How public relations practitioners can tackle some of the big, enduring issues

PR issues

Sarah Hall is one of the most successful PR pros in the North East of England. She is the managing director of Sarah Hall Consulting, a PR & marketing agency in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, U.K.

Sarah founded the #FuturePRoof community, which kickstarted “the biggest conversation ever around the future of public relations.” Its ambition is to support managers of agencies and communications teams with best practice advice and guidance.

We talk to Sarah about some of the most pressing questions in public relations today. In our Q&A we touch on the perception management teams have of PR professionals, fake news, pay in equality and more.

PR threats and opportunties

Sarah, you were the driving force behind #FuturePRoof One and Two. What prompted you to create these publications and what do they offer readers?
While you’re right in that the initial concept started out as a book, #FuturePRoof is in fact a living, breathing community looking at all the issues facing public relations practitioners today, with a view to the horizon. We share regular thought pieces through the #FuturePRoof blog and there is a vibrant Facebook group and busy Twitter feed.

Its overall purpose is to underline PR’s role as a management discipline and motivate practitioners to secure the skillset they need to deliver at Boardroom level. #FuturePRoof looks at the threats and opportunities for public relations so we are well placed to capitalize and stop other disciplines from eating our lunch.

Its strength and success comes from the fact the content comes from some of the world’s best public relations specialists from the worlds of business and academia, who have all given their time and expertise free of charge to help others develop.

#FuturePRoof has always been a labour of love for me and it’s grown significantly. When I shared the spec for the first book, I had no idea that there would be such a voracious appetite for the themes and content, and that book two would be published less than 18 months later.

Feedback shows that although our target audiences are senior practitioners, it works for everyone, including students, because the topics are so wide-ranging and comprehensive.

Ultimately it’s a celebration of everything the industry has to offer and my belief is that it has taken off in part because the public relations profession really needed a cheerleader.

Reinforcing the role of PR

The issue of public relations and communications teams being viewed by management as delivery teams and not part of strategy and tactic development persists. What can practitioners and managers do to change this?
This is a big problem and will require a widespread education drive leading to culture change.

Research shows that brand reputation is what keeps the C-Suite up at night.

Reputation management is PR’s job. Our role is to help organisations find their place in society and build long-term relationships with the people that matter. The lifetime value of a customer is much greater than a one off purchase and that’s what we offer, as well as support to the wide marketing function.

Good public relations teams act as the eyes, ears and conscience of an organisation and work with it to maintain its legitimacy within communities. They help it navigate uncertainty, especially in times of acute change like we are currently experiencing.

If we are working with the management team on the organisational objectives and overall direction, and setting the wider strategy, it makes absolute sense to have public relations as the lead discipline that all others feed into and not the other way round.

This comes back down to the fundamental aim of #FuturePRoof – to reinforce the role of public relations as a management discipline and to ensure practitioners have the skills to operate at the top of their game. The call to action is to upskill.

This means developing financial, business management and consultancy skills and commanding the respect of management teams by speaking their language. If we demonstrate what the true value of public relations is, they’ll invest in it.

On a practical level, as a mentor to young PR practitioners, how do you advise individuals who find themselves in a role where the opportunity to give communications advice is denied them?
The creation of the Global Alliance’s competency framework, means that there is absolutely no excuse not to benchmark your skills against where you are in your career, whether that’s entry level, or you’re a mid / senior practitioner.

My advice is to gain the skillset that will allow you to operate strategically in the true sense of the word, whether that’s through the company or personally. You’ll approach work differently and people’s response to you will also change. This step change has revolutionized my agency and the type of contracts we work on.

If you’re employed by a company that ultimately places no value on public relations and won’t invest in your CPD, I’d recommend leaving. It’s demotivating, you’ll never achieve what you want to in your career and are likely to be locked into a tactical role that will limit your career prospects.

Exciting times in PR

In a post-Brexit and fake news world, the political landscape is unlike anything anyone imagined just a few years ago. Politics impacts corporate culture and business. What opportunities lie ahead for communications and public relations in this new world?
There has never been a more exciting time to work in public relations. We’re needed more than ever to make sense of the changes taking place and help businesses navigate the path ahead.

Take the U.K., which has now seen eight years of austerity. When times are hard, customers evaluate brands to a much greater extent in terms of what they get for their money. No one really cares in boom time.

This is when time and effort spent on relationship-building and engagement comes in invaluable; those companies who understand their customer’s pain points and help them find solutions win out.

Part of the public relations’ remit is to ask what the organisation’s purpose is outside of pure profit generation and to bring that to life. It’s a definite area of growth.

In terms of Brexit, we have a duty to lobby government on behalf of our employers and clients to make the right choices. We need to ensure our EU colleagues are protected and horizon scan to see what opportunities and partnerships are available. There will be work in this area for years to come.

Finally, fake news offer challenges but also a chance to reinforce our credentials in terms of ethical comms, holding power to account and building trust. No other discipline can do the latter as well as us.

Most of us have, at sometime or another, worked for an organization and not felt fully aligned to its values. Sometimes it doesn’t matter but this second decade of the 21st Century is different. We’ve witnessed immigration bans, the removal of transgender rights, and threats to the LGBT community. I’d like to ask a two-fold question on this. Firstly, what guidance do you give to young public relations professionals who are members of minority groups and want to have a successful career. Second, what advice do you give to brands, particularly when reputation is in question?
Diversity in public relations is poor but organisations like the Taylor Bennett Foundation and various industry bodies are working hard to address this. What is clear is that we need better careers guidance from early on and a greater number of role models at the top, because this makes a real difference.

My advice to young professionals would be to identify a mentor and ask for help and guidance. It can be a career game changer if you find someone who understands the issues faced and has overcome them.

Secondly brands need to understand their publics. Insight and engagement should tell you all you need to know – just add to this a good dose of common sense. If you’re not sure how to represent a certain audience group, get out there and ask them!

If you mess it up, be up front about it. Make sure you express regret, say what you’re doing about the issue, provide reassurance and remain accessible. Getting it wrong doesn’t necessarily mean game over – how McDonalds has handled the communications around its latest advert is a case in point.

Let’s talk about gender issues. Many more women than men are working in communications, yet men seem to make it to into most of the PR/Comms management positions. Why is change so slow, and what actions can practitioners take to make senior level practitioners more accessible to women?

This is a multi-faceted problem. Quite frankly the gender pay gap will only be ironed out once every organisation is forced to publish their pay scales. It’s a fact.

Here’s a piece I wrote for #FuturePRoof about parity in public relations. It’s worth a read for the ten steps every organisation can follow at the end. I’ve not much more to add to that.

Going forward, what are the key skills required to be a successful PR practitioner?
I’ll point to the Global Alliance’s competency framework again here. It’s a brilliant piece of work so I won’t try and reinvent the wheel.

Finally, looking to the future, where do you see public relations in five years from now?
If we grasp the nettle and develop our skillset so we can deliver public relations as a management discipline, I see it thriving.

Public relations professional Sarah Hall

Sarah is the holder of the U.K.’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations Sir Stephen Tallents medal 2014 for exceptional achievement in public relations practice. And she has established a reputation as a role model for ethics in PR, as well as a gender and equality advocate through her work with the Institute.

Sarah will be the CIPR’s President in 2018 and was the first public relations practitioner to become Chartered in the North East of England. This status that recognizes the highest standard of knowledge, expertise and ethical practice within the PR industry and is a benchmark of professional excellence and integrity.

You can find Sarah on Linkedin and Twitter.

Sheelagh Caygill

Sheelagh Caygill is an award-winning content marketer, communications practitioner, and journalist. She is based in Toronto and currently looking for new opportunities. Sheelagh has worked for media organizations and also the corporate and non-profit sector in Canada and the U.K.

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