Change is Good...isn’t it?

8 years, 8 months ago


Tony Burgess-Webb looks at the implications for the PR industry of some major changes in the communications environment.

Growth in our business is driven by change because managing change effectively requires effective communications. The bigger the change, the bigger the communications need. But the world is now in a period of massive, fundamental, even historic, change. Is the PR industry ready for it?

New World Order

It is now a commonplace that Western economic, political and cultural dominance is being radically challenged by the rapid economic growth of emerging nations. New technologies, huge new consumer populations, access to natural resources and increased political power are the main drivers, resulting in fundamental changes in the commercial and communications environment.

Western companies that are marketing in emerging markets face new domestic competitors and patterns of commerce. Meanwhile companies from emerging markets going global are discovering a new dimension of brand, cultural and organizational difficulty.

The challenge to the old world order goes well beyond commerce, economics and politics. It encompasses the area of language, religion, the arts, concepts of ethics and of legal and human rights, ideas of social status and moral definitions of good and bad. These disturb old structures, demanding better insight and more multinational talent with a truly multinational perspective, to allow new obstacles to be successfully navigated.

The implications for established companies and brands arising from these geopolitical and cultural shifts are substantial. The new winners and losers will depend on the speed and certainty with which they address them - and recalibrate their organizational compass; from North to South and West to East.

The New Democracy

The second historic and arguably even more fundamental change in our time is the increasing personal connectedness afforded by Internet access, especially mobile access. Easy, ubiquitous, peer-to-peer communication has become the new reality for the rural low income peasant farmer or urban worker as much as for the richest banker.

We are only at the very start of engaging with the implications of this socially and politically. In the 1950s, H&K’s founder John Hill once said, famously, "In a democracy, public opinion is the final arbiter."

So, now, welcome to the new democracy: digital, mobile, global, unstructured and uncontrollable. Welcome to Wikileaks. Welcome to Tahiri Square. Welcome to ‘mob rule 2.0’!

In the new democracy , we are all equal – there is no restricted franchise , no voting qualification. And we are all multiple citizens ... citizens at the same time of the world, our country and our chosen online tribes. New nets of superconnected communities of desire and need are emerging, communicating from the latest, frequently mobile, platforms and changing the definition of how a "target audience" is constituted.

These highly networked individuals are not amenable to existing models of segmentation and blur historic social and cultural connections. We/they demand communication activities to be smarter, more integrated and more personal. We/they expect brands and branded communications to be as smart and connected and savvy as they are.

Brands need to be able to think and behave simultaneously as consumer, persuader and publisher. We/they must engage but need to know how to play, how to judge the tone and timing as well as the content of engagement.

A Smaller Planet

Most fundamental of all is how a growing and increasingly affluent human population will share the finite resources of the globe. Rapid economic growth in the BRIC/N11, especially China, has already created a new wave of so-called ‘economic imperialism’ in less developed regions, e.g., Africa, and led to real or surrogate resource wars: e.g., gas in Europe, heavy metals in Asia. Corporations affected now find their own commercial communications wrapped by others in their national flags, their motives questioned and politicised.

Similarly, climate change has risen to the top of the global political agenda but fallen foul of the tensions caused by the economic climate and rivalry consequent on the shift in power from West to East. The COP 15 conference failure led to some relief in the hydrocarbon lobby but caused dismay not only to the growing body of eco-aware consumers, but to the many corporations who hoped to benefit from business opportunities arising from this consumer shift, the "green dollar." And now its starved offspring , COP 16, has disappeared with trace.

However, the wider implications of CO2 emissions mean that economic climate and conference failures notwithstanding, the debate will increase and climate change and related environmental issues will continue to become increasingly important for brands and corporations. Consumers may be slow to change their own behavior but all the evidence suggests they still expect governments and business, especially MNCs to take an active lead. Expectations for ecologically sustainable enterprises/corporations are here right now and will swing again to the fore, post double-dip recessionary doubt.

The Challenge for Consultancies

Each organization has its own specific organizational problems to address but our general challenges are three-fold and linked. They are:

Commoditization – as more entrants come into the market and move upscale, as in-house buyers become more expert (and as bundled communications "buys" allow procurement to play in PR), cheap is the new best price for premium services. This long-term challenge is being accelerated by the current economic uncertainty.

Relevance – is the traditional PR company really able to add superior communications value any more through its insights, expertise and reach and, if so, to whom, how and where? Is PR itself relevant in the age of brand as publisher?

Differentiation – assuming the two previous challenges can be overcome, what makes PR stand out? Why are we better than our increasing number of communications competitors, especially the new breed of ‘social’ agencies? What will attract and retain talent? How can we communicate this better in an increasingly crowded, fast-changing professional services marketplace?

Our Clients

Our clients are in the same boat - they are addressing the same global changes and seeking new ways to succeed. "The new democracy" continues to break down authority and trust, demanding new definitions of transparency and authenticity and setting new standards for brand and corporate integrity.

Given the shifts in the global business context, in the communications industry and most especially in digital, especially social media platforms and networks, we all, clients and advisors, have an historic opportunity to reinvent our purpose in this globally aware, super-democratic, hyper-connected world. But we must think trans-culturally, digitally and sustainably.

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The Author

Tony Burgess-Webb

Tony Burgess-Webb, former chief marketing officer, Hill & Knowlton.

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