Opinion: Where has the PR love gone?

The author lists five reasons that have brought the PR industry to a 'frustrating crossroad'

Oct 04, 2022 09:10:00 AM | Article | Tarunjeet Rattan

- 2019: The PR industry was ambling along slowly finding and fighting our way to the seat on the table. Occasional conversations about empathy and mental health but most considered it hogwash.  
 
- 2020: The table is brought to the PR industry in a hurry and a makeshift seat made to accommodate them. Desperate pleas to all PR teams to support brands in tough times. Sometimes at half the cost for double the work. The PR industry rose to the occasion.    
 
Empathy was the talk of the town. 
 
- 2021: Internal communications joins the table along with PR and adds more strength to the PR conversation. Retainers increased and belief in PR is tom – tom-ed around the place, awards given, awards created, and praises sung by the whole PR industry and of the PR industry on the work they did in these two years and how the industry has taken a quantum leap. It was declared that ‘PR has come of age’ in India. The grey hair counsel was put on a pedestal. 
 
Mental wellness, kindness and empathy became buzzwords. 
 
- 2022: While the dust around the accolades was just about settling down, in came the shockers as PR agencies were dropped like hot potatoes, retainers chopped, jobs axed and younger digital teams quickly replaced the ‘go-getters’ of PR.  
 
Er … what happened? Empathy? Kindness? Mental Resilience? As we enter the last quarter of 2022, every PR professional knows five other senior professionals in their circle who have been laid off, are struggling to find a job or prove the efficacy of the profession all over again. Most agency owners are struggling to keep the retainers up, pitching to newer segments with old (or no) notions of PR along with rushing to get talent in the seats to stay and own the work. Most assumed that they would be rewarded for all the hard work put in for two-three years as they supported brands above and beyond the call of duty especially as the markets picked up. And there would be a surge in talent. But instead of loyalty being rewarded most ended up being replaced or losing teams to fatigue. 
 
Did you say mental health and empathy? 
 
There are several reasons that brought us to this frustrating crossroad, but five of them stand out and hit you like a packed punch every time you look back at the road that brought us here:
 
Market dynamics: With the impending doom of the market slump looming in some distant future, most brands are tightening their belts. A lot of corporate communication confided on condition of anonymity that their PR budgets were slashed in almost half and they were having to move from existing consultancies who expected a raise, to smaller ones to make the budget work. While the seat at the table is there, it is now being pushed back further and further till one can’t hear what is being said at the table. As things return to ‘normal’ in business so does the attitude towards PR.  
Add to this a lot more freelancers have been added to the market with teams being downsized so brands assume that more bang for buck is the right route to go instead of ‘expensive’ strategic counsel. 
 
Short term view: While the pandemic was a great opportunity for the entire PR industry to showcase their mettle, which they did, did we forget to capitalise all that attention into long term and deeper roots for the industry in individual organisations? Did we among the awards forget that this was just the start of the marathon and there was a lot of work to be done in continued education of the industry and brands. Having a seat at the table meant you have a voice. Did we put our point forth with authority on continued presence there? Marketing heads I met post pandemic commented that most PR conversations now have reverted to how much coverage, print focus and measurement (same old … same old) with no push back from the PR industry because most want to just simply be able to retain the account.  
 
PR for PR: This still needs a lot of work. The entire ecosystem needs to work together to get this right. The corporate communication teams and PR agencies along with brands need to work together on this one. As the industry changes as do the dynamics of team management, the definition of PR has to evolve and move forward (not backward into AVE).  
 
This is a strong one and don’t believe we have done full justice to this yet. Proof is in the number of PR and communication leads being put out of work and the number of journalists, digital leads and content writers being hired to replace them where the onus of educating them on PR falls back on to the PR agency. You will hear the frustration in every conversation with several PR agency heads.  
 
Rising ‘aur dikhao’ sentiment: After the visibility drought for almost two long years, most brands are hungry to be visible to their target audience and beyond. Beyond is best. Especially with brands that had to lay low or had nothing to add to the pandemic support or recovery conversation. 
The strategic counsel developed in the last two years focused on core messaging and targeted focused communication while keeping the brands abreast of media changes and development. However, most are in no mood to listen to it right now. They want more visibility irrespective of whether the publication, supplement, section exists or not. Irrespective of whether it is relevant to their core target audience or not. Reminds you of the 1990s – early 2000s PR decade of PR mileage in terms of thick PR dockets and teams copiously cutting pasting this and beautifying the docket?   This has led to a lot of PR teams being pushed back into the role of ‘coverage’ generators. Bad rep for PR evolution?  
 
It’s not personal, it’s just business: A lot has been said about how the PR industry needs to take personal accountability of the brands they are working with, develop a collective consciousness and dive deep into brand storytelling to be able to truly create a strong brand reputation. Agreed. 
But without a safety net? Really? With the threat of being replaced by a cheaper option at any time or budgets slashed with same brand expectations at the lower cost, why would any human being put the same amount of time. When termination notices being handed with the reasoning of ‘it’s just business’, it stings when you have worked hard and staked your own reputation to put the brand where they are.  
 
While brands wanting to explore a new approach, shop around, see what’s out there is perfectly fine. And that is their right irrespective of any market situation. But expecting the PR/ corp comm department or agency to build their life around you without the safety net of a commitment is a tall ask. One am glad that most agencies are in no mood to entertain now. And this has led to a lot of the PR pros being labelled as opinionated and difficult …and replaced. It’s not personal…its business. 
 
So, does the future ball predict more aggressive PR for PR, brands to cough up more money for the services or a segregation of strategic counsel division from publicity? Where will you place your bets? Which road will lead us out of it? 
 
(Coming soon in next piece. The author is managing partner, Nucleus PR and founder - PRPOI.