Reports of PR’s death are greatly exaggerated

At some point, everything is declared dead: TV, radio, advertising, digital, email marketing and, yes, even PR. But as Oscar Wilde once eloquently put it: “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”  

PR is certainly not dead. But who practices it, how it is practiced, who buys it, why they buy it and how we organize ourselves to deliver it will — and must — change. 

In USC Annenberg’s School of Journalism and Communications Global Communications Report 2017, nearly 50% of both in-house and agency public relations professionals feel that they will become more closely aligned with marketing over the next five years. Nearly 30% feel that public relations will play an increasingly important role compared with marketing, while another 12 percent feel that PR will play a “dominant role,” and only 5% believe PR will become a subset of marketing.

In the same survey, marketers have less optimistic views on the role of public relations. 61 percent see PR becoming more closely aligned with marketing, with another 20 percent of marketers predicting PR will become a subset of marketing’s domain. Only 12 percent believe that PR will play an increasingly important role compared to marketing. 

The survey brilliantly lays bare the widely varying and highly polarized views within the profession about the future role and importance of PR and how it will be manufactured. 

I have always believed the role of public relations is to build brands through the power of earned media and influence (as opposed to paid media and paid influence) and I joined Ogilvy six years ago believing that it would be the best place to re-invent our craft for the new world of modern marketing (as described by our Chairman and CEO, John Seifert). 

In those six years, the industry has changed dramatically. What the survey does not reveal however, is a big truth hiding in plain sight. PR, by many different measures has already “won” because what we do and how we do it has already infiltrated mainstream marketing. The proof or proxy for proof? A steady stream of colleagues returning from Cannes this year are saying the same thing: Every idea that won big had a PR idea at its heart.

My mantra has been and will remain: The new role of public relations is to create and optimize a brand platform or campaign idea for earned media and earned influence. This is both a strategic and a creative role. To grasp the opportunity however, the PR profession must wake up and see that the door they claimed to be shut has swung wide open. The world has changed, let’s stop shouting at passing cars and get on with helping the craft we love become the magic ingredient that builds brands and drives demand.

What is hindering the profession more than any of the above? First, if we want marketing to invest more in PR, then we need a better ROI model. Second, we need to develop a shared language and world view to promote collaboration. Third, we need more brand strategists and creatives who truly understand how the world of earned influence works. Finally, we need to tell the story of our craft to the new buyer: The CMO. 

As PR professionals, it is time to acknowledge that the practice of PR has already broken out of our walled garden. As the quote goes: “If you truly love something, set it free.” It is time to unleash the full power of earned influence at scale... but to achieve this, the professional needs to adapt and look forwards not backwards.


To download a full copy of the Relevance Report, click here.

Stuart Smith is Global CEO of Public Relations at Ogilvy.  He is well known for his views on the future of PR. At Ogilvy he has focused on re-inventing the role of PR in one of the world’s most creative and integrated marketing services agencies at a time when the boundaries between traditional disciplines are blurring.

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