Hello. Welcome to my sorely neglected, emotionally needy blog. It thinks I spend too much time with Twitter. I love it really.
Twenty years ago this month I took up my first PR agency role. I have been with the same firm in its various states of merger and evolution, and in various roles, ever since.
As an industry we are rightly talking a lot about our evolution, and I have done my fair share of panel discussions, conference keynotes, university and business school talks on the subject.
I thought it was worth reflecting on what has changed, and what has not changed fast enough, in a couple of blog posts this month.
Here’s the first.
1. CONTACTS TO CONTENT
Prior to joining my PR agency as an associate director in the fledgling PA practice in June 1995, I had previously held a variety of in-house comms and campaign roles, having given up my dream of being a new wave music journalist ( running a fanzine in those pre-blog and website days involved a lot of glue and cutting and pasting, and selling your wares to queues of drunk punks in the rain outside grotty clubs – the glamour!), with the AA, the NUS, The Labour Party, in local government, The Princes Trusts and The National Farmers Union (an appointment which sparked my first PR Week headline, “Farmer’s Boy”).
It was a heady time of political change. I had never thought of a PR agency career, liking the influence I had as Peter Mandelson’s right hand guy in Labour communications, and trekking the world with The Prince of Wales’ entourage and press pack. I had used a PR agency and thought they were a useless bunch of smug suits.
But there I was in Christopher’s restaurant in Covent Garden, with Tom – now Lord – McNally, then head of public affairs at Shandwick, the largest independent PR firm in the world at the time, not just offering me a job but advising me what salary and car I should ask for. I came away in a daze, being used to modest public sector and non-profit salaries and lunching off the expense accounts of journalists.
I think and talk a lot about PR agency evolution. I find it fascinating. Despite the headline of my friend Robert Phillips’ recent and interesting book, the PR industry is a living, breathing, growing and fast evolving one, expanding its influence and broadening its intake at every turn. If occasionally suffering bouts of self doubt but rightly doing some intelligent introspection (and Robert’s book, “Trust me, PR is dead”, is part of that).
In terms if what has changed in my twenty years in the consulting industry, and almost 35 years in the industry in its various forms, first is most definitely a move from “who you know” to “what you know”.
(I realise this is a broad generalisation. In areas like lobbying, financial PR, political comms, publicity, contacts remain important, but contacts without content and context are a short lived asset.)
Back then our worth as senior PRs was measured by the fullness of our black – contacts – book first, our ideas second.
Having been used to being sought out as an informed and – mostly – reliable and “tirelessly available” (in the words of The Independent’s Don McIntyre in a profile he penned of me – political comms was a 24/7 pager-driven affair even in those pre-Twitter days) senior source, it felt uncomfortable to be selling myself on who I knew in politics and the media. The FT had helpfully described me as “a reasonably sized moth around the Blairite flame” (it was 1995, two years before I had the pleasure of working for my old boss Peter Mandelson on New Labour’s landslide election campaign).
But there I was on a sofa in Shandwick International’s HQ sat next to its then UK CEO, seeking his anointment in my new, and much better paid, job. He didn’t ask me what strategic insights I had learned over the years, what PR experience I would bring to his firm. He asked me if my political contacts were as good as he had been led to believe.
I swallowed my pride and told him that the previous weekend Peter Mandelson had been best man at my wedding and Tony and Cherie Blair had sent flowers. I was in.
I tried from the start to take a different tack. Public affairs was seen as a pretty dodgy branch of PR back then, with no real ethics code and it’s reputation battered by “cash for questions” type media exposes. At the height of Blair’s untouchable majority, William Hague’s – the outgoing defeated Tory leader – deputy press secretary came to see me about a job. Priti Patel, now a doughty Asian woman minister around David Cameron’s cabinet table.
My Labour staff thought I was mad to entertain the idea of hiring a Tory. No other firm was. The hot currency were spotty arrogant researchers to backbench Labour MPS and someone who proudly told me at interview that they had done Gordon Brown’s photocopying. I didn’t listen and hired Priti on the spot. Why? Not because of her contacts who were then – how things change! – deep in opposition and pretty useless to our clients. No. Priti turned up with her pager clipped to the lapel of her Chanel jacket. That told me she was my kind of tough, proactive, 24/7, blow the doors off press officer and ideal for my media division rather than the lobbying team.
As the media and our industry have been revolutionised by digital & social media, as noise levels rise, channels multiply, attention spans shorten and generational expectations change (hello Gen K/Z ), the ‘what you know’ rather than the ‘who you know’ has become more and more important.
It’s not that relationships are not important. Far from it. Journalists remain important to many if not most clients at one level of their communications. But there are less of them, with less time, and so many more routes to reach and engage target audiences. I always encourage trainees to read print media get to know journalists, go take a tour of a newsroom. But that’s just part of it.
The shift from contacts value to content & creativity premium has also allowed us to bring fresh, different minds and ideas and experience into the industry – more ‘T-shaped’ people with a deep specialist knowledge (sustainability, food science, clean technology, channel planning, sports etc etc etc) but a broad interest in the world of popular culture, innovation and current affairs in which our clients are now framed.
To be continued…