Buzzword bingo was in full effect at the PRCA’s annual conference at BAFTA this year. Transparency, collaboration and authenticity enjoyed regular call-outs during a day dedicated to the importance of communication in uncertain and turbulent times.
Despite being given a slot just before the end credits, one speaker gave a short, impassioned speech about why PR should retain a leading role.
Alan VanderMolen of Seattle-based WE Communications argued that, in the rush for budget, PR is “…over-indexing towards marketing.” Essentially, in the belief that the marketing department holds the biggest slice of the communications budget, PR professionals are in danger of losing sight of their value by claiming to be, or even becoming, generalists.
Yes, we need to modernise and adapt to new digital trends, including measuring impact in real-time, but PR must stay true to its roots for at least two key reasons:
1. We understand the sensibilities of earned media – primarily press coverage. Modern communications programmes need to include owned and paid media, too. But fail to take account of the likely response of professional journalists, and organisations run the risk of producing content on complex issues that could incur reputational damage.
2. We know how to secure 3rd party validation. PR professionals are adept at informing and engaging potential influencers in a balanced manner. We’re used to managing complex relationships, listening closely to audience concerns and presenting information in a way that encourages endorsement.
Underpinning the two points is an understanding that communicators have an acute sense of the likely intellectual and, crucially, emotional response to content. We’re sensitive to human behaviour and, based on experience, can often anticipate negative reactions to a story.
The contention is that, had PR professionals been consulted early in the planning process, Pepsi wouldn’t have used Kendall Jenner to claim that a can of fizzy drink can improve US race relations (reports this week suggest the US CEO still doesn’t understand why the ad was in poor taste). The team behind Unilever’s brand Dove may have also thought twice before launching different shaped bottles to celebrate its ‘Real Beauty’ campaign.
We also have an innate ability for storytelling. Again, engage us at the start and we’ll be able to tease out the most resonant parts.
That’s not to say PR professionals always get it right (Bell Pottinger anyone?), just that we have a unique set of skills that needs to be brought to the forefront of communications campaigns. Generalist marketers may be in fashion, but every team needs specialists with deep knowledge, too.