The future of PR in today’s converged digital landscape owes more to its instinct for engagement and relationship with marketing than the plight of media relations. Alister Foye, communications director at Leader, breaks out the tarot cards and dusts off his crystal ball to predict a future for PR – but perhaps not the future you might think.

Many, many commentators have written the epitaph for public relations.  Viewed as a dying art in the age of diminishing media returns, what can the future hold for a discipline so synonymous with the column inch?  Even leading universities are rethinking their PR offer.

Yet others declare that now is the actually the time for PR.  That only PR can act as the conscience of an organisation, the reputational antidote for a post-truth, fake news era.

I wager the reality is somewhere in-between.

Diminishing media returns

It is true that media relations has traditionally been the bedrock of PR, and the media has been changing faster and further than most over the last few years.

First, the appetite for print began to plummet as its audiences fragmented into social media and the wonders of the internet created many alternative ways that people and businesses could get their news.

Next, advertising budgets dropped as brands reacted to the diminishing audiences by redirecting investment into Google, Facebook and emerging digital native news outlets such as Buzzfeed and The Huffington Post.

The combination of these factors squeezed the numbers of journalists and made many commentators call into question the standing and influence of these fallen giants of media. So, if the efficacy of the media is under threat, surely it follows that so is the viability of most PR agency business models?

Marketing on the pull

Meanwhile, marketing and advertising types have woken up to the limited effectiveness of expensive promotional activity. The big-budget-branded-blanket approach is giving ground to smarter, cheaper, issues-led digital campaigns. This ‘pull rather than push’ model is fuelled by the digital convergence and ready-made for the current connectivity of communication.

Whole new sub-sectors have emerged  as a result — content marketing, inbound marketing, account-based marketing  to name but a few. All of these centre on seeding content digitally to engage and inform audiences; to start discussions and comment on issues, rather than blast out brand messaging. The trouble for PR is that this subtler sell is usually its preserve, but these are smart guys who haven’t thought twice about parking their tanks on the PR lawn.

To make matters worse for public relations, they are actually being squeezed from two sides.

Responding to marketing’s move into content, publishers and news outlets have naturally woken up to the revenue potential their own editorial credentials and capabilities, leveraging them to find new ways for brands to connect with their readers/viewers through issues-driven content, rather than brand-fuelled advertising. Traditional media giants including The New York Times and The Guardian have invested substantially in ‘content lab’ operations to capitalise on this approach. At the London Evening Standard, ‘commercial’ journalists even share the news room with their ‘traditional’ colleagues to maximise revenue potential, while treading the fine balance with editorial integrity.

Then add into the mix the rise of the digital influencers — individuals born from social media and boasting substantial followings. These digital natives now command the attention of audiences and brands alike. Albeit with a few high profile face-palms, these influencers are comfortable with commercial partnerships over sponsored content that further dilutes and challenges the influence of traditional media relations.

So now you have traditional media relations viewed by many as a dying art; marketers adopting PR principles; media owners happy to create news on the right issue for the right price; and a new breed of influencers who are disrupting the PR relationship playbook.

Who would want to work in public relations with all this going on?

The ideal of PR meets reality

Of course many would argue that public relations is more than simply media relations. That it can transcend tactical activity and provide organisations with strategic counsel across all operations; orchestrating entire communications efforts to maximise commercial gain and preserve reputation.  The professional PR bodies certainly make this case; the goal of ethical, transparent brand leadership enabled by the PR person sat at the boardroom table.

But while I have always believed that public relations has this potential, I also recognise that the vast majority of firms do not bring the PR guy or agency into the inner corporate circle, or hand them the keys to the marketing comms-mobile.

And is this situation really such a bad thing? Why should PR believe it merits a place at the boardroom table? What have we done to earn it, and prove we have a claim?

Proving your worth

What we should learn above all from the recent evolution of marketing and media is the need for proper proof: return on investment. This is the language that board members understand and use to evaluate performance. And this has been an Achilles heel for public relations for as long as I can remember.

There remains at the heart of PR a disconnect between the business of public relations and the business of business. Whether it is pursuing the column inch or currying favour with the latest Instagram star, PR seems fixated on awareness and interest, with little connection to conversion and sales.

However, what the digital explosion has been fuelled on is data. Big data, small data, it’s all readily available: the potential to quantify impact and engagement and to evaluate campaign activity like never before.

It’s rarely perfect of course, but used intelligently and analysed properly, data presents a real opportunity to apply ROI to public relations, from output to outcome.

Take, for example, the AMEC social media framework.

Part of the pursuit of universal measurement standards, this framework clearly and coherently uses data metrics to measure each stage of a campaign – or customer journey, if you are that way inclined – across social channels, campaign phases and a tacit link to business goals.

This would not have been possible just a few short years ago. Yes, it uses marketing language, but you cannot argue with the potential for evaluating PR efforts.

At Leader, we have evolved this approach and created our Engage dashboard to provide clients with real-time visibility of how activity is faring.  It’s no panacea, but it is a pretty good start.

An instinct for engagement

In an increasingly crowded world, any campaign, activity, tweet, blog or video has to have engagement or it is all for nothing, literally.  Engagement is the Holy Grail.

With the powers of the traditional public gatekeepers weakened, marketers can now go direct to their audience through whatever digital means at their disposal.  Has this democratised communication?  Have we entered a golden age of marketing that has consumers and businesses dewy eyed in wonder at the bounty of content aimed at them?

One word: no.

What has happened is a tidal wave of tat, a tsunami of the average, a deluge of content effluence that has drowned audiences in self-serving sewerage: little of merit, and an almost entire absence of engagement.

Despite the digital arbiters of search and social sorting and sifting content, too much dross slips through and no Panda or Penguin update seems able to stem this flow.  So bad has this become, it has fuelled data privacy concerns, arguably led us to GDPR,  and humbled social media’s greatest titans as the pursuit of personalisation only served to turn people off.  In growing numbers.

But with a little PR thinking, so much of this could be avoided.  That instinct for engagement which we previously honed through the news agenda can now be used to guide content creation and populate newsfeeds.

And with potential like that, who cares what we call it – PR, marketing or other?

The future is integrated

And so here we are, and the mists are clearing.

If recent convergence (or fragmentation – depending on your view) has done one thing, it is to drive integration.  Integrated communication is nothing new, but in today’s connected world it is arguably essential.  Silo-smashing integrated activity that is engineered for engagement, designed for dialogue and has measurement baked in.  PR-led and issues-driven.

That is a future I can believe in, can you?