Facing the challenge of change – a PR and comms perspective
By DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Change is something which is inherently built into our human experience. It isn’t just people that change, but companies too. Organisational changes, however, are notoriously difficult to manage. Most companies are for the most part reactive, perceiving changes as threats, rather than opportunities. At a broader sectoral level (professional or market), the pace of changes may be akin to a lava flow, and could be just as destructive if mishandled.
Entire libraries have been written on change management, so this complex subject will not be touched, I am simply bringing together a few key issues affecting PR and marketing. It’s by necessity a longish piece as the themes are many.
This is the ‘big secret’ that nobody dares speaking about. A few months ago a distinguished researcher from the Chartered Institute of Marketing, published an article on the convergence of sales and marketing that caused furore among both salespeople and marketers. But why is this such a big deal? So what if some tasks are shared or merged? Maybe in this new converging world innovative working practices could flourish.
In many businesses PR has been perceived by some Senior Managers as a component of the Marketing processes, so one could argue we already have some convergence between these two disciplines. And a broader convergence may, arguably, even help PR professionals. In this respect, these days in the UK at least, you can barely tell the difference between a PR consultancy and an Integrated Marketing Communication one, bar perhaps the order in which key services are displayed on their respective homepages.
Convergence, therefore, may already be with us, we just need to get used to it.
The demise of print media
There is no doubt we are witnessing a fundamental shift to online media. The mere fact this insignificant piece is a blog is a testament to the type of interaction we expect these days. So there is no denying that this process of transformation is now well advanced. Newspaper circulation is declining rapidly and we know that people are accessing news and other information (including books) through a variety of online sources. Media moguls have attempted to resist this shift by creating paywalls, but these are a mere palliative, akin to a middle ages exorcism to ward off evil spirits; in this instance the spectre of free online access to content. As for profitability who knows if paywall really provide the required revenue streams to run a fully fledged news operation. So the jury’s still out even on this point.
Early this year the CEO of the Financial Times gave a talk in London precisely about the future of print media. Behind the usual veil of platitudes it was clear that the FT was reinventing itself as a sophisticated data management and acquisition company first, with a news slant as just a component of the whole business.
But the demise of conventional print has caused real headaches for many PR professionals; old rules are out and new ones are in and the goalposts are continuously shifting. An inexpensive and clever social media campaign can generate far more public awareness than a costly and intensive print media PR one, indeed these days the former may often drive the latter.
Responding to this change requires much imagination and the learning of new processes, as well as the bringing together of multidisciplinary teams.
We are all online
It all started with the humble email, which then morphed into an email newsletters and so on. We now live surrounded by a multitude of social media channels. How many do you follow in a day? As PR professional you have probably lost count, especially if you added those you have to access for your clients too. We hazard a guess that these days communication professionals spend as much (or more) dealing with social media than writing of news releases. Each channel generates its own amount of information and interaction too, adding to the demands.
Websites these days seem almost old fashioned (there are indeed speakers already saying that ‘the web is dead’). Audiences demand online interaction, not just static information. Customers expect to be able to leave reviews, with companies reacting quickly and 24/7. The challenge for communication professional is immense. In the ‘good old days’ you just had to read the press, pick up the phone and speak to a journo… now savvy PRs have to keep looking across a panoply of channels, attempting to identify what is really interesting from the background noise.
I wanted to talk about Big Data as this is a consequence of the previously covered topics. All our communications are digital, effectively made up of a sequence of 0s and 1s (just picture this next time you are listening to your favourite music channel); little wonder we now have the ability to generate and manipulate massive amounts of data, i.e. ‘Big Data’.
These days you can access all manner of sophisticated analytics. Indeed communication professional could be responsible for veritable ‘data indigestion’ episodes, if not careful. How do you select appropriate data and how easy it is to use so that your clients can relate to it? In years gone by we just had Advertising Value Equivalent as one of the PR benchmarks, now – naturally – you’d be laughed off the Boardroom if you even mentioned it. But what parameter replaced it in terms of ease of understanding?
A while ago I came across a book that I can thoroughly recommend if you were ever interested in analysing ROI on social media. It’s titled, unimaginatively but appropriately, ‘Social Media ROI’; it’s a commendable read and one that every serious PR should study. Delving into it you’d realise that taking such professional approach to social requires a great deal of discipline, not only among PR and comms experts, but among clients. How many of your clients possess the sophisticated sales processes required to gather and analyse data (major corporations excluded)? And you don’t need to be a statistician to know that it’s dead easy to create correlations, but much harder to (dis)prove them.
With such a vast array of new processes at our disposal it’s obvious that knowledge is more fragmented than ever. This book, published as far back as 1998, had already highlighted some of the issues at stake as well as other scholarly articles on the subject. Arguably organisations like Google, Microsoft and Apple have the ability to sift through the Big Data, joining up all the dots in order to recreate their version of the bigger picture (Infographics are a reflection of an attempt to simplify such complex realities). But these are businesses with almost infinite resources at their disposal and even they get things wrong from time to time. For PR professionals knowledge fragmentation has been a real headache, requiring the acquisition of a variety of new skills.
It’s now unthinkable to expect that a single professional could possess all the knowledge required by today’s PR operations. So generic activities are split into areas of highly sophisticated specialised knowledge. In this scenario senior managers have to demonstrate an ability to lead multidisciplinary teams with common sense, passion, charisma and even good humour!
Only 30 years or so ago the bulk of goods bought or processed in one country were manufactured either locally or maybe by its close neighbours. These days you don’t need to buy complex electronics to become aware that even foods come from all over the world. Trading has become a key component of 21st century living. Some goods are transferred several times from one country to another in order to be processed just before they reach consumers. Borders are porous for communication messages too. This can posit additional challenges. While English has now become the ‘lingua franca’ of commerce (just as Latin was the lingo of knowledge a couple of centuries ago), many basic communication nuances are still present. You don’t have to work for HSBC to become aware that linguistic concepts hide far more complex cultural subtleties. For PR professionals just rooted in one country this can present some problems when attempting to operate across several cultures.
A new collaborative framework?
Paradoxically we are in the middle of two opposite forces, a centripetal one that pushes us to look at the big picture and a centrifugal force that compels us to break everything up in manageable bites. In such muddled scenario we can only hope to progress through the active sharing of knowledge and even work.
Such collaboration can occur at various levels. Some of these models have led to the development of open source software applications, others to more industrial based processes of so called ‘appropriate technologies’ used for sustainable and environmental projects. Crowd sourcing expertise may become a necessity, especially if information is located across the world and needs to be made available 24/7.
PR networks can offer professionals an opportunity to exchange commercial intelligence and to collaborate across different skills, bringing expertise that would otherwise lack in a single entity.
The tip of the iceberg?
This was meant to be a short piece, but it soon became clear that there were far too many ‘changes and challenges’ that had hit communication professionals over the last two decades. I am certain there are many more, but even now we just see ‘through a (Google?) glass darkly’ – unaware of the real changes that are still ahead of us. This could be a frightening scenario for those who are uncomfortable about reinventing themselves continuously.
Just take mobile communications for example. Currently encumbered by poor data infrastructure, but not hardware or software, once this final hurdle is conquered with full, fast and universal mobile data access a new set of rules will appear. Apps such as Google Now, when perfected, will enhance users’ experience by actively pushing information before there is even conscious awareness to receive it. Who will control (or prioritise) this flow of information and how will PR and communication professional tailor messages down to a specific individual or a very narrow population subset?
Many of these questions do not yet have an answer. Yet resisting changes by failing to innovate isn’t an option. Those who are daring enough to jump into the scrum may learn to move on faster and with greater confidence. For communication professionals a more in-depth understanding of complex and novel technologies will be required, as well as a new approach to working practices. Will you be ready to move on with the times?