Kim Benjamin
May 28, 2018

How comms professionals can break out of the 'PR sandbox'

Industry professionals are seeing a mismatch between what PR does and what people think of it. Does the communications world need a new business model — or simply to re-market itself?

How comms professionals can break out of the 'PR sandbox'

What does today's PR landscape look like? A 2018 state of the industry report into the communications and corporate affairs world in Asia by Prospect revealed that a key trend in agencies is to move towards "creative, design, planning, data and analytics, and away from PR and traditional communications." 

There appears to be a mismatch, however, between this shift and clients' perceptions of what PR agencies actually still do. "While they want to be recognised as strategic high-level counsel, [agencies] are often hired solely for more routine 'arms and legs' work such as events and PR" says the report.

“Clients treat PR agencies as arms and legs because we let them,” says Glenn Osaki, president, Asia at MSLGroup. “Clients may think this is what they need and budget pressures may push fees down to the simplest services. But that’s not the true value of PR and not what’s truly at stake for our clients – it’s about their overall business viability and success.”

He adds that MSLGroup increasingly thinks of itself as being in the ‘transformation’ business because both clients and agencies are having to adapt. The only way to earn ‘strategic’ assignments from clients is to demonstrate the business impact the agency delivers, he says.

Mark Phibbs, vice president of marketing and communications for APAC and Japan at IT provider Cisco, believes PR agencies should work as ‘news rooms,’ as they have the advantage of collaborating with multiple clients across various sectors.

“They monitor developments and news across sectors on a daily basis, giving them a unique opportunity to join the dots and spot trends that others may miss,” he says. “PR agencies could use this to develop more innovative ideas around thought leadership and how brands can break through in a cluttered media environment.”

The perception is “you do PR, I don’t think you can do creative or strategy” and therefore PR agencies are rarely allowed to play outside the PR sandbox — Ranjit Jathanna, chief strategy officer at Edelman

Phibbs wants his agencies to have great press, analyst, blogger and influencer relationships. They should be able to provide strategic input on breakthrough content and support for multichannel marketing and community engagement, he says, as well as striking the balance between handling day-to-day activities and providing strategic counsel on key issues.

A focus on media relations — albeit targeting the most influential and relevant outlets — continues to be essential, particularly with regards to the current fake news climate, says Edward Walsh, head of integrated communications and events at health technology provider Royal Philips.

“We also expect our agency partners to think more broadly about how to devise and execute impactful thought leadership strategies, where media relations is one amongst several other important channels,” says Walsh. “Ultimately, we need an outside-in view on how best to navigate the increasingly blurred divide between paid, branded content and campaigns and earned thought leadership approaches.”

Scott Kronick, president and CEO, Ogilvy Public Relations Asia Pacific, points out that the PR industry, by and large, has been growing in Asia, with Ogilvy having experienced two decades of growth.   

“The areas that are growing are the most strategic areas around brand protection with regards to crisis and issues management, influencer relations and strategic earned media services,” he says.

He argues that if public relations firms in Asia have talented and experienced staff in these areas, they should be able to compete with the best agencies in Asia. Their brand of creativity, however, is different from that offered by traditional advertising agencies, he says.

“In the area of brand strategy and creative thinking, PR professionals often approach briefs in a different way and that is where a perception [of struggling to offer creative thinking] may come from.”

PR agencies’ digital efforts often coincide with the kind of work that is now being insourced by many larger clients — Former creative director at a PR firm

Geraldine Kan, HP's head of communications for Asia Pacific and Japan and a former director at PR firm Golin, says ad agencies also trump PR agencies hands down in their pitching skills.

“Admen and women understand pitch theatre and are more likely to wrap proposals around insights and demonstrate the possibilities of a good creative,” she says. “PR agencies have a finely-tuned antenna for potential issues and crises, for nuance and for complex storytelling.”

The crossover of talent between ad agencies and PR agencies can in fact cause problems of its own. 

One executive creative director at an advertising agency in Singapore, who wouldn't be named but has previously worked as creative director at a PR firm, says that in his experience, those in PR don’t take to creatives and planners taking over some of their favourite aspects of their roles, namely creative ideation and strategy.

“In order to get along with our new paymasters, we often had to blur the lines between specialisms, which led to a lack of accountability,” he says.

Mark Phibbs of Cisco thinks PR agencies should work as newsrooms

He believes that most PR professionals spend the majority of their time focusing on core competencies as opposed to modernising the core of their businesses. While they appreciate that digital is the future, it is still seen as peripheral to media relations, crisis consulting and media training. Another challenge to overcome with regards to creativity is that PR agencies’ point of contact on the client side is often, unsurprisingly, a comms client.

“Comms clients have minute budgets compared to their marketing counterparts,” he says. “This meant that we were often speaking to the wrong stakeholder when trying to sell creative work. They either couldn’t afford it or didn’t understand the processes surrounding campaign production or simply felt intimidated by the prospect of leaving their comfort zone.”

He adds that the current PR business model definitely needs to change, making a concerted effort to move upstream and address changing media behaviours. Despite being well-positioned to embrace the growing earned media campaign space, agencies are likely to struggle due to the fact that they will have to hand much of the decision-making power to specialists, something they are often unwilling to do.

“This is due to PR’s role as amplifier/media channel, as opposed to campaign originator or planner,” the creative director says. “PR agencies’ digital efforts often coincide with the kind of work that is now being insourced by many larger clients.”

Ranjit Jathanna, chief strategy officer at Edelman, says the PR industry’s perceived shortcomings stem from a case of what he terms 'perception versus permission'.

“The perception is 'you do PR, I don’t think you can do creative or strategy' and therefore PR agencies are rarely allowed to play outside the PR sandbox,” he says. “More forward thinking PR agencies have already begun to make hires that allow us to circumvent this conundrum.”

Jathanna doesn’t believe that a lack of training opportunities or experience is holding back the industry; rather it’s more to do with the fact that PR perhaps still is, in some parts, an industry without many specialists, in which one person is typically responsible for all thinking, planning, creative and execution.

“This is just how it has always been and it has moulded and forged some exceptional talent,” he says. “There is enough and more happening in terms of training, this is taken very seriously with hires being made in a way that allows that sandbox to be opened up with and by specialists.”

MSL Group’s Osaka says that training and development are more important now than ever before. He believes the current PR model must change to become an elevated consultancy service, equipping staff to better support and counsel clients in their own business transformation. 

“If our business model empowers that greater strategic value, then we can command higher agency fees and therefore pay employees better, encouraging greater retention and career pathing,” he says.

With the lines between disciplines becoming increasingly blurred, it seems critical that the PR industry is able to find — and market — its own niche. 

Join us at CampaignComms

Want to hear more about how PR's role is changing? This and more will be discussed at our upcoming CampaignComms (formerly PR360) event, taking place on 13 June, 2018 in Hong Kong. Registration for CampaignComms is now open.

To register for the event and be the first to receive details on the programme and speaker line up, please visit www.CampaignComms.Asia 


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