What the PR professional of tomorrow looks like

STUDYING media and comms? Matthew Raggatt navigates the changes facing the public relations industry and what it means for graduates.

Public relations graduates will need to be creative and curious to succeed in the future, with the PR industry to undergo a shift towards more strategic thinking, a survey from the nation’s largest PR agency suggests.

In a decade, those in the industry will be known as “communications” rather than “PR” professionals, the survey prepared by Ogilvy Public Relations and the International Association of Business Communicators also forecasted.

Ogilvy PR Australia strategic and planning director Katherine Scott said the survey highlighted the increasing importance of entertainment as a “way in” for organisations to educate their target audiences.

“That means we must both capture and hold their attention, find and tell a compelling story, be interesting,” Ms Scott said.

Thirty-six per cent of respondents said the greatest contribution PR communication will make to clients’ needs in 2021 was strategic thinking and planning, followed by 31 per cent for implementation and execution.

For budding PR professionals, curiosity was the most important attribute, Ms Scott said.

“[They] must be curious about the wider world around them, must be an explorer of all media, naturally inquisitive about the cultural zeitgeist if you will,” she said.

Being technologically savvy will also be essential, with 87 per cent of survey respondents agreeing those that embrace technology will have an “outcome-changing” advantage.

The Sydney-based Scott said the research indicated a growing role for PR agencies in helping “socialise” organisations, increasingly about online engagement with audiences on sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Socialising organisations, viewed by 67 per cent of respondents as the new role for the industry, referred to enabling companies to have better, more meaningful and relevant relationships with their customers and employees, on their terms, Ms Scott said.

University of Melbourne marketing lecturer Greg Nyilasy agreed technology and social media had critical roles in the current and future PR industry.

Mr Nyilasy, formerly a metrics planner with JWT New York, a global marketing communications agency, said the online market provided challenges for PR companies, who now have to compete with digital agencies and social media marketing agencies.

“However, PR [agencies] are in the best position to capitalise on their core competencies, but they need to upskill on the technical front,” Mr Nyilasy, whose time at JWT included work with Microsoft, stated.

Creative and business-minded graduates would be of most value to employers, Mr Nyilasy said.

“Grads must be creative, [and agencies] want someone who has a good understanding of metrics and how to apply that in a strategic concept,” he said.

The reference to metrics hits on the biggest threat to the industry according to the survey respondents, that of how to effectively measure PR success.

Only one per cent of respondents believed that the Advertising Value Equivalent (AVE), the accepted measure of PR campaigns internationally, would be the most important indicator of success in 2021.

The AVE relies on the measuring of media column inches and minutes of airtime and compares this to the cost required to purchase that advertising.

RMIT University communications program director Philippa Brear said the AVE fails to account for the fact that PR now encompasses more than traditional media coverage, and the roles of PR agencies are much broader than they once were.

“The AVE has been on the nose for years,” Ms Brear, currently on the Victorian board of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, said.

Ogilvy PR Australia recently acknowledged that most of their clients no longer used the AVE, with the company to permanently ditch the measure next year.

The company is evaluating the Valid Metrics guidelines, developed by the International Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communications, which would provide a more comprehensive indicator of the success of PR campaigns, and take into account measures such as brand marketing, reputation building, employee engagement, investor relations and crisis/issues management.

In a sign the industry’s own reputation may need some building, 76 per cent of respondents agreed that by 2021 the industry will refer to itself as communications professionals and agencies, rather than having PR in titles.

Graduates can be reassured however that whatever the name, the industry remains healthy, Philippa Brear told Meld.

“The term [PR] has a bad reputation, but at the same time it doesn’t seem to be affecting the growth of people employed in jobs that we define as public relations,” Ms Brear said.

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