ITL #245 PR and proud: why a new agency is happy to wave the public relations banner

2 years, 3 months ago


Some agencies have forsaken the PR descriptor as too limiting. Yet clients need good public relations more than ever. By Ellen Raphael and Brendon Craigie.

PR and Proud. That’s how we describe our new agency, Tyto.

You wouldn’t think it would be particularly controversial and yet surprisingly it is. When we told friends and former colleagues of our plans, they all questioned whether we really wanted the PR moniker associated with our brand. When we went further and explained that our agency was going to be operational across Europe from the get go, there was further shaking of heads. Not with concern about managing the team across the region, but because PR has in certain markets lost its meaning and resonance for business.

This reaction wasn’t totally unanticipated however. Having worked in the industry for many years we were well aware of the perpetual questioning raised by those within the industry as to public relations’ meaning and purpose. Many books have been written proclaiming the decline of the industry. The death of PR appears surely to be a given; slayed, rather strangely, by its own hand.

We are not sure why it has happened this way, perhaps all industries have the same level of soul searching, but those that seem to want to drive the final nails into the coffin are PR agencies and practitioners themselves. PR is ‘untrustworthy’, ‘unethical‘,  and practitioners are akin to ‘masters in the dark arts’ if you are to do the unthinkable and believe everything that you read. The only way to be rid of the negative labels is to throw the baby out with the bath water and to re-brand, phoenix-like into something that does sort of the same thing, in kind of the same way, but to call it something else.

Looking at PR Week’s annual ranking of the top agencies in the UK in 2016, it is notable that only two of the top five agencies describe themselves as PR agencies in the ‘about’ section of their websites. What does this mean? Is it really that public relations should cease to exist and be gracefully swallowed by the larger and more vague terms of ‘communications’ or ‘strategies’?

Vast and borderless landscape

But before we serve PR its last rites, let’s just take pause for a moment and consider the climate in which we are operating. The current communications landscape is vast and borderless. It moves forward with such fluidity and speed that before official news sources are updated people are already dissecting what happened across social channels.

A whole new perspective and conversation on the news, and even what can be considered news, happens in parallel to traditional sources. While we debate the impact of ‘fake news’ the conversation has already swept past, conclusions have been made, opinions solidified and the next big story has seized the borderless generation’s imagination.

The mixed fortunes of the traditional media well illustrate the challenges this environment brings. As an audience, we are news hungry but we also want to be entertained and we want everything packaged up and served to us just the way we like it. We have more information at our fingertips than ever before and every day brings with it new choices, new platforms and new ways to keep ourselves informed, entertained, sated.

First newspapers shrank, the broadsheets became tabloid-sized to keep our interest. Then they invested heavily online, but still the format creaked as social platforms took off and blog-formats such as Huffington Post began to build authority and audiences. Budgets shrank as advertisers took their money elsewhere and ‘free’ newspapers took off. Today, the media landscape looks entirely different to how it was 10 years ago.

Purpose beyond profits

Enter into this environment, businesses. Today’s companies and brands also have to ride with the changes this fast, fluid environment brings. It’s been said many times before but today’s consumers expect companies to be so much more than they used to be. It’s no longer enough for a product to do as advertised, or for a brand to engage with its consumers just through their products. The most successful companies are those that allow their audiences into their engine rooms. That share their vision, that articulate their purpose beyond profits.

As consumers, we are careful with whom we spend money. We trust strangers’ comments and reviews and are guided by them before we buy dinner, a night in a hotel, a holiday or any number of items from Amazon and other online retailers.

The rise of the online influencer has muddied these waters a little. Bloggers used to declare clearly when the product they were promoting or reviewing had been sent to them by a company, to make it clear that bias might be coming into play.  On Instagram, it’s harder to tell when uninitiated who is being paid to promote the product and who is using the product’s popularity to promote themselves.

The world then has changed. Isn’t it right that the PR industry changes too to keep up? To ensure that our counsel and strategies are the right ones to navigate the seemingly unnavigable? Of course, we must change and adapt and try to stay one step-ahead of the deluge. When the going gets tough, we shouldn’t simply proclaim our false deaths, re-brand ourselves and try again.

Difficult questions

We asked ourselves some very difficult questions when setting up Tyto. We pushed ourselves to consider whether there was really a need for another agency, whether public relations was the right way to go, whether we could offer companies something that would really help them survive and thrive in this environment. As we went ahead and launched the agency we obviously decided that, yes there is a need and public relations still has a huge amount to offer.

Why did we come to that conclusion? Because as much as the world changes, wasn’t it ever so, and isn’t that what keeps our work so interesting? And when looking at change, we also have to look at what stays the same. What is the red thread that pulls through? For us, public relations is about working with a client to ensure that its greatest asset when it comes to having relationships with its stakeholders – its reputation – is safeguarded, developed, honest and worth something, for when it matters most. This hasn’t changed.

Companies, or at least the ones we’ve spoken to, still want and need to build their relationships with their audiences. They also need to build relationships with the media. They also really want ‘in’ on the social world and ways to reach their target audiences through great content.  Public relations provides the perfect toolkit to deliver this. A PR who is well-used to pitching hard to engage with audiences is the perfect cut-through in the click-bait swamp.

Contribute, don’t pollute

Our approach to content is ‘contribute, don’t pollute’ which acts as a great filter in our work. As PRs, we can offer more to audiences than the poor quality, unoriginal content that the content marketing tide has swept in. As PRs, we can show that social marketing automation, cookie cutter articles offering the same advice, and LinkedIn updates that are liked by only the company employees are false friends, that don’t deliver true engagement or resonance with your audiences. As PRs, we know that it’s about truly understanding your audiences, engaging with them through the right channels and contributing new thinking that lands a punch that makes the difference.

Perhaps if anything has died, it is a sole focus on media relations, but we’ve never thought that public relations was solely about the media. This isn’t to suggest either, that the media isn’t an incredibly important part of what we do, it is and always will be. It’s just that we believe in a full-fat version of PR, which involves working across anything and everything required to build and manage reputation.

We call this PR without borders. As an industry, PR has a huge amount to offer but it is up to us, as practitioners, to show our value without losing sight of who we are.

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The Author

Ellen Raphael

Ellen Raphael is a co-founder of Tyto a new European PR agency focused on the colliding worlds of technology, science and innovation.

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Brendon Craigie

Brendon Craigie is a co-founder of Tyto a new European PR agency focused on the colliding worlds of technology, science and innovation.

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