This post is by Colin Byrne
from Byrne Baby Byrne
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I was last speaker up at a joint PRCA/Corp Comms Magazine conference late last week entitled ‘Emerging from the recession’. Having spent a week on 2010 budgets, talked to clients and fellow agency heads, and been at the Conservative conference in Manchester (a bit like one of those old concept albums – a ‘dark side’ spelling out economic gloom and tough measures, which then flipped over midweek to the ‘light side’ of Dave spelling out vision and values), I pointed out that there really needed to be a question mark at the end of the title.
Although we are seeing real green shoots, and technical definitions of recession suggesting we are emerging from it, it is not a done deal. Just this morning one economist was talking about a ‘saxophone’ shaped recession with a deep dive followed by a slow and faltering recovery which could be blown (forgive the pun) off course by deep public spending cuts, another international financial crisis etc.
The point I tried to make in my presentation was that even if the recession is, or will be, over, we in PR have to rethink some of our strategies and assumptions if we are going to be able to help our clients (internal as well as external if we are in house) and ourselves take advantage of it.
First off, while we are all familiar with the grim images of recession at home and abroad, the most meaningful one for me right now is the picture of another David, taking to the streets with his sandwich board and advertising himself for work, with an introductory offer of doing the first month free.
That picture should be up in PR offices and PR recruiting materials. First of all it is a great creative idea that got loads of coverage. Secondly, it was about clear communications. Thirdly there was a compelling consumer offer. Fourthly, it was entrepreneurial.
I made the point that clients were starting to see real upsides in their business – though not in all sectors – and top executives are now refocusing on growth and less on bottom line protection.
I also pulled out a quote from the Stanford economist Paul Romer who said ‘A crisis is a terrible thing to waste’. That may seem uncaring given the jobs lost this year in our sector, but in truth when times are tough PR focuses more on the tangibles – ideas that drive sales and not just reputation, proving ROI, improving measurement strategies.
I then quoted one of the USA’s top marketers, GE’s Beth Comstock, who perfectly summed up the pivotal position PR advisers are in now when she said “The marketer is the one who understands that the question isn’t just “How do we make our year” but also, “How will we thrive in 2015”. That ability to juggle the here and now with the long term view is key to our industry’s success.
Changes in the media mix, the rise of consumer scepticism about spin and traditional advertising, the power the Internet has given to advocates and badvocates, have all helped build the power – or potential power – of PR in today’s marketing mix.
And as the recent VSS Communications Industry Forecast has noted, the comms industry is expected to grow faster than GDP for the next five years, and one of the key drivers of this growth is the PR industry.
So, despite the downturn, the fact is that PR’s time has come. But the challenges and opportunities ahead are increasingly complex. They require strategic thinking, a lot of listening as well as talking, and a willingness to challenge the ideas we went into the recession with. Even if the budgets return and the economy picks up, we need to keep the disciplined thinking of the downturn front of mind.
One of the personal examples I gave was my recent appointment of Matty Tong, a very talented strategic planner, from the world of adverting. Traditionally advertising is much more focussed on audience insights, planning and measurement than PR. Learning from that is one of the planks in our success platform going forwards.
A book I have been reading lately is Richard Watson’s ‘Future Files – The 5 trends that will shape the next 50 years’. He summarises those trends as:
2. The power shift Eastwards
3. Global connectivity
4. GRIN technologies
5. The Environment
All have implications for PR.
The backdrop to the changing opportunities and challenges for PR is clearly digital and social media. But even in this relatively new branch of PR and marketing, there are assumptions which don’t match the facts.
Take ageing. In the USA someone passes their 50th birthday every 8 seconds. In Japan the proportion of the population over 75 is forecast to rise by over 30% in the next 10 to 15 years. The opportunities in healthcare, technology, tourism, financial services and government communications are obvious. Yet our industry, with our relentless desire to hang with the kids and hug our inner teenager, and many companies, prioritise the teen market. Despite rising youth unemployment and graduate debt. And the assumption is that the sole route to teenbucks is digital, and to the “seniors” market is The Mail, The Telegraph and some gardening weekly.
(Two views on this. In PR we are increasingly hiring people who don’t consume media despite aspiring to advise clients on media. Or if they do it is purely the online bit, whereas customers and citizens increasingly consume offline and online which = “inline”. Secondly – back to my point on the need for more strategic planning skills in PR.)
On the powershift East, the dramatic growth in the BRIC and CHIME markets may have temporarily slowed but we are still looking consumer spending in China alone to hit over $2 trillion by 2015.
On global connectivity Watson notes that 1 billion of us are communicating and increasingly shopping around online, with that figure expected to double in a decade, and 2.5 billion are chattering to each other on cell phones. Meanwhile 13% of the world’s population is now living somewhere other than the country of their birth.
GRIN stands for Genetics, Robotics, Internet and Nanotechnology, and the big beast for us is the ‘I’, but GMOs, nanotech etc have marketing implications as well.
Finally The Environment and associated issues like CSR remain major drivers of present and future consumer and corporate behaviour.
So to summarise so far:
* Recession over? Too early to say?
* If it is PR is well placed to help drive both clients’ and its own business – but it will have to keep rethinking its MO and business proposition
* All the major trends driving the future have huge implications for PR and marketing
* To be successful, PR has to learn from advertising, anticipate the future rather than just react to the present, and constantly challenge its own stereotypes and assumptions.
As I said earlier, the biggest driver of change in marketing is the Internet, digital and social media. Beneath the froth there are important moves in the media landscape and consumer/citizen thinking and behaviour. But not all is as we expect.
Weber Shandwick is in the process of publishing a wealth of INLINE research over the coming weeks, charting what influences consumer and citizen behaviour. (One ‘INLINE profile’ is in the PowerPoint).
So, while the expected upsurge in third party advocacy is there, almost a quarter of ‘influence’ is still generated by ‘traditional’ media – compared to less than half of that for advertising – and many of those third party advocates will themselves be influenced by other spokes on the wheel including media coverage and advertising.
When asked about interaction with brands through social media, 31% of UK consumers agree they want this. But 43% say they often don’t believe what they read online unless they fact check it in offline media.
Then there are the demographic assumptions. Our research found that 50% of UK consumers aged 18-34 claimed their purchasing decisions were influenced by “traditional” print media. But only 26% of UK consumers aged 55+ claimed their decisions were influenced by traditional media. Offline and online. Both are important.
So the assumption that yoof in general no longer consume print and broadcast media is false, that they only buy what their mates advocate online is false, that oldies are more influenced by traditional media coverage is false. Only research and customer insights, and a balanced approach to recruitment, can challenge the easy assumptions and urban myths that surround modern marketing.
I also made points – using research undertaken by our Chief Reputation Strategist Dr Leslie Gaines Ross – on the challenge of increased online activity by protest groups and badvocates to corporate reputations. As we emerge from recession we need to bear in mind that consumers are increasing exposed to corporate and consumer brand badvocacy as well as advocacy.
Referring back to another of Richard Watson’s trends, the environment, I pointed to brands that had embraced sustainability and associated CSR strategies in their marketing plan as well as corporations whose reputations had been damaged by exposure of bad environmental practice. These days being environmentally responsible is a basic consumer expectation, but clever marketing of real environmental benefit can give a brand a competitive edge in a recovering and increasingly choosy consumer market.
Finally, returning to my ‘insights’ theme, and the preparedness of PR to help clients take advantage of the economic upturn, I pointed out the lack of ethnic – and occasionally social – diversity in the PR industry. This is something I have written about before and in truth I still have a lot to do in my own organisation.
Ethnic groups are a growing segment of consumers and society. Research by Weber Shandwick’s Multi Cultural Communications practice shows that three quarters of Black and Asian consumers and half of Chinese consumers in the UK felt that marketing by mainstream brands had little or no relevance to them. They also thought that most consumer brands simply did not know how to market to increasingly diverse UK consumer groups.
If we are to help our clients, we need to look at our own ranks and work hard to diversify our intake so we start to more accurately reflect those whose purchasing power and attitudes we claim to understand.
In summary, we are emerging from recession, but how quickly and how sustainably is still an open question. But when the economic upturn does come, for us in PR it can’t be ‘business as usual’.