A close examination of PR plans and proposals would reveal to what degree we are really adapting our thinking to new times and environments
In 1997 – the year of Adfactors PR’s foundation – I was already a ‘seasoned’ PR practitioner; based next to Cambridge University’s Science Park, I worked for a local PR firm whose clients ranged from banks and hospitals, to building firms and, of course, technology start-ups. The world for me was moving at a frenetic pace.
Press releases were issued ‘en masse’ via pre-programmed fax machines; in the UK, the Conservative Party’s deregulation policies had resulted in local broadcasters introducing a new generation of local radio stations (public and commercial) all looking for news; and one of my clients, Unipalm<sup>1</sup>, had just announced Cambridge’s first ‘IP Point of Presence’. The Internet was about to render fax machines, and local radio, redundant.
My work involved creating campaigns, propagating news on behalf of my clients, liaising with trade associations, NGOs and other bodies for information to fuel the same; usually sent by post a few days later. Campaigns were made up of press releases, photo opportunities, milestone events, some research, authored articles and lots of proactive pitching to journalists.
Twenty years later, I ask myself how different our day-to-day activities are. All of the above tools remain staples of the PR mix and, despite the huge social, technological, economic and cultural shifts witnessed during the last two decades, I wonder whether a PR professional from 1997 would feel at home operating here today.
And in the case of those accounts which remain dependent on the “two press releases, one byline and ‘something else’” monthly formula, I think our circa 1997 professional would feel right at home. Despite the wealth of tools, data, insights, information now freely available to us, some of our campaigns remain ‘vintage 1997’; they are not informed by genuine insight, they are not business-specific nor measurable, they do not make full use of digital or social media to propagate or extend influence, there is no reference to the world beyond India for context or consideration, and there is little sense that we are really ‘ahead’ of the client in our outlook or thinking.
In 1997, influence was earned by the timely delivery of appropriate content to the right person. The means and alternatives for doing this were pretty finite; (well) written material or a face-to-face meeting. I never conducted a formal telephone interview with a journalist until 1999 and video conferencing was simply science fiction. Today, the possibilities for identifying and engaging influencers are infinite; from trade events and conferences, to Google Hangouts and Twitter. But, as modern PR professionals, are we really bringing this variety into our counsel and propositions, even in the case of so-called ‘traditional’ PR accounts?
“Our clients are happy with our counsel, their expectations are limited….” is a response I’m familiar with. However, when I look ahead to the next 20 years, unless we adapt and start to embed alternative thinking into our plans and proposals, we – and our clients – are going to be left behind. We are already seeing the use of Big Data-driven insights into campaign strategy, the next 20 years promises to see artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR) becoming ‘PR staples’ to engage influencers and drive influence. Unless we are seamlessly embedding – now, basic – digital and social thinking into our PR counsel today, we risk being left far behind PR firms which have mastered these basics and who are already onto the next innovation.
Adfactors PR – just like my own career – started life with no mobile phone, no social media and no big data. And our ability to adapt to the same will determine the role we play in the next 20 years. For me, my first step is to look at the work we are doing for today’s clients. If a ‘1997 PR Veteran’ would feel right at home here, then that’s not a good sign.