Robert Phillips

Expert Adviser; Visiting Professor; Author & Commentator

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"Progressive Communication is about action, not words"

The Age Of Engagement (Part Three)

27th October, 2012 in Article


Why PR firms will need to re-tool to take on the Ad guys

It might yet become the agency equivalent of the Battle of Endor. A struggle is now underway for the shape and the soul of the communications firm of the future. In the third of three blog posts on the Age of Engagement, we return to one of the original themes of Citizen Renaissance – how the communications profession can help build a better world of common good and reverse the endemic decline in happiness and wellbeing brought on by an over-consumptive society. However, there is still much to play for in what the communications firm of the future will really look like. The Age of Engagement demands a re-construction of the traditional agency model but, as everything converges, tensions persist between old and new, advertising and PR, science and humanity.

PR, having rightly championed the stakeholder society for the past half-decade, is now in danger losing ground to those who can certainly offer the maths, but maybe not the humanity. Ad agencies, wrong-footed initially by the digital revolution, have started the inevitable fight-back. Digital is now seen as hygiene while ‘social’ is being mischievously hijacked for commercial gain. The classic 30-second film has re-surfaced as Short Form Content and User Generated Content has satisfactorily professionalised to become acceptably mainstream. Early advantage is back to deuce.

Meanwhile, radical transparency (never in the advertising lexicon) has become the default setting for today’s Age of Engagement – with the enjoyable, maybe unintended, consequence of fuller accountability of business and government to the citizen and civic society. Even in countries still enveloped by nominal controls, secrets are rarely safe. Julian Assange and others have put paid to that.

Such transparency has thankfully killed the age of spin – although the headline writers and cheap-shot commentators have yet to awaken to this truth. It is a mercy killing. Public Relations – historically, never at the top of the most trusted or most transparent of professions – can now emerge from the darker shadow of its past, haunted then by the ghosts of Bernays/ and Packard. Transparency can restore trust. Advantage PR.

In those now redundant years of spin, PR had much to answer for – but it was always the bigger beast of advertising that inverted and perverted the relationship between Wants and Needs, and drove the post-war consumption overload with such selfish frenzy. As argued in the original chapters of Citizen Renaissance the super-consumption of everything – from soap suds to politics – ignored and imperilled both the finite limitations of planetary resource and genuine social responsibility, thereby accelerating the decline into climactic recession and exacerbating the global North-South divide. Herein lies the responsibility of the PR firm of the future – returning a better balance to global citizenship; enshring the License to Lead; and helping business and govenment alike address the major societal issues of our time.

Yet, on the road to recovery and in a truly convergent world, the deep and uncomfortable irony is that parts of tomorrow’s PR business will need to look more like the traditional constructs of advertising than ever before. This is especially so given advertising’s polished understanding of content and the increasingly fundamental role of research, data, planning and analytics in the modern communications mix. The convergent, globalised world is one of scale and specialisms, networks and empathy. The territory once dominated by the advertising agencies knows all about scale and the (occasionally phoney) science that validates it. In order to dominate, PR firms must therefore rapidly hone its approach to content and acquire more data-driven skills, while pushing forward relentlessly with its empathy agenda: profound and progressive interpretations of the stakeholder society and the complex world that surrounds it. Where the ad guys seek to luxuriate in reductive thinking, the PR firms of tomorrow need to celebrate complexity which will, in turn, only increase by geography and by community. Inevitably, communities of shared interests will eventually push the geographical need to the margins. This very complexity is what makes both trust and reputation so fragile but is also what can secure the future dominance of re-modelled PR companies.

Doubters rightly abound. PR still has much to do to secure the ascendancy of its own discipline. PR consultancies, includingEdelman for whom I work, will of course first need to fight to win the argument for the centrality of their role within the Age of Engagement. But, for sure, PR firms will not win the intellectual or financial arguments based on historic models – despite continuing to out-score the advertisers on understanding stakeholders (and policy), as well as being altogether more agile and immediate with issues and social information flow in this hyper-connected and inter-dependent world. Marketers have always demanded data and proof-points – hard evidence at the heart of every argument – and, in this regard, nothing has changed. And today, the data is called for in real time, all the time, social or otherwise. Deuce.

For PR professionals, once enriched by data knowledge and capability, there is much to savour in this new way forward. Traditional Public Affairs will inevitably move more central to brand PR – as big, societal factors place real pressure on what, how and in what quantities ‘stuff’ is sold to consumers, who themselves will thankfully assume a new citizen-centricity, as the Wants/ Needs relationship is re-calibrated. Policy knowledge becomes everything: brand agencies of the future must be able to best serve Chief Communications and Marketing Officers by being able to offer expertise, experience and specialisms in the societal imperatives of Water, Food, Energy, Climate and Faith – as well as become fine-tuned to understand, interpret and deliver both deep science and deep humanity (see blog posts passim). This remains way beyond the comfort zone of advertising. PR therefore is right-placed to play a key role in better shaping our society of tomorrow. And transactional media relations – the amplified voice – is just not enough.

CCOs, CMOs and their Consultancies will ultimately need a radically different talent strategy. These changes need to start now, and be accomplished within a five year horizon, as the axis shifts. Smart agencies of today will guide clients to work with HR teams to abolish the false lines between external (marketing) and internal comms – as employees (regular people) become the first line of corporate and brand attack and defence. This is what will build the communication outreach of the future. This is a higher ground that PR firms can happily occupy in order to best face the challenges brought on by the new world order, in which Social Advocists, Employee Activists and Citizen Consumers will drive the reforming agenda.

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Copyright 2015 Robert Phillips. Jericho Chambers