Q&A: Paul Holmes and the future of PR

It may know the media, but public relations can lack overall business know-how

It may know the media, but public relations can lack overall business know-how

In an era where reputation is everything, public relations has to move beyond “mere” communications, according to Paul Holmes, a 25-year PR vet and chief executive of New York-based The Holmes Group. Following his Friday address to Concordia University’s Centre of Excellence in Communications Research on managing global reputation in the social media age, Marketing spoke to Holmes about the future role of public relations, why PR people don’t understand business, and why the novelty of viral videos about employees doing disgusting things with pizza has worn off.

How has social media changed PR, and what has stayed the same?
From a marketing point of view, the social media revolution has changed the way brand marketers think about what they do. Five or 10 years ago, it was still possible for a marketer to believe that the brand was all the things the company said about itself or its products, whereas today, the brand is all the things other people say about you when you’re not even in the room.

For good public relations people, I don’t think social media has changed very much at all. The principles of good public relations such as transparency, authenticity, dialogue and engagement are still very much the principles of public relations today. My feeling is that PR ought to be moving towards a more central role in brand building. Because of the things that social media have changed, if you don’t live up to those values of transparency and authenticity, you’ll be punished much more quickly and much more severely than you would have 10 years ago.

Five years ago, negative social media commentary about a brand actually turned into full-blown PR disasters (e.g. “Amazon Fail” and the Domino’s “gross-out” video). Now, it seems, people disparage companies and call for brand boycotts almost every day and it doesn’t make the news. Do you think negative commentary online is less detrimental than it once was?
I think one of the reasons there is less of it today is that companies have gotten a lot smarter about either preventing it or by dealing with it when it does occur. Familiarity has led to a little bit of complacency in the media, but [everyone knows] that no company is totally immune to this and being subject to that kind of attack doesn’t necessarily make you a bad company. So it isn’t quite the shocking newsworthy thing that it was five or six years ago; it’s become so commonplace.

At the same time, there are clearly still social media crises which can strike at the very heart of an organization and create huge problems for it, but they tend to be of a slightly different kind. So the video of a lone employee doing something disgusting with a pizza or throwing away a FedEx package is not quite as big an issue today as it would have been five years ago when there was a huge novelty value to it. But if you have a crisis that speaks to the very heart of the company’s values and its relationship with consumers or another group, then that can still become a huge crisis based on a social media groundswell.

PR, marketing and customer service can all have their hands in a company’s social media efforts. Should PR have control?
I have this unfortunate worldview that public relations ought to have total control over everything. I believe there ought to be a C-suite function that is responsible for stakeholder relationships and reputation. When companies make decisions, they need to consider the financial, legal, operational and reputational implications of those decisions as part of the process. That function would encompass consumer relationships, employee relationships, relationships with government and with shareholders. Somebody needs to be thinking about all of those things in a centralized way. That, to me, is what PR is in its purest form and how it was thought of when the discipline came into being a hundred years ago. But it’s not obviously how most companies use or view public relations.

What do PR practitioners and organizations need to do to make that happen?
The first thing is that they need to embrace a role for public relations that is broader than just communications. It is irritating to me that communications is used almost as a synonym for public relations. That detracts from the fact that it ought to be a policy-level function helping to determine corporate behaviour, not just how it talks about that behaviour… One thing that is a huge shortcoming of the public relations sector as a whole is that it has never quite learned to speak the language of business to the same extent as many other disciplines. When I speak to CEOs, I’ve never heard any of them say that PR people don’t understand the media, but I have had them say PR people don’t understand the business.

If you’re going to function at that kind of C-suite level, you need to be just as literate about all aspects of the business. And that means that the traditional background of journalism on its own is not enough. Public relations education, for example, should be part of an MBA program rather than part of a journalism program. Beyond that, we need to start recruiting people who have the courage to be counsellors, who are bold enough to be the person in the room who says “this is a really bad idea.”

And finally, we need to start to develop some metrics of public relations that demonstrate the business impact rather than just the ability to generate a lot of coverage. And that’s been a massive failing of the PR industry over the years.

Paul Holmes spoke at the inaugural event of the Luc Beauregard Speaker Series of the Luc Beauregard Centre of Excellence in Communications Research at the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University. All profits of the event went to Public Relations Without Borders.

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