A few weeks ago, Harris Diamond, formerly CEO of Weber Shandwick, was named CEO of one of the world’s largest advertising agency networks, McCann Worldgroup. I can’t think of a single event that better symbolizes public relations’ move up the strategic ladder for brands. Full disclosure, I have worked for Mr. Diamond for the past 11 years at Weber Shandwick, so one could argue I bring a bias to this issue. But I think it’s hard to argue the significance of a PR guy being tapped to run ad agencies – especially in an era where we’re seeing dramatic change across the entire marketing communications landscape.

Ironically, our office was recently asked to create a 30-second TV commercial for our sponsorship of local program, Four Peaks, which has forced us to consider a new way to describe what we do – as a company and as a public relations discipline. Much has been written about this change, and I’m not sure how much can be added to the debate that hasn’t already been said. What I can do is bring to the conversation a perspective that at times is overlooked as marketing communications disciplines jockey for position relative to one another: the client’s perspective.

Though it’s always important to be ahead of clients, it’s also good to root our activities in reality. To get a sense of how clients are looking at global communications change today, my firm recently spoke at length to 10 senior executives from top brands, all of whom have responsibility for global communications at their organizations.  There was overwhelming consensus on what public relations is becoming, and how communicators need to evolve their strategies and structures to adapt.

Changing the “what” …

If the chief communicators we spoke to could rename their profession, they might. To them, “public relations” as a discipline is taking on a much bigger, mission-critical role in business today – going well beyond the conventional role of media relations that has historically been ascribed to PR.
Given the increasing reliance on the PR discipline to play a central role in defining and building brands, world-class communicators need to have a fully integrated approach: Their strategies must consider the full universe of stakeholders, looking for connections between customers, employees, and investors – engaging those audiences through new forms of content, platforms and communities.  It follows then, that public relations (or whatever we start to call it) is not only moving up the strategic latter, but its importance and activities are spreading across an organization.
The other term that is engendering some distain among senior clients is “digital,” which is increasingly viewed as a false category in the communications mix.   To them, it’s not about digital communications; it’s about communications in a digital world. According to these leaders, any PR agency that does not have digital thoroughly integrated into everything they do probably lacks the kind of strategic savvy that clients need and expect. Their advice? Stop talking digital, and just be digital.

… leads to a new “how.”

If what we do in public relations is fundamentally changing, we need to recalibrate how we get the job done. The clients we spoke to also have advice on everything from new talent to hire to how to structure programs in today’s hyper-connected world. Taking on more responsibility for brand and engaging audiences with new forms of content, platforms and communities require a new set of skills – brand strategy and planning, graphic design, video production, web development.

According to our chief communicators, PR teams of the future are likely to be made up of an array of experts who can be deployed when their particular expertise is needed. The implication for PR agencies will be moving from generalist firms to firms made up of a wide range of specialists. The structure starts to resemble that of a traditional ad agency, but our clients are clear they don’t think all aspects of that structure should be replicated. Agility is key.

Though the world of public relations continues to change daily, after hearing these senior clients assess the “what” and the “how,” I think the path forward is becoming just a bit clearer for our discipline. And I’m sure that our industry will see several more transitions similar to the move made by Mr. Diamond.

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