Why isn't PR innovating?

This article first appeared in Marklives. 

Recently, I happened to sit in on some masters lectures at the UCT GSB for a course built around the concept of innovation. Filled with a colourful selection of young and eager minds coming from a range of backgrounds, the students were lapping up how innovation — in all of its forms — may be used for problem-solving, keeping relevant and driving entrepreneurship. It struck me: why isn’t the PR industry in South Africa innovating more?

I so often see PR businesses doing the same old work and rolling out the same old schpiel that they have been doing for eons. Press release after dull press release is farmed out to poor journalists, and coverage reports praising the merits of AVE and tenuous claims of ROI are faithfully pulled together, month after month. It’s been the same since I entered the industry — which was millions of years ago — we were not far off communicating in cave paintings and smoke signals back then.

But, looking around, I see the other disciplines innovating like crazy. There’s not an ad agency which hasn’t completely relooked at its business and reskilled its teams to be able to provide a shit-hot digital offering. Never mind the digital peeps, who wouldn’t have even had a job or a business five-to-ten years ago, but who are now gobbling up larger and larger chunks of the budgets.

And what has the PR set been doing meanwhile? Not much.

Sending out the same-old spammy press releases and drafting dull old “thought-leader pieces”. And, if we were really brave, thinking we ‘got digital’ by inviting some ‘influencers’ to an event or posting some content on Facebook.

I think we missed the boat.

When “social media” starting taking off about eight years ago or so, a wise old PR guy I knew in London said he thought it was “our time”. We, as PR people, could have jumped up and taken the lead in managing and driving the new ways of communicating, self-publishing and using new platforms. And why not?

We knew how to create content that was interesting enough for people to pick up and run with themselves (vs salesy ad-speak). We knew how to build relationships with people who had big circles of influence. We knew how to move fast with strategic communications, instead of working on copy that needed to go through a million creative reviews and client reverts.

We could have led the charge, innovated, and owned the new way of communicating that was springing up and becoming powerful then.

But we didn’t.

While we were snoozing, the others ran with it. The ad agencies and the digital people are the ones who are producing content and managing communities. They are often the lead agencies on social media and digital work. But we just keep on farming out the same old stuff — while the media landscape we work with gets smaller and smaller, and less and less influential.

So what’s the answer?

If we look to innovation models that are being taught to entrepreneurs and business thinker, there’s something we could learn.

We need to radically look at and change the way we are operating, and where our industry is going. We need to learn new skills and start to train and take on board talent who allow us to produce new kinds of work — designers, video content producers, and developers — why should they just work for ad agencies? And we need to look at what we do, what we offer and how we are working with clients critically, and then begin to work with new business models that are more sustainable long-term than the ones we are currently working with.

Change is scary, but change is good. If we don’t embrace it and learn to radically change the way we do business, we’re soon going to be as obsolete as a VHS video tape.

Emma KingEmma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). She is allergic to bad grammar and ampersands, but likes working her way through piles of novels and travelling the globe. She contributes the monthly “Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to MarkLives.com.