As the PR profession evolves in the digital age, Christine Johnson explains why judgement, curiosity and storytelling remain front and centre. And why entrepreneurialism and business consultancy may be critical to its future.
With a career in public relations spanning some 25 years, Christine Johnson is a veritable PR industry stalwart. From roles in-house and agency side covering corporate, consumer, local government and not for profit remits, Christine’s pedigree as a PR professional is strong, which marries perfectly with her belief in the power of PR.
“Public relations is based on understanding how and what people think and feel about an organisation, which influences decision making. PR is about communicating to make an emotional connection, which is incredibly powerful,” says Christine. “As PR professionals we’re in the business of reputation management, which is critical to every organisation. Indeed how an organisation handles its reputation can literally make or break it.”
Despite being in the business of building, managing and protecting reputation, it’s therefore surprising that the PR industry rather struggles with its own. Not only are there many misconceptions about what PR is and the value that it can deliver, but links to fake news, spin doctors, and unethical behaviour have created both confusion as well as a slightly sullied character reference.
“One of the biggest misconceptions is that PR is free advertising - it is not. And neither is it spin,” explains Christine. “Sadly it comes down to a few bad apples who have misrepresented PR or misused its power, and through their actions they have tarnished the whole profession.”
Part of the problem is that anyone can set up as a PR practitioner, whereas if you’re a lawyer or an accountant, for example, you must undergo years of training and achieve certain qualifications. This means there are some professing to be PR practitioners that, in reality, don’t fully understand PR or how to use it, and the actions of these few has an impact on our overall reputation. To help combat this, Christine believes that bodies such as the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) play a key role in helping the industry to continue to professionalise.
“By maintaining common standards and a code of practice, promoting vocational skills and training, and enabling practitioners to share best practice, industry bodies support us in continuously professionalising,” explains Christine. “But ultimately, we all, as PR professionals, have a responsibility to demonstrate that we genuinely act with integrity, that we follow an ethical code, and we always strive to deliver good counsel to clients. We need to work harder to counter the actions of the few bad apples, which really are an exception to the rule.”
Indeed, delivering good, honest counsel is surely central to powerful PR consultancy. Saying what’s right, not what’s easy, and challenging clients, rather than telling them what they want to hear. For Christine, judgement is one of three core attributes of an outstanding PR professional, alongside curiosity and storytelling.
“Good public relations counsel relies on always considering the consequences of the advice that you are giving, and constantly being led by professionalism and ethics,” Christine believes. “Curiosity is also essential. Being constantly curious and never taking things at face value – digging deep and really understanding the meaning behind what you’re saying and what people are saying to you, to get to the truth, and unearth what is at the heart of a company’s brand. And thirdly; storytelling, all the best campaigns tell a story, it’s all about finding the human element and making that emotional connection.”
Although these core attributes may remain a constant, it’s clear that the way in which we communicate is continuously evolving. With the advancement of social and digital media platforms, the channels through which to engage target audiences have significantly increased, presenting both opportunities as well as risks. Christine believes that this pace of digital and technological change will likely continue, and must be embraced by PR professionals if they’re going to keep up.
“Information is consumed through so many different channels these days, which is exciting for PR people as it presents us with more opportunities to tell stories and engage with those we’re trying to influence.”
In a multi-channel era, it’s increasingly important to find creative ways to tell our clients’ stories to make their voice heard. Some may think that creativity is more the domain of the consumer PR world, but Christine disagrees.
“As PR professionals in any sphere, B2B or consumer, the more creative we can be, the more chance we have of cutting through the noise. As the number of channels increases and audiences change the ways in which they find, consume and share information, creativity is critical to engagement. It’s all about finding that edge.”
One means of PR consultancies finding an edge is in their ability to provide business as well as communications counsel. This coupled with the aforementioned rise in digital channels is behind the growth of niche agencies. Despite another common misconception, true PR has never been solely about media relations.
“With so many channels now available,” says Christine, “it’s no longer enough to be able to write a decent press release. Agencies are, rightly, being forced to upskill and ensure that they can tell stories across multiple channels. And also able to provide an element of management consultancy will be at a significant advantage.”
This is where specialist industry knowledge comes to the fore, enabling PR professionals to not only frame the conversation and control the narrative but also to firstly engage with their clients based on a real understanding of a market and the issues and challenges that are driving it. This enables the PR consultancy to join commercial dots and often provide clients with opportunities that they might not otherwise seize. PR professionals within niche consultancies can proactively provide guidance and advice on both business and brand development.
“There isn’t a developed and detailed understanding of the marine and energy spaces in the generic PR world - particularly marine, which is almost non-existent as far as I know, even though it’s a multi- trillion-dollar industry and shipping is responsible for moving 90% of the world’s goods” says Christine. “There is no doubt that BLUE is the leader in its field and its deep knowledge of the industries in which it operates positions it as both a PR and business consultancy.”
When comparing BLUE to other PR agencies, of all sizes, Christine believes that the company, as a genuine consultancy, punches above its weight. She said: “When it comes to practices and procedures, and the way in which you engage with your team and reward people, BLUE is well placed to compete on an equal platform with the biggest and brightest PR organisations. Which is why your recent recognition as the Chartered Institute of Public Relation’s Outstanding Specialist Consultancy 2018 was well deserved!
“And what’s interesting about BLUE,” concludes Christine, “is the entrepreneurial mindset and spirit that shines through, which really isn’t common in the agency world.”
Perhaps, as the PR profession recalibrates for the future, BLUE has the opportunity to cement entrepreneurialism as the fourth core attribute of an outstanding PR professional.