Emily Tan
Mar 12, 2012

PR in strong position to share in digital pie: IPREX president

Public relations has evolved beyond pure media relations and is fast converging with the advertising industry – particularly within the digital space. The challenge for agencies: Finding the courage and talent to adapt swiftly enough, according to Kathy Tunheim, global president of IPREX, a global network that represents 72 independent PR agencies in 107 markets.

Kathy Tunheim
Kathy Tunheim

“For every great digital campaign by an ad agency, I can show you a couple that come out of PR of comparable quality,” Tunheim said.

As the market evolves, PR’s area of greatest growth and opportunity is the intersection between traditional and social media and the explosion of digital and creative content, she observes. It’s a space with considerable overlap between creative agency, media specialist and PR agency capabilities.

“What is earned media anymore, and owned?" Tunheim asked. "And branded content? Who owns what? The lines are getting fuzzy, but the good news is results are what really counts. It’s a fascinating time to be in the business.”

PR agents are well positioned to be part of the new media wave, Tunheim said. “Clients want to see their investment in marketing and promotions is leveraged as much as possible. PR is in a position where it has the opportunity to lead the conversation around strategy. For example, using insights from social channels to think about a client's overall reputation management programme.”

In light of the need to develop digital capabilities, it’s not surprising that talent was a hot topic at the recent Summit for Malaysian PR Consultant Organisations in Kuala Lumpur, in which Tunheim was a speaker. “We have a history of coming out of journalism, of having our forte be writing and storytelling," she said. "Now we are challenged to be strategists, to be able to help our clients with business outcomes.”

The issue, according to Tunheim, isn’t the ability of PR to attract top talent. It’s ensuring that they are valued and viewed as the strategists they are. “I travel around the world working with IPREX agencies, and the people I meet are every bit as impressive as those from any other sector of the advertising industry. It really isn’t a case of one attracting better talent than the other.”

Tunheim admitted that public relations may be challenged in the job market by the traditional description of their work. “Strategy and being creative about strategy is at the heart of what makes successful PR people," she asserted. "But we don’t talk about it that way. We shouldn’t allow how we describe what we do to interfere with our hiring.”

Her own agency, Tunheim Partners, based in Minneapolis, has on-campus recruitment drives and scholarship programmes with leading communication schools to encourage undergraduates to consider the possibility of a career in PR.

In terms of revenue, PR agencies are in a good position to pay for top talent, Tunheim said. “PR agencies, run well, are good businesses and can attract profit margins of 15 to 20 per cent, as is the case in Asia,” she said. Last year, the agencies in IPREX made an estimated overall revenue of US$191 million, growing just over 10 per cent from 2010.

At present, PR agencies, digital and creative all appear to be at a point of convergence, but Tunheim believes that in a few years, the agencies will have again fallen into their various specialisations – but perhaps aligned differently.

“It’s a natural evolution," she said. "Some will focus on strategy, others on technical executions of communication, specialising in visual communication, focusing geographically or a certain sector. There is no right or wrong.”

What does matter and will help the industry face its challenges, concluded Tunheim, is for PR practitioners to be “courageous about innovation and to be tenacious about strategy and delivering good ROI”.

Campaign Asia

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