If the PR industry is genuinely ambitious then consumer PR has to succeed again

‘Corporate Affairs is fashionable again’, according to my friend and PR industry whisperer Arun Sudhaman in his recent excellent column about how the pandemic has elevated PR as businesses have been forced to redouble their efforts to communicate with staff and key stakeholders.

PR always gets to the board table in a crisis and Covid has been no different.

The problem is that in the past at least, PR was too often shown the door again when crisis abates and business-as-usual rules apply. 

But if even the American Business Roundtable can reform and see the value of a stakeholder not just shareholder approach to business, maybe corporate PR at the highest level can remain ‘fashionable’ beyond Covid.  Maybe CEOs and boards can remain convinced of its strategic value.  Let’s hope so for their sake as well as ours because the world is not becoming any less complex.

In another piece, PRovoke points out that consumer PR has fared less well in the pandemic.  To be fair, as it’s my Stickybeak data that shows that 55% of agencies said their consumer revenues were still being reduced, it must be right!

So was nearly a decade of the industry and especially the bigger network agencies investing to gain more brand spend futile?  Are we really back to the noughties when consumer PR was viewed by many as a tactical poor relation to its ‘grown up’ and more strategic corporate cousin?

I’m not so sure about that.

Firstly it was never a zero sum game. No network I know ever put all their investment eggs in one basket.  Arun quotes an email from an anonymous Edelman employee claiming that in recent years; “corporate PR specialists were being relegated to the sidelines amid the agency’s broader investment in consumer marketing capabilities”.

Like most anonymous emails, this is utter tosh (*).  As someone who was there at the time, I can report that investment in brand was significant but usually balanced with investment in corporate.  As much was spent each year on Davos attendance and the Trust Barometer than in the famous ‘400 creatives and planners’, all of whom either paid their way through fees in a few short months or left.

Edelman leadership (and this is also true of most of the other big networks over the last decade) was and is overwhelmingly corporate. Of Edelman’s four regional geography leaders (the people that own the P&Ls and so really run the business) currently three are corporate and one consumer.  And by the way, there’s nothing wrong with that.

But like Weber and a number of the other big networks, Edelman did make the calculation that, in addition to investing behind corporate, maybe the collapse of traditional media, the rise of the social platforms and advertising’s existential crisis was an opportunity to get more than just the publicity or ‘purpose’ or crisis role for brands as the CMO really does have a budget of 10-20 times the CCO. Who wouldn’t right? 

But to do that, you needed planning and creative and eventually you needed studios and analytics and traffic and that was all much harder to build than traditional PR teams. Despite this, many PR agencies made huge progress. Golin even bought an ad agency.

And much of this investment and new ways of thinking and structuring worked. Every new-age ad agency web-site now sounds like its describing a PR firm and most Cannes Gold Lion campaigns seem to have PR thinking baked (in even if PR firms win precious few of them).

To this day, many CMOs have their own vision of ‘authentic’ or ‘earned-centric’ management processes and ‘wow’ did brands ever get religion on purpose. Unilever runs its whole business on a purpose basis.

This was almost entirely due to the PR industry (agency and in-house) making the case, executing well and delivering results. I can’t think of a bigger impact the PR industry has had on the business world in the last decade.

But in a pandemic when populations are locked down, marketing spend plummets and for some traditionally big spending sectors like auto and tourism, it disappears entirely, and so it is no surprise that the PR agencies exposed to brand budgets took the biggest beating.

Ironically then, consumer faced a downturn at exactly the moment corporate got a boost. And in which case, it is important we don’t jump to the wrong conclusion.

Marketing spend will come back and I suggest that it remains the biggest opportunity for the PR industry even if we have missed that brief moment to be a respected brand-lead discipline (my reasons for believing this are here). 

And personally I feel mastering marketing automation is now perhaps a better on-ramp to CMO spend for PR agencies than is battling for strategic and creative dominance with the ad agencies and management consultancies.

But if we are truly ambitious for the PR industry and if we believe, as many say, that PR is a ‘management discipline’, then we have to expand the footprint of our thinking beyond the rarified air of corporate issues and show how it can help business more broadly.  

In corporate reputation we have no competitor.  There are no ad agencies or management consultancies fighting for our business (not effectively anyway) or defining how things are done.  No CEO says, “I need to be better understood by my stakeholders, let’s hire some accountants to fix that”.  Of course they turn to us. But if this is all we do then to some extent we are just drawing from the same well.

That’s not the case with brand and marketing where budgets are bigger but are fought over by ad agencies, social agencies, performance marketers, sponsorship firms and now a host marketing automation platforms as well as PR agencies. Every dollar won in this arena grows the PR industry beyond our uncontested corporate base and supports the claim that PR thinking has a wider business mandate and even a revenue generating role as well as a license-to-operate role.

The next few months will be key for the industry. Corporate practitioners have to hang on to the access and respect they have won in boardrooms around the world for their Covid related advice and make sure PR thinking is a strategic constant.

But for real sustained growth to return to the industry, consumer PR needs to recover and plot a new way of getting higher up the marketing value chain and more of the spend.

So to all those consumer PR people and consumer PR businesses that have been downsized, laid off, furloughed or just made to feel again, that your area of PR is ‘fluffy’ or tactical or somehow inconsequential, I say “please keep the faith”, because the industry can’t succeed without you.

(*) Clarification. The content of the email is I believe tosh, not the reporting of it.


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