Have we reached peak PR in the age of earned?

Some reflections on the 2018 PRCA National Conference

BAFTA is a great place for a conference. It’s some years now that 195 Piccadilly has been the regular home for the National Conference run by the Public Relations & Communications Association (PRCA). Great venue, decent catering, and an illustrious history. Plus I always get the feeling that being present in the home of the UK’s film and televisual arts bolsters the confidence of an insecure industry perennially is search of a boost. PR should be but a hidden extra in the world of media – often when it’s doing its job best – and the positive theme of “Embracing Change” threatened to make #PRCA2018 much more front-footed than previous years’ offerings.

Stalwart PRCA boss Francis Ingham opened the batting, with an admirable, self-declared lack of slides. He reflected that last year’s event was one of sombre reflection. Then there was an extraordinary presentation by the PR chief of Greater Manchester Police, a few short months on from the city’s terrorist attack. While necessarily sombre and reflective, I remember that talk was also inspiring and deeply moving. Not often that you go to marketing services conference and cry and laugh at the same time.

@Ingers1975 was also in “sombre reflection” last year because he’d picked an ethical fight with one of the big boys of the PR industry who’d overstepped the mark. His single-minded pursuit and expulsion of one of the PRCA’s biggest and most important members was an important moment, and that agency is now history. What surprised me was the B*ll P*ttinger as a vocalisation appears now to have taken on almost Voldemortian status, with El Jefe taking on the Hermione Granger role.

The first keynote was Weber UK&I’s MD, Rachel Friend. In an understated, subtle, but ultimately powerful way, Rachel set out the case for “the age of earned”. A classicist by training, she started – where else? – with a quote from Heraclitus. Yes, our world is VUCA, and everything is changing. News, brands, marketing, and communications. But change gives us huge opportunities, not threats. Come on PR people, make the most of it this time. Don’t wait and complain while others in other agencies park their tanks on your lawn and then – to mangle metaphor – eat your lunch.

As someone who writes, trains, and consults on narrative by numbers, I was delighted to hear Rachel encourage the use of an increasingly data-driven approach to ensure that content brands create is shared. The “rational + emotional” card was made well by quoting film maker, Chris Milk, who’s described VR as “the ultimate empathy machine”. Slides of the day, for sure, if a tad too many stats, which collided into one another and made their peers not quite so memorable. Great case studies from both Hemnet (The House of Clicks) and Xbox (The Fanchise Model).

As we were at BAFTA, it seems only fitting to give out gongs. Twitter handle of the day went to the second keynote (can one really have three keynotes in a row?), Ogilvy’s Michael Frolich, aka @grumpyPRgit. Great and confident talker as he is, the talk itself felt much too solipsistic and inward-looking as it covered a job that only he will ever do. Yes, there may be other “PR bloke takes over ad agency” stories as the comms world is shaken up. But never one of the scale or gravity of what Michael’s been asked to do by WPP. If this had been an HBR event, the talk could have been right. It just didn’t feel right here. Fascinating to friends and colleagues (who survive the reorg) and loved ones. But not much further.

Third up – third keynote, indeed – was Sue Garrard, whom the organisers and the speaker herself couldn’t quite decide whether she was still working for Unilever or not. Garrard held the very important (for Unilever’s strategy) role as SVP of Sustainability for many years, and her talk was titled: “Purpose, Fad, and Fortune”.

Very well delivered through somewhat antiquated slides, it is clear that her vision of purpose is passionately held, very well informed, and was her North Star in everything she did in her senior role at the Anglo-Dutch (or soon just Dutch?) giant. My problem – and I know I wasn’t alone, from mutterings around me during the talk and subsequent discussions at coffee, lunch and tea – is that her (and Unilever’s?) definition of purpose is too narrow. By focusing on simply saving the planet and making consumer of FMCG goods (more) sustainable, it denies the broader potential that purpose has to motivate people to work and find true meaning. To me, ikigai is about very much more than just saving the planet, laudable as that would be if it could be attained.

She did consider the role of a well-communicated purpose in building protection around corporate and brand reputation, like investing in a savings bank (my analogy, not hers). And she exculpated Dove for its 2017 Facebook ad campaign which showed a black woman turning white. And then she failed to mention that in the same year it had two further missteps, one on body form and bottle shapes, the other on breast-feeding. To mangle Oscar Wilde, “to lose public confidence once may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose it twice looks like carelessness”. Three times? More like recklessness, all on the same watch. How long can positive reputational value hold up under such an assault?

There were three panels at PRCA2018. The first asked whether PR was punching its weight in today’s wider communications mix. And here is where things started to get hair-shirted and we saw classic examples of the PR industry in a crisis of confidence, despite four powerful advocates of the industry addressing the exam question.

Ketchum London CEO Jo-ann Robertson focused admirably on impact, noting that PR should be measured on the basis of what its outputs empower, encourage, and enable people to do; what action – what impact – it actually has. And that’s not likely to be very much if its practitioners are willing to accede to clients’ requests to drop their trousers (their fees) and do more with less.

Golin’s CEO Jon Hughes pointed out that most of the top ten agencies don’t call themselves PR companies, and this also reveals a crisis of confidence. “We called ourselves ‘the relevance company’, for God’s sake!” he mea-culpaed. Wearing ad admirably upbeat his “I ?PR” t-shirt, he encouraged the industry to avoid making the mistake of trying to solve for all stages of sales of the awareness – interest – consideration – purchase – advocacy funnel or chain.

The splendidly candid Alison Clarke lamented that “the PR industry is really crap at PRing itself.” She also said that too many PRs are “order-takers who respond – but don’t challenge – briefs. We don’t have the business skills embedded in our craftspeople and briefs are issued by people who don’t understand our craft … We crack on and do scattergun stuff too often.” Actually, maybe Alison has a better Twitter handle than Michael Frolich; hers is @pitchwitch.

I’ll speed up a bit now. This isn’t a blow-by-blow match report, after all.

After coffee – or should that be kovfefe? Every deck seemed to have a picture of Big Orange POTUS, which all felt a bit 2017 – we had two of the stand-out talks of the day. The first was from the brutally honest Nik Govier, currently in between enterprises and hinting murkily at what it was that had led her to walk away from the businesses she’d founded. Though watch this space for Chapter 3.

Nik’s honesty and search for inspiration out of adversity made her “When wrong is right” talk a glorious rollercoaster ride. It was dizzying, from PostIt notes and the pacemaker to Steve Jobs and Walt Disney, from KFC to Shwopping. Her inspiring presentation was full of great examples of positivity in action, and touched upon both her dyslexia and how difficult it had been for her to have a family; six miscarriages before two beautiful kids, and not a dry eye in the house.

Reflecting on her struggles with dyslexia, she said: “By god am I driven? By god have I proved each one of those fuckers wrong. I have a disability but it’s actually been the making of me.” When adversity strikes, she encouraged us all to allow ourselves to mourn, but then to think, “OK. What’s next?” And her recipe for success: grit + creativity + self-belief.

Next up was non-PR man Roger Parry, Chairman of YouGov, NED at Uber, and strongly-driven portfolio man. He covered the transition from traditional media to an unmediated world with speed, elegance, and verve. He was great on the need for businesses to have creation myths and do proper storytelling, rich and redolent with emotion; great on purpose, much wider and more encompassing than Sue Garrard had been. The only blot on the landscape for me was when he declared the purpose of Uber, in all seriousness, to be “to make the city – all cities – a better place”.

Jane Fordham had the unenviable pre-lunch slot, and talked about the need to create “a truly human workplace”. A good and right and worthy message, but there was much too much data to hold the attention. And also, many too many frameworks. In an over-running talk, we had … the eight pillars of human development, five basic steps, four key conditions, and three key questions leaders should ask themselves continually. One of those frameworks would have been just fine.

After lunch, the PRCA Communications Council reported back on its workstreams. It was the closest thing to a caricatured union meeting on stage that I can remember seeing. Very laudable, very important work, a different pace for sure, but not right – surely? – for a national conference. We learned more about the crisis of PR, and that schools don’t promote PR as a career because they don’t understand it, and that parents and teachers don’t think it’s a proper career. Also, when challenged by a question from the floor, neither presenter and none of the five committee members was able to give a decent definition of what PR actually was.

I was particularly alarmed, when talking about impact, that the Council is planning to “do some correlations [between PR activity and business outcomes]and report on the positive ones”. So, a bit like Big Pharma and 1990s/2000s studies of antidepressants, then. That ended well. It still beggars belief for me that econometrics and market mix modelling is able to tease apart the relative, absolute, and interactive contributions that all channels (PR included!) make to business outcomes. And yet mention this – as I did, in the panel on making better use of data – and it’s news to most of the bemused room. Come on PR. Pay attention in maths class.

We learned that PR is a £13.8bn industry in the U.K. If it doesn’t get to grips with measurement pretty quickly – and I don’t mean what AMEC has been wrangling with for a decade or more; I mean proper, C-suite-credible measurement and evaluation – much of the £13.8bn will ebb away to other channels that can prove their impact.

Text 100’s Rod Cartwright is a great presenter. His talk on how tech can bring us together saw him championing the importance of thinking, speaking, and acting human. He updated Maslow, made subtle and judicious use of stats (just four in 35 minutes), and was the champion of the real-world impact communications has on real human beings. Amen to that.

There was then a panel on doing more not less with data on which I sat and talked. We managed to surprise and edify the pre-tea audience that we weren’t a bunch of data geeks who’d make eyelids droop. Hell, there was even applause for a particularly excoriating analysis of Facebook’s feeble response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal (from me), and the session was well chaired and steered by my Small Data Forum co-founder and co-host, Thomas Stoeckle.

After tea, we had a very glitzy and inspiring session from Samantha Fay at Guinness World Records, before the day was rounded out by an ad man, Richard Pinder.

I’ve touched on it throughout, but Richard’s central observation was that the PR industry is in the sun and it doesn’t realise it. Advertising thinks it is, but from what he’d heard all day, PR was in crisis (though blooming to £13.8bn turnover). But he warned that where Nike is challenging racism and Levi’s gun control, PR needs to watch out. We are at peak PR – Rachel Friend’s “age of earned” – but we shouldn’t think we’ll stay at the top of this Mount Improbable for ever.

A curate’s omelette #PRCA2018, as ever. Great to look out from the stage for the first time ever (and I trust not the last, provided I’ve not been too rude, there or here). The sweariest conference I’ve ever been to, as if scripted in part by Armando Iannucci’s swearing consultant, Ian Martin. And genuinely fascinating to get such compelling and diverse perspectives. Also good to get a bit of downtime. Like a TEDx event, delegates need those 18-minute recharges between the highlights. And sometimes even nod off.