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Last year, 2017, was a year of uncertainty, turmoil and change in South Africa. The country was plagued with cabinet reshuffles, a weakened economy, a divided nation and government, racial tension, allegations of state capture; all of which resulted in the country being downgraded to junk status.

At the heart of this chaos lay an unscrupulous PR campaign, which laid the foundation for all this upheaval.

While this is an unfortunate and extreme example, it emphasises the potential role and impact of PR in business and society. It brought an industry, which was already somewhat misunderstood, into the spotlight and demonstrated the full might of its power.

If one PR campaign can create such negative change, then surely a principled and strategically executed one has the potential to yield unimaginable positive change and build reputations, rather than  destroy them.

For the first time, the world is taking note of this industry, and this narrative, coupled with the current economic climate has not left the local industry unscathed.

What we have learnt is that the siloed approach to communications is no longer viable. PR companies need to be accountable, scalable and agile in order to survive 2018 and beyond.

Multi-platform communications with trackable results

The traditional PR model will always remain relevant. But agencies can no longer depend on this alone. An integrated approach that looks at the earned, owned and paid model of communications is essential for driving strategic results and means incorporating traditional with digital PR.

This approach provides a measurable and trackable output to determine the success or failure of a campaign, the number of people reached, and engagement with the brand or product. It is important to be able to report on whether or not the desired outcome was reached and what the tangible return on investment (ROI) looks like.

Companies can’t afford to avoid digital or pretend it doesn’t exist. Clients want an all-encompassing, multi-platform approach that can strategically reach a specific target audience in order to achieve desired outcomes.

Industry skills – consultancy is critical

Clients expect their PR consultants to have a depth of knowledge of their specific industry and the media and platforms that dominate in their particular industry. Without this they are ill-equipped to deliver consultancy that is derived from knowledge, from experience and aimed at delivering true value to the client. It is through adding value, depth and relevance that trust is built between agency and client, and consultancy cannot be simply for the sake of consultancy.

This is also where the tertiary education sector has a crucial role to play. Quite often we find that graduates lack the skills essential for them to successfully enter the industry, and are further disadvantaged by agencies who are constrained by both the financial and the necessary time investments required to provide the depth and breadth of on-the-job training.

Key learnings from Bell Pottinger – integrity vs. revenue

Agencies need to make a conscious decision to value integrity over financial remuneration. As an industry that specialises in reputation management, PR specialists are well aware of the consequences of actions and brand associations. While the glamour of big brands, with big pay cheques, irrespective of what is required is alluring, it is naïve to assume that the truth will not eventually be revealed.

Choosing to represent a client means taking on their DNA and entrenching yourself in their brand, this makes you accountable for the outcomes. Customers and clients are becoming increasingly demanding. The onus lies on the agency to provide consultancy in order to protect the reputation of both parties (agency and client), and ultimately determine how far it is willing to compromise its own integrity, reputation for a quick buck. While revenue may peak and dip in the current economic climate, integrity once lost, can’t be regained.

Agencies that have multi-disciplinary approach with measurable results and strategic consultancy, while demonstrating accountability and integrity will thrive in 2018.

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