The CMO Show:
The CMO Show: The PR...

Public relations. As the many facets of the media and communications industry continue to converge, there are many who would tell you PR is doomed to fail. But with the federal government predicting that an extra 25,000 people will join the communication and PR profession in Australia by 2019, surely there’s more to the story. 

The rapid growth of digital and social branded content has caused disruption across the PR sector, as traditional methods of communicating are replaced by modern techniques, data and analytics. This shift has brought with it many questions: What does the future of PR look like? What skills do PR professionals need to thrive in the modern industry? And why is there such grave concern for the future of this sector?

This week on The CMO Show, Mark and JV are joined by Jennifer Muir, national president of the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) and general manager at Primary Communication. With more than 20 years experience in the PR and communications landscape, Jenny brings fresh insight and new experiences to her role with PRIA, and to the future of the PR industry more broadly.

Universally the PR industry isn’t lacking talent, Jenny told Mark and JV when she joined them in the studio. “It’s getting the talent right, recruiting the right talent, up skilling and providing really solid training for them and professional development, and giving them the pathways through their profession that they need,” she said.

“We’ve got this rapidly changing landscape that we’re working on, that requires us to have a really high degree of acumen, not only in our core skills, but also in our diverse skills. It’s really essential for employers and employees to have a clear pathway so that they can respond and be the best that they can be.”

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Producer – Megan Wright

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Mark Jones (MJ)
Jeanne-Vida Douglas (JVD)
Jennifer Muir (JM)

Mark:     Welcome back. Joining us today is Jennifer Muir, she’s the national president of the public relations institute of Australia, and the general manager of Primary Communication.

JV:          Thank you so much for joining us on the show Jenny.

Jenny:    It’s my pleasure; thank you for having me.

Mark:      So Jenny tell me, you’ve obviously been in the industry for a long period of time. Tell me what have been the principal challenges that you’ve observed currently being faced by the PR industry?

Jenny:    I think universally it’s talent. It’s getting the talent right, recruiting the right talent, up skilling and providing really solid training for them and professional development, and giving them the pathways through their profession that they need. But it all comes down to the talent and because we’ve got this rapidly changing landscape that we’re working on, that requires us to have a really high degree of acumen, not only in our core skills, but also in our diverse skills, it’s really essential for employers and employees to have a clear pathway so that they can respond and be the best that they can be.

Mark:      What would you say are the external factors; the biggest drivers that are shaping that, because I think, you know, we hear a lot about disruption and so forth, and we know some of the stories about what’s happening in terms of the need to be data driven, as an example. But, but give me your view on what you think those influencing factors are?

Jenny:       Coming to grips with the power shift between their audiences and themselves, and the role that those that are professional communicators can play in smoothing out the bumps in that power shift, and – and – and taking advantage, I guess, for all of the positive outcomes that they’re looking for of understanding what their audiences want, how they wish to be engaged with, how they, what the change in that dynamic is, and to – and to have the wins where the audience goes oh actually I feel respected and heard and engaged with and I don’t feel like I’ve been condescended to and… So you’ve got a very, very, very smart audience that is hip to all of the tricks of the trade. So it’s a shh, massive shift for those communicators and those that run organisations and businesses and charities and NGOs and governments, to understand that shift, because if they don’t, they quickly get themselves into trouble.

JV:          Now you’ve recently come into the role of National President of the PRIA and I’ve got to say there’s been a lot of excitement in the industry about this new fresh approach that you’re going to bring to the organisation, and I guess, to the industry more broadly. Can you tell us a little bit about where you’d like to take it and – and what you think the industry needs today?

Jenny:    I’ve been working in communications and PR for 24 years. I’m excited to step in the role as a – somebody who’s currently working in a senior role and out in the industry and seeing the ebb and flow and the rapid evolution of our profession at the moment. So I think that my plans, if you were to describe them as such, are to embolden our profession with the skills and knowledge and influence that they have, and – and take them on a journey that gives them a rightful place right across the marketing and communication sector.

JV:          One of the things we’re finding particularly interesting, is the impact that brand publishing and content marketing, and I guess that whole brand story telling piece, is having on more traditional PR. What impact are you seeing it have on the industry and how are and should agencies respond to it?

Jenny:    I actually think that you’re probably asking yourselves the wrong question. Essentially everyone’s storytellers. We create narrative that’s compelling that people appreciate and understand and that they; you want them to buy into, for whatever reason your organisation or campaign exists. How you do that and what tools you choose to do it with is up to you, and the – the toolbox is getting more diverse every day. But essentially if you are, if you are unable to have an authentic and compelling conversation with an audience, whether it is branded content or editorialised content or click for view content or anything that comes out of your toolbox, then you’re not, you’re not actually understanding the shift that has – that has happened with the audience. So branded content, which is a very difficult and tricky one for, particularly for FMCG and the consumer space, the audience will smell a rat so fast if you are trying to Trojan horse your very obvious brand message into a narrative style content, that takes them on a, you know, a trip – trips through the tulips kind of little story that you want to tell them, and then – then it’s just like this really hard bang at the end of and oh, buy this.

JV:          [laughs]

Jenny:    Those days are well gone.

Mark:      So do you think authenticity is – is kind of code for cynicism on the audiences part?

Jenny:    Yeah well the flip of it yeah, is is that your, your audiences, as I said, are hip to your groove, and if you do not appreciate their intelligence and their understanding of what you’re doing, then you’re in big trouble.

PR and communications professionals have a core set of skills. They’ve always had these skills and essentially it’s in the, it’s in the managing of relationships and making those relationships tangible and strong and meaningful. If you can’t pull that rabbit out of a hat, then you can’t develop your skills to all of the new tools in your toolbox.

Mark:      So let’s talk about analytics then…

Jenny:    Sure.

Mark:      …because if you go from the perspective of how the audience thinks and feels and acts, equally we can track pretty much how upset or angry or happy they might be. How do you think that’s going to change the profession of public relations when we move to, what’s inescapably, a far more data driven world?

Jenny:    So I think there’s two things in that. Essentially, if what it has impacted is the rapid response requirement in an organisation to a negative experience and your, the agility and nimbleness that a – an organisation has to have to resolving that, and being very clever and authentic in that resolution. But the use of data and analytics, essentially you’ve just got a pile of information and a pile of and an ability to analyse it. But what public relations has is evolving very quickly too, and there’s a global standard that’s just been accepted, is there’s a measurement evaluation and research framework. So in the advertising world you used to be able to have a click and a – a complete, sort of, transparent return on investment model of here’s your ad, here’s the view, eyeballs that it – it reached and here’s the potential outcome in a sales environment or a whatever.

So it was a completely tied line. Communications and PR, now, has the framework where it can use the data and analytics that it needs to, that organisations are collecting, and should be collecting, but to work out what models and what sets of data information are relevant and make sure you’re not getting more than you need, and plug that into a measurement evaluation and research framework, so that you can measure well my – my activity is X, my response and my outcome is Y. Not my output, but my outcome.

We, luckily we have lots and lots of ways of collecting data and, and of analysing it. Some is automatically done for us, thanks to, you know, Facebook and Twitter and all those guys. Some is a lot more comprehensive and we need to be working with our marketing and our sales and our, our community services teams and our customer outreach teams and, you know, all of them. We’re all working together, have to work together, and we need to build models that are robust enough, whether they – you call them a dashboard or whatever, to be able to report on that, and – and it is rapidly changing that a board and an executive team will record those out – outcomes and those reports coming out of that team.

JV:          Are we looking at actually changing the mix of skills within agencies and up skilling people who already have the runs on the board when it comes to sort of working in this – this media and this communications environment? Or are you looking at bringing new skills in; bringing people who have those data and analytical skills into the industry and, and – and if that’s an approach?

Jenny:    I think that the skills acquisition and up skilling – so it’s both. So big agencies and big organisations who have a very broad and deep commitment to the running these kinds of programs, will buy in, I think they’re affectionately called, data geeks, to just sit and run the numbers all day and build the models. And then those that don’t have that ability to buy in that dedicated resource will up skill their current workforce to be able to have a degree of acumen in that, and some are more, I guess, aligned to that. Some have a better head for that, because it’s not, it’s not a natural thing for some people to sort of go down that road.

JV:          Now the other side of it, and I think this is really important, is what impact is this access to data having on the nature of campaigns, and – and how can you structurally, I guess, integrate the feedback that you now have access to, into the way campaigns are managed and run in an ongoing basis?

Jenny:    It’s given us so much freedom.

Jenny:    Because we’ve got, we’ve got so much more information to back end our – our discussion with our clients and our executives and for making the business case for what we do. It gives us the data, it gives us the outcomes, whereas before we’ve been able to go well, you know, this campaign is we’re going to influence somebody’s behaviour by X, and they’ve gone well how do you prove X? We’re like well you kind of see it in this way, that way and whatever, and you kind of put some markers in the ground, and you can measure that; that’s fine. But it hasn’t been to the granular level that we can with the data and analytics.

JV:          So oddly enough we’ve got this pattern of consolidation that’s been predicted in the sector, but there’s actually a lot of growth in the sector too.

Jenny:    The federal government has told us that they’ve already predicted that our profession will have an extra 25,000 people by 2019 in Australia. So there’s a lot of change coming.

Mark:      There was an interesting comment that Chris Savage, who’s the – the ex-COO of STW and a bit of a guru around the PR traps. He was at the, on stage at CommsCon and one of the comments he made, he was speaking to the analytics and the data side of things. But he also made a comment about the, some 300 plus agencies that are out there, and – and the comment was one around we can expect this industry to consolidate over a period of time, in part, because of the things that we’re speaking about here, the ability to adapt and change and to incorporate all the data and the tech and so forth. In your view, what do you think the PR agency of the future will look like in response to these changes?

Jenny:    Those agencies of the future, there’s a couple of models that are being played with at the moment, and there’s a lot of discussion going on globally, but for the smaller agencies, which there’s a significant amount of in Australia, there’s very few big, big agencies as such like they’ve got in sort of, in North America and the Europe. But the smaller agencies, where they’re winning and really being successful is that they’re building cooperative partnerships. So instead of buying in permanent labour into their business model, they’re actually creating affiliations and partnerships with specialist other agencies who are, yeah, analytics people, who are digital people, who are whatever, and then they’re actually bidding and working on things as co-op – in a cooperative around a brief or whatever.

JV:          So what about within your own agency? I mean, as we’ve said, you’re – you’re GM of primary communication; what are the changes you’re actually making in order to prepare for, for the next, the next three to five years?

Jenny:    Firstly, really, really strong professional development and training, and, and I guess also an empowerment of the staff to be confident with the knowledge that they have and – and the insight that they have. Don’t, to step forward don’t sort of hold back and wait and see. It’s don’t – don’t let anybody else, particularly in a marketing and advertising space, or claim your – your rightful position at a table around strategy and the strategic direction that something should go in.

Mark:      In, in what context?

Jenny:    I think PR people in general have been a little bit guilty of holding back.

Mark:      But are – are you speaking from the audience perspective? When you say strategy what’s the, because that, that means, you know, different things to different people in the agency world of course?

Jenny:    So what I’m saying is, is that when you, when they’re at a table having a conversation about a new or an evolving thing that they’re trying to solve or come to the – to proactively activate, is don’t sit and wait for somebody else to come up with a strategy, be confident in the fact that you know what the answer is and you know the strategic, the approach that needs to be taken to solve the problem. Don’t wait to be handed a list of, here’s a to do list you go away and do that, and you just do that little piece. Claim the space that’s actually in the room.

JV:          Now I find that particularly fascinating, because one of the things that really stuck with me from the sort of couple of subjects I did in PR way back in ancient history when I was at uni [laughs], was that we were – we were actively taught to be risk adverse. We were actively taught to wait until we had approval, wait until we had a comment, wait until we had legal, before going ahead and publishing, commenting, structuring a press release, what – what have you. This is – this actually sounds like an entirely different, a, a, new culture.

Jenny:    Okay so it’s not to – not to be frivolous and – and irresponsible, not – not by any means. But to be confident in the fact that you know how to do this. You know that you need legal involved, you know that you need to consult with stakeholders, you know how to do this, don’t sit back and wait for somebody to just hand you a “go write the press release and come back to us” request. Actually sit there and say well these are all the things that we need to do, this is the whole program, this is how all these pieces need to happen, these are the stages that needs to happen in and let’s do it.

Mark:      Well Jennifer, we’re going to have to leave it there; But it’s been great to speak with you; thank you for your insights, really appreciated it.

Jenny:    That’s my pleasure.

JV:          And thank you so much for coming on and, and I guess thanks for putting forward a whole new direction for, for an industry which is just so fundamental to – to so much communications in this country.

Jenny:    Thank you very much.

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