End of the Road for PR? Or time to step up a gear?

The Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) PR Masterclass today asked whether we’ve facing the End of the Road for PR?  The aim was to provide insight and advice on ensuring PR in the motor industry is capable of playing a leading role in organisations at this critical time.

First up was Rowan Stanfield of C&M who’d been asked to talk about: The impact of the rise in online communications: strategic opportunity or the death of PR?

Rowan had a tough challenge in arguing in favour of specialist online PR agencies to an audience of seasoned in-house and agency practitioners.  Her Tweet that she had fun stirring up the #prdebate reveals an appetite for the challenge.  And, whilst accepting her points relating to the value of metrics as a research tool and to measure of PR’s effectiveness online, her views about the declining usefulness of traditional PR skills were robustly countered by MIPAA members. 

C&M’s #prdebate argument is that the PR industry has lost its capability to lead clients in a New Media landscape and that the changing world requires a new online service offering.  A thought-provoking notion, but time will tell if an online specialism will outrank the generalists.

Another perspective on motor industry PR was then presented by the renowned and respected motoring journalist, Gavin Green.  This was the ultimate “customer review” as Gavin had researched the topic: What’s wrong with automotive PR? – a media perspective with input from half a dozen other top motoring writers.

Naming names, Gavin highlighted the good and bad of motor industry PR – and having spent time working “on the dark side” at Jaguar, he spoke from a clear position of understanding the challenges.  Trust and relationships were the keywords – with a parting thought that the best PRs are getting better and the worst are getting worse.

After lunch, we challenged Paul Willis, Director, Centre for Public Relations Studies, Leeds Business School to consider the question: Adapt or die – do PR practitioners have the skills to survive?

Paul presented lots of evidence supporting PR as a strategic management function – his prerequisite for survival.  Building on the work of my PR Conversations colleague, Benita Steyn, Paul argued that PR had a role to play in terms of an organisation’s societal and corporate strategy – not least in the face of four drivers in the current zeitgeist (and yes, as our “token academic”, he did cite Herder):

  1. global economic scenario – accompanied by declining trust in businesses and politicians (notably in UK)
  2. social media developments – and the impact on traditional media
  3. increasingly active and empowered stakeholders
  4. management expectations of PR – senior recognition of the value of PR accompanied by concerns about the lack of practitioner competency.

These factors were emphasised as both threats and a huge opportunity for PR, particularly if practitioners are able to provide an informed holistic insight to senior management giving them a unique value compared to more silo-oriented colleagues at the top table.

Finally, Ford of Europe chairman – and Ford of Europe vice president, governmental affairs, Joe Greenwell reflected on What do CEOs want? – the perspective on PR from top leadership.

As that all too rare breed – a CEO with a PR background (although Joe started his career in sales & marketing), Joe provides a real understanding of what value PR can bring at the highest level.

Identifying himself as a champion of PR, Joe drew on several masters of the profession himself.  These legends of motor industry PR, such as the late David Boole of Jaguar and Walter Hayes of Ford, secured senior support for PR counsel by demonstrating its value in managing the reputation and establishing leadership positions for both the CEO and the organisation.  They also understood the power of authentic voices such as engineers, designers and factory supervisors in communicating with influencers, who were not exclusively automotive journalists.

David sadly died in 1991, whilst Walter took the steering wheel at Ford in 1962.  Neither had to cope with social media, but both understood exactly the issues that we’d started the day by considering in terms of the need for an understanding of relevant influencers and the way that conversations reflect on a company and its products.

Joe’s advice for PR strongly echoed the findings presented by Paul – demonstrating that academic views of PR are reflective of the real experiences of senior practitioners and CEOs.

Huge thanks to the speakers for more than meeting the challenge of provoking MIPAA members to think outside the day job – and also to Gabi Whitfield, MIPAA chairman and Communications Director, Nissan Motor (GB) Limited, who did a brilliant job top and tailing the day.  And, not forgetting the participants who asked some great questions and added further to stimulating thought.

So not yet the end of the road for motor industry PR – but perhaps a time to shift up a gear or two.  And a real opportunity for future membership development within the MIPAA Business Academy.

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Heather Yaxley

Heather Yaxley is passionate about PR - teaching the CIPR qualifications, lecturing part-time at Bournemouth University and running the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA). I'm undertaking a PhD looking at Career Strategies in PR. I love sharing ideas and knowledge - connecting news and views by blogging on public relations and educational developments, especially relating to accelerated and active learning. I'm also a published author, qualified trainer and experienced consultant.

2 thoughts on “End of the Road for PR? Or time to step up a gear?”

  1. I firmly believe that reports of PR’s pending death are greatly exaggerated. The basics of PR – message development and communication of that message – will always be integral to any company’s survival. The way in which PR is practiced may change, but that does not, in any way, equal the profession’s death knell.

  2. Alan – you are right of course, and for us, the end of the road was a useful approach especially given the upheaval in the motor industry at present.

    In respect of PR – the basics may be essential to any organisation, but whether or not they are carried out by PR is debatable. Also, there are some interesting arguments about comms being something that PR takes strategic direction on, but that many others in the organisation are increasingly trained, coached, and facilitated in comms by PR. PR cannot possibly moderate or mediate all communications these days – especially with new media and the increase in possible stakeholder influencers. But what we can do is to provide the strategic direction and expertise that guides others.

    Likewise in terms of the organisation’s relationships and reputation – less about doing and more about guiding. So the challenge maybe on the basics – I always thought I’d be stuffing envelopes and press packs to my dotage. Fortunately, that tactical side of PR is no longer a necessary talent! Other such tasks will surely follow PR’s stamp licking competency as unwanted in the future.

    So, yes to more professional in PR and bye-bye to some of those basic basics, I say.

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