The changing landscape and modern Public Relations

The landscape of communications has been radically changing in the last few years. Consequently, the profile and skills of the public relations professional have also evolved to follow this new wave. It’s important to consider all these variables and trends especially when building and developing a team. 

First, taking a look at the numbers we can conclude that the public relations discipline has evolved and matured over recent years and also organizations’ expectations regarding public relations and communications results.  The growth of the PR market stimulated competition in the professional arena: the number of practitioners increased, better salaries motivated the migration of journalists to the PR field and the market was invaded by new agencies. 

According to the ICCO (International Communications Consultancy Organization), the PR’s share of marketing spend continues to rise internationally if compared to other disciplines. “In 2009, 15 of 24 surveyed countries noted an overall increase in the proportion of client budgets dedicated to public relations, coming directly at the expense of other marketing options such as advertising”. (ICCO World Report 2010

ICCC also warns that “in order for public relations to continue to grow, it needs talent. Luckily for PR firms, the availability of that talent now appears to be stable or on the rise in a majority of countries. This is especially true across Europe and in the US, where current unemployment levels are unusually high, but less so in emerging markets like India, South Africa and Brazil, which still have less experienced or less educated workforces from which to draw.” Nevertheless, “a word of caution is needed, however, as the surge in supply of skilled employees is likely to be temporary.  Given that it stems largely from layoffs and hiring freezes both in the communications field and in other sectors, a return to GDP growth and buoyant world economies will gradually absorb any over‐supply of talented workers. “

The communications market now is more competitive and demanding. The retention or development of new talents in-house will become more and more important as a key success factor of communications departments and agencies in the next few years. 

Second, the media scenario has completely changed. Now that society shares and consumes information more quickly and openly. The democratization of information has empowered each of us to easily produce and publish content, opinions and experiences without any editorial control. This change is not affecting only the media but also is forcing communications professionals to expand their capabilities into the new specialty.   

Among all communications and marketing-related professions, PR is the one with core experience and understanding needed to lead in the field of new media, however research shows that PR professionals are still struggling with the new reality. 

A research with 40 senior communications professionals in the UK conducted by Watson Helsby (executive search company research in UK) has listed the key issues inhibiting the adoption of digital communications into their functions:

  • Lack of understanding / skepticism – prevalent among the senior management about adopting this new model of engagement.
  • Loss of control
  • Demographic apartheid – the “digital natives” are under 30 years old and have instinctive understanding of the digital environment. However, the senior management and senior communications professionals are “digital immigrants” and are struggling to adapt.
  • Fragmentation of the media – the vast variety of media outlets and multiplicity of audiences brings new challenges like how to define a target and what is the best way to engage with this new audience.
  • Speed of change and speed of response – the speed of response in digital media does not match the current internal need of procedures and approvals to disclose sensitive information, increasing litigation and corporate risk.
  • Rules of engagement – the introduction of internal digital guidelines or training are up till now “work in progress”.
  • Privacy and corporate security – concerns regarding regulatory implications of employees inadvertently disclosing sensitive information or generating data leaks.
  • Lack of effective metrics –  the current ROI reports are focused on numeric data rather than insightful information
  • Ownership of digital activities – the lack of a clear delineation between communications and other disciplines results in digital activities now being handled by a number of different functions causing confusion in terms of responsibility and accountability.

Third, the growing importance of strategic communications in the market is another factor that impacts the required professional profile and team structure. Recent reports show “a growing importance of strategic communications within many large, global organizations, the majority (58%) of chief communications officers (CCOs) now report directly to their CEOs, up from only 48% a year ago, indicating CEOs’ recognition of the importance of communication.” (The Rising CCO 2009, annual survey conducted by global executive search firm Spencer Stuart and global public relations firm Weber Shandwick with KRC).

As the role of communications becomes more central in the strategy of high performance organizations – consequently in the minds of the senior executives – and effective communication skills are increasingly viewed as essential to the success of organizations, leaders are requiring a more senior and well prepared professional to respond to this demand and to strategically advise the top management. 

As we can see, enhancing the “skills and capabilities” of the communication team is becoming an increasingly critical driver to communication excellence. In a recent interview for PRWeek, Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of the world’s largest communications group WPP, when asked about what is holding the PR industry back compared to advertising his response was ‘talent’. His comparison was not only with advertising, but with professional consultancy firms such as McKinsey and Goldman Sachs: “These firms continuously hire the best people. Our malaise as an industry is that we don’t – we just nick them”, referring to the tendency of to ‘steal’ talent from other firms, rather than training, developing and evaluating people in-house.

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