Ever since I started my career in public relations, the debate surrounding its relevance has been omnipresent. In the last five years however, it’s intensified.
Last week, Golin, one of the agency big beasts, came out as being “proudly a PR shop”. The fact that a top 20 global agency can generate a headline merely by repositioning itself in this way is an indication of just how far the PR moniker has fallen out of favour.
Ironically, it was Golin who led the retreat from its PR offering by dispensing with the term completely when it announced its rebrand in 2014 and didn’t’ mention PR once. Since then, the likes of Hotwire, Lewis, Talk and a host of other agencies have followed in its footsteps by lowering the PR flag altogether.
Make no mistake, this latest one-eighty isn’t an opportunistic marketing ploy. Instead, it represents what I expect to be a gradual unravelling of the shift away from PR as agencies seek to reclaim the badge they’ve been so careless to give away. As Golin co-CEO Neal notes, “The mistake was to become something else and abandon what made us unique and valued”.
So, why have we had to wait so long for a top agency to make such a play? And why did so many agencies endeavour to distance themselves from PR in the first place?
First, the reign of digital and social media communications brought industry angst to the fore
Despite its far-reaching brief, “public” relations came to mean “media” relations in many people’s eyes. Management teams in big agencies would recoil from media relations claiming it was a commoditised service and park it with the most junior employees. How ironic that Golin (one of this very crop of agencies), should now talk of the need to double down on its competencies in this area.
Second, societal trends have seen a denigration of the traditional expert’s authority
Though this has permeated through all aspects of public life, the media has perhaps suffered the most. With PR agencies’ main conduit to the public experiencing a challenging time, agencies felt the need to distance themselves from this core part of their business. Instead as the content marketing movement got going agencies needed to be seen differently if they were to cash in on this alternative growth opportunity.
Third, the Cannes Lions effect
Despite 99.9% of our work being more akin to delicate surgery than the jazz hands of adland, since the birth of the PR Cannes Lions in 2009, we’ve been encouraged to think of ourselves as occupying the same world. We don’t. What we do is more often than not subtle reputation management; megaphone tactics are not par for the course in PR.
I’m not saying that PR didn’t need to modernise. Social media has irreversibly changed the media landscape, journalists are no longer the only individuals to wield real influence and the lines between PR and marketing have blurred substantially. Agencies now need to ensure their creativity has the greatest business impact possible, which demands a much broader skillset and the versatility to work across multiple media channels.
But, regardless of these changes, the world has never needed public relations more than it does now. Clients need PR agencies.
Organisations, individuals and causes are crying out for PR experts to help navigate this new and unpredictable terrain, meaningfully connecting with the right stakeholders, journalists and key opinion formers in the process. They need an awareness and understanding of how to contribute thoughtfully and not pollute the world with unfiltered content lacking in quality control.
I want to make it clear then that I’m not criticising the decision Golin made – far from it. Any big agency that realises the error of its ways in turning its back on PR should be welcomed back with open arms. We need the great and the good of our industry to set aside their angst, step up to the challenge and reassert the core purpose of public relations.
After all, if we can’t imbue true meaning into our own industry, why would anyone trust us to do it for them?