Katie Clift: PR needs to counter the culture

maybe agency - Katie Clift

“Our overall approach to the PR industry is outdated and unsustainable.”

By Katie Clift, director of may:be agency

With the industry currently worth more than $600 million annually, demand for PR services across Australia is forecast to increase dramatically over the next five years.

To meet this demand, we as an industry need to counter what has become an outdated PR culture – a culture which leaves practitioners, clients, and the public confused about what PR is, what constitutes good PR, how to properly measure it, and its true ROI.

I believe it is not only possible to create an Australian benchmark and standard for PR, countering outdated approaches to the discipline for the sake of the future of the industry – but it is utterly necessary.

Research shows that since its inception in both private and public sector organisations (think back to the 60s and 70s…), the field of PR has remained misunderstood, under-applied, and under-researched for decades. In Australia, and globally.

The concept of PR, marketing, and communications was first introduced by Kotler in the Journal of Marketing around 60 years ago, with polling over the decades since and still today showing PR as an industry remaining controversial and confusing.

Looking simply at the research papers published to date on PR (in the likes of Public Relations Review, The Journal of Marketing, The Journal of Applied Communication Research, and more) – a clear understanding of what constitutes effective public relations in both private sector companies and nonprofits has not truly been established, despite the operation of the function within organisations for years, and increasingly at the executive leadership management levels.

In tandem, the latest research shows the Australian PR industry remains “highly fragmented,” with pressure on public affairs, social media, crisis, and B2B communications only set to grow.

In short – our overall approach to the PR industry is outdated and unsustainable.

Along with the confusion regarding consensus of a common definition of PR, there is also a global inconsistency in what constitutes effective PR strategy – in short, what the specific ‘key success factors’ (KSFs) are that can be used as a foundation and applied for organisations to secure competitive PR advantage across industries.

For example – identifying the common approaches that are more effective than others for PR campaigns. Determining what methods of pitching are still relevant. Understanding how much content should be centred in human stories and examples vs facts and figures, for maximum cut-through. Charting a course for the responsible integration of data and AI in PR.

There’s an outdated narrative that PR is somehow intangible – it cannot be easily measured, results cannot be predicted, progress is not easily understood – indeed, this is the same narrative that has clouded the industry since the 60s and 70s, where even advocates of PR within organisations weren’t entirely sure what specifically defines PR, let alone how to measure its effectiveness.

Only four years ago, research confirmed that PR is still misunderstood industry wide. A confused and outdated approach has almost reinforced ‘smoke and mirrors’ for the function of PR itself. In some cases, I have unfortunately witnessed practitioners first-hand putting a spin on results and media reports to make them seem more effective to clients, without understanding what made their campaigns perform in the ways that they did.

If the Australian industry continues to produce PR with such an outdated approach and embedded culture – where practitioners aren’t even clear about what constitutes success in PR, how to set or achieve relevant KPIs, or are unable to explain to clients what PR and communications can deliver, then we will never see the reputation and function of the industry change.

Identifying a standard of elements (KSFs) that ensure effective PR strategy in Australia is crucial to ensure the sustainability of the industry, and for all types of organisations to grow and maintain competitiveness.

This is how we will counter an outdated PR culture. As far as I see it, concrete next steps are:

More research

The available literature confirms that a clear standard for effective PR, across both private and nonprofit sectors, has not been researched or defined. Industry leaders stress the need for standards to be identified and incorporated into an organisation’s strategic communications planning – in order for institutions to compete in the future most effectively.

More commentary

More practitioners need to be talking about improvements we can collectively make to the function of PR, to ensure it stays relevant and a key pillar of corporate strategy for all types of organisations. Exploring ways we can collaborate to align on how we define, present, and measure PR is crucial.

More boldness

The research confirms an outdated approach to PR has not been addressed – and much confusion around the function persists. The industry needs bold, relentless leaders who are unafraid to challenge PR norms in their geographies, in order to pave new definitions, benchmarks and outcomes for the industry.

The future of PR, its impact and its ongoing relevance for organisations in Australia is exciting. But only if we as practitioners work together to change the way PR has been perceived, rolled out, and measured over decades.

The future is to counter the existing culture. And the potential is limitless.

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