Picture: 123RF/Deyan Georgiev
Picture: 123RF/Deyan Georgiev

The role of PR is changing with the advent of digital and mobile, allowing the industry to deepen its service offering and ensuring it’s a more critical part of the marketing mix than ever before.

Social media hands power to the consumer – to make purchasing decisions, to decide whether to trust a brand and if it’s worthy of their money. In an era which demands authenticity and transparency, PR is increasingly using storytelling, influencer marketing, digital tactics and traditional PR skills to create true engagement and forge emotional connections with consumers in ways that resonate with them. 

Clients are becoming far more open to taking a varied approach when it comes to communicating with their audiences, making it an exciting time to be in PR, says Scott Wilson, Europe and Africa president of Burson Cohn & Wolfe (BCW). He adds that the discipline has evolved from where it was just a few years ago, when its primary means of targeting audiences was print media.

“PR has always been about creating dialogue through engaging with consumers. Today, the discipline has simply become more integrated, with clients also looking to PR agencies to provide them with skills in paid social content production and more,” Wilson says.

Skills are converging between disciplines. Ad agencies, for example, are turning to classical PR practices as clients invest less of their budgets in traditional advertising. Ultimately, it will be PR skills that will win the day, Wilson believes, though the big question is whether ad agencies will take over in this space. “Only the largest PR agencies will be able to compete,” he says.

In the current climate, PR clients are broadening their focus from targeting only leading European markets and there is a growing interest in markets of opportunity. Emerging markets such as Africa fit the bill perfectly. However, in this landscape clients require not only global consistency, but also regional relevance.

BCW was formed this year after the merger between Burson-Marsteller and Cohn & Wolfe. It is the largest PR network in Africa and is capitalising on the fact that clients want a presence on the continent but need partners to help them better understand the nuances of these markets, says Wilson. 

Digital and mobile have provided Africans with an appetite for world-class brands and communication, he says, adding that the continent is ahead of the curve when it comes to mobile innovation in several areas, including banking. However, experiential marketing and storytelling remain important platforms despite the proliferation of mobile

While the PR industry on the continent – and globally – is awash with opportunity, Wilson points out that there are still some challenges.

For example, there is a dire lack of qualified talent – both in terms of attracting the right people and retaining them, Wilson says. “Demand is severely outrunning supply, and while it is important to bring young people into the network, it takes time to get them trained and ready.” 

The big take-out

PR is gaining traction in Africa, particularly because of the digital innovativeness of Africans and the fact that clients are shifting their spend from traditional means to those which promote conversation and emotional engagement on alternative platforms.

In addition, the job of the marketing professional has become significantly more challenging, as brands are no longer putting the bulk of their spend into TV. Data is the big buzz word, and no client, Wilson says, ever laments a lack of data – the problem is “they’re overwhelmed with data but are lacking in valuable insights”.

The ultimate objective of PR, he maintains, is to assist clients to solve their business problems. “Marketers are under increasing time pressure, which makes managing a whole host of agencies more challenging,” he says. “Then there’s the speed of technological evolution and channel confusion – artificial intelligence, mobile, virtual reality – and the question of where they should be putting their spend.”

Attitudes towards work are changing too, Wilson says, adding that when speaking to young people within the network, it becomes clear that the thought of working your way up the ranks for the same employer for 20 years holds little appeal. “Often, we rehire people after they have left the business for some time, which works well as they come back with new skills. We also place great emphasis on training, both upskilling and recruiting new skills that a few years ago we didn’t even know we needed,” Wilson says.

It’s a world where standing still is not an option. “I often liken it to changing the engine of the aircraft in mid-flight; we just have to keep building our skills and capabilities as we go.”