Does the PR industry need more PR? Photo: iStock
Does the PR industry need more PR? Photo: iStock

Public-relations and communication-management practitioners don’t do enough to communicate about why we do what we do, and how what we do impacts business, community and country.

Physician, heal thyself

PR’s failure at PR is as ironical a situation as the Cobbler’s Children Syndrome – a popular analogy to reference characters that are very good at their professions, but are completely unable or unwilling to use this ability to help themselves or their dependents.

A trade-magazine survey in 2015 found that most people did not trust public-relations professionals. Moreover, corporate communication practitioners have been found to be left out of decisions concerning strategy in many organizations, and co-opted into decision-making only at the last stage.

On the other hand, we PR practitioners haven’t been doing ourselves any favors by not articulating a clear value proposition about what we bring to the table.

Chris Chong, a Singapore-based entrepreneur, recently declared that “PR is an industry that’s ready for disruption”. With that, he announced the availability of his automated tool that claims to enable companies to send press releases directly to journalists, without the need for a middle man (that is, a PR practitioner). Chong said: “I see myself as an outsider who can look at the industry from a new angle and not be confined by the legacy of PR.”

After Chong’s interview was published, I received comments from fellow practitioners – some more snide than others – decrying his  incomplete portrayal of the public-relations and communication function and how similar tools and services were already at the disposal of communication teams at affordable rates.

Yet against the chorus of refutations of how another newswire platform was not going to shake “the legacy of PR”, there hasn’t been a firm response from the industry – neither from agencies nor others.

Unlocking value with PR

A survey published in February found that key institutions in Singapore were deemed to be less trustworthy year-on-year: “The most significant declines were trust in government (69% and a 5-point drop) and media in general (54% and a 6-point drop). Business and non-government organizations (NGOs) among both the general and informed publics maintained some positive traction with only average of 2-point declines.”

These findings were consistent with the burgeoning state of trust deficits across the globe, exacerbated by weak internal policies, a rise in protectionism, and easy access to mass communication platforms that have accelerated the deterioration of trust between populations and governments, employees and organizations, publics and institutions.

For example, the same survey revealed that the trust one puts in chief executive officers had dropped “to an all-time low of 37%. Compared [with] last year’s study, the difference is at a staggering 12%. The decline was seen across 28 countries, with 23 countries deeming CEOs as not credible sources. In Singapore, distrust of CEOs is at 36%, with a 14% difference compared [with] 2016.”

A brand is a set of expectations about a product, organization or movement that is usually encapsulated in symbols, images or practices.

Research firm Kantar Millward found that strong brands had the ability to generate three types of consumer predispositions, namely current demand, price premium and future demand. This means that, through strong brands, these qualities offered enterprises the ability to influence a consumer’s tendency to choose it over others, to be more willing to pay for a brand – thus having a direct positive impact on margins – and to be more inclined to remain loyal to a brand or to try it for the first time.

When one considers what strong brands can bring to their enterprises, the prevalence of a trust deficit – that occurs when expectations differ from reality – is indeed concerning for both the opportunity cost and potential value-add.

As the function that is primarily charged with reputation and brand building, these findings are indicative of the vast potential that public relations and communication management can help communities, governments and businesses unlock.

Just as trade associations and chambers for various business sectors have played important roles in representing their members’ interests to important stakeholders for the development of their respective communities, so too should Singapore’s apex body for public-relations and communication-management practitioners, the Institute of Public Relations of Singapore (IPRS).

Collectively defining value

As part of a two-year worldwide project supported by the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, IPRS is seeking respondents for its “Capabilities and Accreditation in PR” questionnaire.

This is the first research of its kind which seeks to arrive at a set of capabilities that will help shape the future of public relations and communication management and to produce a capability framework for the profession globally that can be modified to suit different markets.

The research would cover pertinent areas ranging from the future of public relations and communication management to queries about what capabilities would be needed to enable organizational change in response to external challenges to its license to operate.

Some possible outtakes from the establishment of this global standard are several-fold.

First, this will enable the public-relations and communication-management function to be held to the same standards by organizations with operations spanning multiple markets with local apex bodies – whose practitioners by proxy – which subscribe to these common benchmarks.

Second, a global standard would enable practitioners and PR firms to be more mobile and scalable, since the value that they bring can be weighed across national boundaries. Such a privilege is not vastly different from other industry professionals – such as lawyers, accountants, architects, engineers, to name a few – with accreditation boards that have global influence and reach.

Finally, one can imagine the residual impact of such a common benchmark on the professional fees that practitioners can command as well as on academic research, education and training. Indicative of how commonly held industry benchmarks and best practices could benefit students of public relations and communication management, Singapore’s leading private education institution, PSB Academy was one of the first academic bodies to ink a memorandum of understanding with IPRS for the establishment of a PSB Academy-IPRS Student Chapter. Through this special arrangement, students would gain first-hand exposure to these invaluable industry practices and standards, as they automatically qualify for associate membership with IPRS.

And through IPRS’s call for local practitioners to participate in this global study, the apex body hopes to arrive at further clarity into industry benchmarks that would be meaningful for Singapore, as well as the application and elevation of these standards locally.

In closing, much has already been written about how ripe the PR sector is for disruption. But PR won’t be disrupted by the launch of yet another press-release distribution platform. Instead, we need first to take stock of fundamental value propositions that practitioners can bring to reputation and brand building today, and only then, effectively galvanize one another to seize opportunities posed by these forces for disruption.

Marcus Loh

Marcus is Director, Asia Pacific Communication at Tableau Software (NYSE: DATA), the world's leading visual analytics platform. He is passionate about making brands matter in the data age and takes joy in giving back to the community by serving in various advisory capacities for academia, industry and non-profits. His views on brand strategy, data literacy and public affairs have been published in The Diplomat, Channel NewsAsia, The Straits Times, The Business Times, Singapore Business Review among...