, Pollard says, hasn’t changed – maximising positive press coverage. “Absolutely. Without a doubt. Getting that sort of third-party endorsement from a journalist, or having a journalist write a great story about a client, is always our goal. Our job as PR people is to package a story to make it as easy for them as possible by doing the ground work.”
The ‘humanist’ approach
Rob Lowe has been in public relations for about 15 years – firstly in the UK and then in Australia. He and Matt Holmes started Poem in 2015.
“When I first started out – in the days when people were using transparencies and writing press releases and faxing press releases and things like that – it was really about making a journalist’s job as easy as possible,” Lowe says to Brand Tales. “It was almost more about information sharing rather than anything else, and trying to get the information about your brand or your product out to media in the most palatable way that it would then be included in some kind of write-up.”
Teams of people would hit the phones and send faxes to journalists and media organisations. The hope was that 5 per cent of these media call-outs might end in success.
He says today technology has made it much easier for PRs and brands to reach a dwindling number of journalists, who are overwhelmed with irrelevant information. Cut-through is difficult. And this is happening at a time when people consume news and information whenever and from whomever they choose. “They can kind of afford to switch off from certain messages being pumped their way, and only consume the ones that they feel are more relevant to them,” he says.
Lowe says successful PR is no longer just about producing a nicely written and targeted press release. “They need to change the way they do things,” he says. “In my opinion, that ‘press office’ way no longer works. It’s not just about sharing information; it’s about creating [something]. To me, it’s more of a human approach than a media-first approach.”
He says PR needs to think more about consumer insights and motivations. “Rather than thinking about tactical ways to get media to write something about your product or your client, think about human reasons why the consumer is going to be interested in that and then look at all of the other avenues out there that you can be getting that idea or that insight out to all of those consumers,” he says. “Media relations, that ‘press office’ function, are a part of that. Now, because of all of the other forms of media that are out there and all of the other channels and ways of sharing, there’s a whole lot of other stuff as well.”
He says PR is no longer purely about media relations; practitioners should be looking at paid media and owned media, too. “The whole world only used to belong to big advertising companies and big media companies. You can now find small programmatic companies who will put your video content out there across display and catch-up TV and all of these other channels for relatively small amounts of media money compared with TV advertising campaigns. We’ve got people in our team who are Facebook business manager specialists, and we create content.
“I think [PR] is about winning the hearts and minds of people and changing people’s perceptions.”Rob Lowe
“PR has just as much a say in brand and content as an advertising or creative company. If you start with a bit of PR knowledge or a bit of human psychology and human insight about why a consumer is going to be interested in something, that can then be turned into content, and that can be put out there across Facebook and programmatic and media relations. You can send it to a site like Huffington Post or Mashable or any of these other online, more content-sharing sites, and they will put it out there if it’s good enough. Then all of a sudden you’re looking at PR being put through paid, owned and earned media channels rather than it just being old-fashioned earned ‘media press office’ media relations.”
He says media releases still have a purpose, but only if you’re providing information when it’s required. “If you’re Sony and you’ve got x-number of products to put out during the year and you need information about that product out to the right review journalist on a consumer tech page, then yes, there’s still a reason to putting information on a piece of paper and sending it out,” he says. “People shouldn’t expect to craft a clever story in words on a piece of paper, send that out to somebody and then expect to suddenly have a whole lot of advertorial coverage. That’s kind of pointless.”
He says falling journalist numbers have made it more difficult to get coverage in traditional media. Modern journalists are stretched – they have to file more often during the day, look after social media, consider visuals and do more production work. “As PRs, we can potentially help with that,” Lowe says. “We can create social content, we can create videos, we can provide images and try and make that job easier.”
Lowe believes that PRs can help brands appeal to customers’ hearts, not just their pockets. “For me, the future of PR is really about thinking about why a brand does what it does, and how it communicates things differently. Rather than just treating PR as a communicator’s channel to share information about a brand, I think it’s more about winning the hearts and minds of people and changing people’s perceptions.
“To do that, you need to do more than send press releases. You need some human psychology and human insight to think about why a consumer is going to engage with that, and then use all of the tools around you – all of the channels, whether it be content or an influencer or social media or media relations or experientials and events – to connect the consumer with that brand.”