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Many PR practitioners feel the profession is viewed as ethical. Picture: 123RF/eamesbot
Many PR practitioners feel the profession is viewed as ethical. Picture: 123RF/eamesbot

The debates about the future of public relations (PR) and how it shows up in a world of “new normal”, “pivots” and Instagram influencers are nothing new.

Amid these debates, let’s rethink the stage. Consider for a moment that we are at an awards show to announce the winner of the PR agency of the year award. On stage is the traditional mix of networked shops and independent agencies. With them are the consultants. When the announcement is made, one of the consultants wins. PR comes in second, accompanied by great appreciation for the hard work it does every day.

The truth is that PR has never been a part of the traditional marketing mix. We started with the four Ps - product, price, promotion and place - and then moved up to the seven Ps, to include packaging, positioning and people. While some of PR’s role is certainly encompassed in these Ps, what’s actually missing is prominence, a P word for reputation.

The very heart of PR is reputation. As PR practitioners, our core role is to build, maintain, grow, protect and manage reputation for our clients. And as Benjamin Franklin once said: “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.”

In a globalised society, we are constantly reminded of how reputation affects individuals, governments and organisations.

From the celebrity din of the Amber Heard-Johnny Depp court case to teenager Greta Thunberg fire-starting a global movement against climate change, from our own Eskom and SAA mismanagement woes to the war in Ukraine, from corporate corruption to the seemingly never ending Covid issues, it reaches us all online, and we are aware of every event, step and misstep that shapes the news agenda.

PR has long suffered from a poor reputation. We were either known as the “boobs and balloon brigade” or, perhaps more damagingly, as “spin doctors”. We were the afterthought in almost every marketing discussion - if we even made it into conversation. It’s taken a new breed of agency and a new approach to communications to change old perceptions and to use the marketing mix ourselves to become part of the conversation.

Liesl Williams. Picture: Supplied
Liesl Williams. Picture: Supplied

While we were never in the marketing mix, just like every other product or service available, PR had to put all the Ps in place to deliver a market leader successfully. We’ve had to build our people, define our product, prove value in our price point, make sure we promoted ourselves in the right place to the right people and position ourselves to be strong partners. The evolved and evolving PR model is about strategic intent, it’s about building narratives that have the power to effect change, it’s about being equal partners with our clients and peers and about bringing best-of-breed ideas and even better thinking to the table.

Undoubtedly, change brings with it the need to ensure relevance, not just for our clients, but also for ourselves as an industry.

The most significant shift is the paradigm that says “PR” (traditionally the amplifier and awareness role) versus deep and considered “strategic communications” that set agendas, challenge business and connect with stakeholders directly - not just through media as a channel.

Adding prominence to the marketing mix is now a prerequisite for any modern business. Prominence is PR done right, and PR done right will always deliver a tangible, measurable business benefit.

Liesl Williams has recently been appointed as the Razor public relations managing partner for Cape Town. She joins Razor from Engage BCW in Nairobi, where she was strategy partner. She previously led the team at Atmosphere Johannesburg and was deputy managing director of Ogilvy PR. 

The big take-out: PR done right will always deliver a tangible, measurable business benefit.

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