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PR Interview with James Kelliher, MD of Whiteoaks

PR has to change. That is the call from Whiteoaks, a technology consultancy with clients including Autodesk, and LG Electronics. Managing director James Kelliher explains the research the agency has carried out and how this has sparked the need for a brand new approach. Tell us about the research Whiteoaks undertook… Whiteoaks’ research paints a pretty stark picture of an industry that needs to wake up and smell the coffee, or risk losing its place in the marketing mix. Almost two-thirds of PR buyers believe the importance of traditional media is being overtaken by new ways of content sharing. At the same time, PR is becoming far more closely linked to business objectives than ever before. We think it shows how the industry is maturing and the pressing need to engage with different audiences to influence perceptions. In the survey we carried out, we got a respectable 165 responses from PR buyers. Respondents were from a range of different companies, large and small, which we think makes it quite representative of what the industry is thinking at the moment. What results did you find? Less than 4% said the primary purpose of PR is about achieving media coverage, and 72% said it’s about increasing awareness and creating positive perceptions. The interesting result is that only 18.5% said its primary purpose was to achieve a specific business objective, but when we asked how PR should be measured, 33% said it should be linked to achieving specific business objectives. This shows that there is a disconnection between the primary purpose of PR and what clients are being measured on. I think, and you particularly find this in tough economic times, that PR as a discipline needs to prove its value and worth within organisations. I believe this is a good thing as it means the PR industry will sharpen up so it becomes more accountable, will be able to show how it can achieve business objectives and can directly impact sales. What trends did you find regarding digital and social media? Almost 60% of respondents agreed that the emergence of new ways of creating, publicising and sharing content is decreasing the importance and influence of traditional media. However, on asking who the audiences were that PR should primarily engage with, 95% said traditional media and 80% said digital media. So clearly there is a change happening in the market place. People are recognising that traditional media is going to continue to be an important medium, but there are now new channels in existence that can be used to engage with audiences. PR buyers are also realising that there are a wide range of audiences – such as analysts, industry influencers, commentators, partners, employees, industry bodies, academics, and the government – that PR professionals now need to be able to engage with and influence. What comes through very clearly is that traditional media is still an important channel, but PR professionals moving forwards are going to have to use multiple channels and types of context in order to engage with multiple types of audiences. What do these results mean for the PR industry? The research is telling us that PR as a discipline needs to mature and expand. What PR needs to do now is to agree on specific business outcomes of the client and link its performance to these outcomes in a very transparent way. It also needs to provide formal service level agreements based on those outcomes, i.e. to reach a sales goal, to change government policy, or to have x amount of people become members of a body. Whiteoaks is now trying to hardwire that, which links to the idea that PR as a discipline needs to mature, become more accountable and be more transparent. How is Whiteoaks going to act upon this research? The whole purpose of doing the research was to support our new proposition, 360 PR. This is a new proposition we are offering, the benefits of which all of our clients will experience. 360 recognises that the way people and organisations communicate with their end audiences is changing. But it also realises that PR needs to become more strategic and needs to demonstrate that it understands and completely supports clients’ specific business objectives. This is something which I think PR has always shied away from. I heard someone, a head of a big London agency, refer to us the other day as a ‘disruptive influence in the market’ and that’s exactly what we want to be. We want to change people’s expectations in terms of how PR should be delivered. We think it should be far more results-orientated and far more accountable. We believe that PR professionals shouldn’t be afraid to be measured or to demonstrate that the work that we do can actually achieve specific business objectives. In your opinion, what are the main challenges facing PR today? There are two main challenges. One is that PR has to move up the ‘food chain’, so to speak, in terms of how it’s used and recognised by organisations. It’s still seen by a lot of people as tactical, fluffy and intangible. Sometimes we achieve nice bits of coverage that are seen as ‘warm and cuddly’ but it needs to be much more strategic and position itself as something that can and will support and deliver specific business objectives. The problem with PR is that it’s got too lazy. The power and influence of mass media is diminishing and so PR needs to go back to its roots; it needs to understand it’s about relationships and dialogues with your public. And there’s lots of different ways to do this – traditional media, social media – but also going direct to these audiences and influencing the influencers. There’s a whole opportunity for PR to go back to what it really should be, which is a much broader discipline that uses lots of different tools to engage with its audiences. The second challenge is to adapt to a changing environment. There are other disciplines moving into our space, i.e. specialists, social media companies and advertising agencies, who are looking at the whole media landscape and wanting a piece of the pie. So PR really needs to move quickly to own it. There is a unique opportunity for the PR industry to position itself far more strongly and start to own this new media market that is now emerging. It needs to define the messages and audiences, and create and own the content. The threat is, if we don’t do it someone else will. What practices in the PR industry need to be improved? There needs to be a willingness to be transparent, accountable and to make firm performance commitments to clients. The industry has always peddled a notion that it can’t guarantee results because there are so many other factors that come in to play. But if PR professionals can’t make guarantees, we are not really doing our jobs. We should have the knowledge, experience and expertise to achieve our clients’ goals. Direct marketing does this in terms of measurement by number of responses and PR needs to start thinking more tangibly like this. How do you picture the PR industry in five years time? I think we will see a consolidation. I also believe a lot of direct marketing skills will be owned by PR, which means that hopefully the industry will have a broader set of skills and capabilities. In the future, I don’t see any difference between a PR agency and a social agency. A PR company should recognise that it needs a broader set of skills in its toolbox that it either develops internally or acquires from somewhere else. A less fragmented market is better for clients, as they want to brief one agency once to ensure consistency of positioning and messaging, rather than lots of different specialist agencies. That chosen agency should be able to use all the tools available to it to engage with different audiences. If we get this right, PR will be positioned as a far more important and stronger communications discipline. We will move up the food chain and become bigger, better and more influential. However, if we get it wrong we’ll become the ‘dinosaur in the corner’ that doesn’t really understand that the landscape has changed and there are lots of new ways to engage with audiences. PR will get sidelined in terms of being that tactical, fluffy, intangible discipline. Any final thoughts? I think it’s an exciting time for PR, and at the moment we are sitting at a crossroads. If we do the right thing, there’s a real chance for us to expand as an industry and I just hope we take that opportunity. [lnk||_blank|Whiteoaks] [img|jpg|James Kelliher, MD] [lnk||_self|Media Bulletin: Whiteoaks launches 360 PR]