This is one of the articles which have their roots in personal anguish. Over the past 18 months during which, the firm I run has started moving away from traditional, plain vanilla media relations into being a customized communication solutions firm there is one phrase that I hear (and now live in constant mortal fear of hearing again and again) from clients –“You are a PR firm and a PR firm is not supposed to be a specialist beyond media relations.”
Few days back had a potential client who is a start-up spend a lot of time in our office. Our creative head who is a two decade veteran in advertising and I took him through our portfolio and explained to him the process we adopt. He could also see that we had a full fledged team with graphic and interactive capabilities inside. So, we thought it is all sealed and done. Day after we got a call. The board of the company was of the opinion that PR firms are not good at design or anything to do with it and they asked the mandate be split into PR and brand identity development. We of course would get the “PR” part.
Few months back, we were interacting with a leading mobile services firm which had clarity that they need to do new/social media. We proposed and we thought so logically that the same firm handle both offline and online media so that there is synergy and consistency. We also showcased our understanding and said though initial days we know what we are doing. We also sent across couple of case studies which we thought were relevant interms of brands using social media in India. The response was along the typical lines. “We feel as a PR firm you must be good at media relations but social media it is better to go to a specialist firm.” That the flurry of new/social media firms that have sprung up all over the country were doing the same experimentation and may not have the same rigor or understanding of the fundamental communication process, was lost.
Let me cite a third instance before I move onto what happens with potential employees. We were talking to a senior person in corporate communications in one of India’s leading IT services firms and we were talking about our content and social media capabilities. Well, but then you are not a PR firm and you need to seriously relook at changing your name, he opined.
Potential employees are ones I equally dread. Most of them seem to think, the ability to speak well, track papers and know a few media, is all that is needed for a career in a PR firm. Ask them to handle an internal communication campaign or newsletter or an EDM. Pat would be the answer, “We didn’t know a PR firm was supposed to do all this’. The intensity of the pre-conceived notion struck most when a new joinee from a leading PR firm preferred to go back within 5 days of joining since she was very uncomfortable with some of these additional capabilities being asked of her. Many existing employees are no different and often require huge amount of training and constant goading before they even accept that a PR firm should and can be doing these things.
This is a paradox I am unable to understand. On one hand many in our industry keep talking of how PR has evolved and has today become strategic and beyond media relations. If so, my simple question is, in areas beyond media relations what is the benchmark? Is it just saying we do this also or doing it so well or having expertise that is comparable to specialized firms.
There is another macro question that begs an answer. If the current and new crop of employees comes into PR thinking this is all that is to PR and restrict their skill focus, where will the talent reservoir that we need to tap into for delivering “more than media relations” come from?
It is time we unbox “PR” and “Communication” in our country. It needs to be communicated that it extends beyond media relations and increasingly there are many many good reasons why it has to. From the growing limitations of editorial coverage to the need to engage a customer in new ways.
Until we do that, fear we will continue to speak big in forums where the audience laps it up but in reality there will be a hotch potch attempt. The bigger concern I have is that as the space of marketing and branding evolves and spreads in new and multiple directions, how will PR hold its own and be the leader of the pack? Or are we destined and content to be one of the important BTL tools?
Though it was tough, we took the plunge recently whole hog positioning ourselves as a customized communication solutions firm and said we will remove “PR” from all of our collaterals and messaging except in the name. And I can bet with you the repeated frustration with popular mis-conception and having to hear repeatedly ‘You are a PR firm’ was surely among the biggest triggers.
(Xavier Prabhu is Director & CEO of a customized communication solutions firm. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)