Why PR shouldn’t stay in its lane

Caroline Catterall, CEO of Keep Left answers the question: Are there risks with generalisation and leaving an agency with no specialty?

A few weeks ago, we proposed to a client who was having some challenges with their press office that we should think more creatively about how to meet their communications goals.

They loved it and were very excited about the idea of getting a diverse team of “thinkers” together from across the agency to ponder their brief, but then proceeded to add this caveat: While they wanted us to “think big,” they also wanted us to “stay in our lane.”

What that meant was stick to media relations.

There were some mixed messages to navigate here, and an education job to do, tackling the default thinking that PR equals ‘free’ media coverage.

Now, the truth is, this isn’t entirely wrong. The PR industry does specialise in media relations. But in today’s world, it isn’t completely right either and doesn’t leave the door open for creativity and innovation, which can lead to the best work.

Relying on media relations alone is a strategy fraught with danger. Editorial isn’t guaranteed. If a big news story breaks on the day of your announcement, those best-laid plans can and do go out the window.  While I’m proud of the 20-year career I’ve built in PR and believe media relations still has an important role to play, to be successful in business you’ve got to acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses and keep pace with change.

For the PR industry to remain relevant and effective in 2023 and beyond, it absolutely cannot stay in its lane.  Agencies and brands that rely on media relations alone will experience diminishing returns over time. There are a number of reasons for this.

The consumption of traditional media has decreased over the past two years. According to GWI’s latest report, consumer interest in news, politics, social issues and current events has declined in 90% of the countries it tracks.  So, if you’re relying on news mastheads or TV to deliver your message, consider who is actually tuning in? A piece on Sunrise or in the SMH may not reach the intended audience – especially if they’re millennials or younger.

Furthermore, the way consumers discover products and services has also changed. It’s less about what people search for and more about what the algorithm delivers, so sticking to one lane, or one channel, can limit your audience potential, and mixed messages across channels won’t cut it.

Modern PR today is a blur of social, digital, experience, content, creative and media relations – ideally, all working together for maximum effect.  PR agencies need to think in ideas as well as angles. Ideally, the idea comes first in the form of the brand offering something of value to the audience or taking an action that’s worthy of attention.

At CommsCon earlier this year, Adam Ferrier said he thought all creative agencies should have PR, but he didn’t think every PR agency should offer creative. I disagree. Creativity – and the process of developing insight-led ideas – is critically important to what the PR industry does and our ability to influence and engage an audience via whatever channel makes the most sense.  The world doesn’t think in earned, owned, and paid, and neither should we.

Ferrier’s caution against PR pushing into creative was because – in his words – “shit creative can damage your reputation.”  This I do agree with, but I think there’s a sweet spot for PR to play in what we call ‘big small ideas,’ – creative PR ideas that don’t rely on huge production and advertising budgets (and as highly refined craft) to get the job done.

As we roll into 2023 and a climate where marketers are going to need to do more with less, the creative PR world and ‘big small ideas’ can help brands punch above their weight, tell a compelling brand story and de-risk their marketing investment.

So what did we do for the client that asked us to “stay in our lane?”

We developed a range of press office and campaign ideas – all with earned thinking at their core – but incorporating a mix of channels, and approaches, ranging from user-generated content, an interactive web experience, a content series, and a new consumer rewards program. Most of which had legs for media relations, and all of which were connected by a new strategic platform.

In the end, we aren’t sure if the client knows we didn’t stay in our lane, but we do know they were thrilled with the thinking, and it’s going to be a good 2023.

Caroline Catterall, CEO of Keep Left


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