media update’s Adam Wakefield was at the third annual The Holmes Report In2Summit South Africa on Tuesday, 8 May, where Alan VanderMolen, president of international at WE Communications, addressed the most pressing concerns and opportunities facing the PR industry today.

PR has a bright future, but it must lead

The media environment has become increasingly fragmented as technology has changed the way content is delivered, stored and consumed. It is these changes that have impacted on the role PR plays in the market place and its future.

VanderMolen believes PR as a profession should be optimistic about the future in general, but the industry needs to grab the opportunity presented to it so its destiny is in its own hands.

“I’m really concerned with what I’ve seen with media fragmentation. As media has fragmented, and gone to increasingly paid models across different channels, PR, by and large in-house, remains earned media,” he said.

Earned media has become a thin slice of the media environment, and because PR has traditionally only played in the earned media space, PR’s ability to impact their organisations more broadly is limited.

“We’re seeing a back and forth pendulum between favouring the CMO [and] favouring the CCO and, really, power follows money. Because the CMO, by and large, controls spend across all platforms, it starts to put disproportionate power in the CMOs hands,” Van Der Molen said.

“It relegates, in a lot of instances, the CCO, which I think is not good for brands, and I think it is certainly not good for our profession. Let’s not kid ourselves. Earned media is shrinking. There has been 50% decline globally in the last decade of working journalists in traditional media.”

That gap in working journalists is only being partly filled by one third by journalists working on digital native platforms. While PR professionals should continue to own earned media, VanderMolen saw earned media as a speciality. If the industry seeks to grow and evolve for the better, practitioners should focus on creating branded content delivered into the media eco-system to drive specific results and outcomes.

“That needs a slightly different orientation that takes a different set of insights and a more sophisticated view of creative [and] certainly a more sophisticated view of measuring impact,” he said.

Analytics and insights are key to PRs future

An important reason why PR is often side-lined in large organisations, suggests VanderMolen, is because PR has “absolutely abhorrent and behind-the-times insights and analytics”.

“Our marketing counterpoints, who are dealing with fragmented media, have a much better ability to predict outcomes and a much better ability to measure, and we’re still seeing it by and large as art. I hope we will increasingly be seeing it as science and art,” he said.

“Right now, the value of public relations remains by and large. I think a lot of brands measure reputation, which I think is a ridiculous measure of what we do because it is the rear view mirror.”

VanderMolen said reputation is the summary perceptions of past performance. Rather, brands should be measuring engagement and how that engagement is going to be driven by individual pieces of content that are dropped into the media ecosystem.

PR has the ability to do that, but in order to do so, the industry needs to modernise their internal skill-sets to meet the challenges and opportunities of the media environment.

Independent agencies have the flexibility to grow

A significant proportion of the PR industry’s biggest agencies, with South Africa being no exception, are part of large holding companies such as WPP and Omnicom. This is a fact independent agencies, especially mid-sized ones, can use to their advantage.

“They are not forced into a particular swim-lane by their parent company. Our definition of public relations at an independent can be much wider than it is at PR agency within a holding company because I’m not competing with other lines of business,” he said.

“I have a single line of business, a public relations business. I find that is anything that communicates about, or on behalf, of a brand, so I can play that as wide as I want to.”

Furthermore, if an independent agency does not have the necessary capabilities in-house to meet a client brief, there is nothing stopping them from partnering with other single-discipline independent agencies.

“Independence gives the ability to play in the sandbox with whoever is most relevant for the client at that time,” VanderMolen explained.

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As VanderMolen noted, for public relation to seize the opportunities available to it, it needs to change for the better. Read more in our article, The Holmes Report In2Summit SA: PR must change internally and externally.