by Michael O'Neill
December 17th, 2012

I was lucky enough to hear Marc Pritchard, global marketing & brand building officer for P&G speak recently. He showed a short film, ‘Raising an Olympian’, part of their London 2012 sponsorship campaign. It is a beautifully told story about Lolo Jones, an athlete from a very underprivileged background and the mother who fought to make it happen. I was moved. As soon as the film ended I grabbed my iPad, searched a link on the internet and emailed it to my wife back in England.

When I worked in political communications in the early 1990s, my friend and mentor Peter Mandelson told me: “Think television, think in pictures”. TV was and remains the biggest influence on people’s political views. TV reporters and their graphics people have to tell complex stories in 1:40 packages.

Fast forward. Cisco now predicts that within the next two years 90% of internet traffic will be video. With video storytelling people will find it, watch it, and share it. Just as I did.

A major feature of the future of PR will be visual. Not stunts but engagement; telling engaging stories in a visual way. We used to hire journalists for their contacts and knowledge of newsrooms.  Now we also need to be hiring creative documentary film makers to help tell those stories. At Weber Shandwick our ‘social studios’ are at the heart of our work. As communicators we all have to move on from the ‘broadcast model’ to broadcast thinking.

Also key to PR’s future will be alignment of skills. This has to happen on two levels. For agencies we need to break down the skills barriers and provide clients with truly diverse but integrated teams, geared to the brand or issue, with creative storytelling at the heart but the right mix of consumer and corporate brand experience and deep specialist knowledge. This mirrors how clients are breaking down the old corp comms and marketing divide internally.

Secondly we need to see marketing breathe in the essence of PR — engaging conversations, proactivity, collaboration and 360 degree thinking — and PR learn the discipline of marketing. True PR skills will become even more important and  prized  than ever by companies and organisations.

Thirdly PR has to become more diverse. We are making some progress on this, but not enough.

For a start we need to stop thinking graduate recruitment and start thinking young talent. With the barriers to university facing many creative, talented working class kids, we should be looking to sixth form colleges not just university campuses for our next generation. With digital being at the heart of what we now do we need to recruit true digital natives, not just Oxbridge  firsts with a Facebook page, people who understand the technology, know instinctively what might be the next Second Life as opposed to the next Twitter, people who can make things not just imagine things.

PR departments and agencies need to look less white, middle class and at certain levels male, and start to look more like the audiences we claim to understand. And with firms now looking to new markets, we need to have people with a passion and cultural understanding of China, Brazil etc. (Global brands and international agencies have a head start here, being able to move staff across their networks and transfer skills and knowledge).

Fourthly, our future must involve us getting more serious about the “science”, as we do the “art” pretty well. Everything from data analytics to behavioural science, as Weber Shandwick is with its “Science of Engagement” programme. Our future is the intersection of communications art and science.

All this takes a different mindset. To think pictures and poetry in storytelling, not just key messages and Likes. To learn from marketing best practice.  Most of all to rise beyond our internal structures, social, cultural and geographic boundaries. (And to some extent our insecurities about creativity.) To have more self confidence in our value-add but at the same time the sense of humility and responsibility about our growing role in society.

Colin Byrne is CEO at Weber Shandwick UK & Europe

This article was first published in PRWeek UK, December 2012

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