Emerging trends from PR Week's PR360 conference

Emerging trends from PR Week's PR360 conference

PR Week’s fourth annual PR360 conference took place last week at County Hall on London’s Southbank. Here’s a recap of the key things I learned about the most salient themes affecting our industry right now. Creativity, trust and strategy were deemed the most important traits agencies should have by an esteemed panel of client-side head of comms – a mantra well established for those of us in the industry. So instead I’ve focused my attention to themes that have an impact to the industry as a whole, and represent a shift in thinking over the past few years.

The convergence of marketing and PR

In the final keynote of the conference, Banaby Dawe, Global CMO of Just Eat said, “PR is marketing. One and the same, not a separate channel or sat within marketing.”

Like Barnaby, many of the keynote speakers were CMOs and communications directors at major blue-chips. Many have come from a PR background but now have marketing, brand and advertising disciplines reporting into them.

This shows a shift as communications is taken more seriously at board level, and comms directors have a direct route to the CEO in a way they didn’t five years ago. Communications is now viewed as a strategic partner within the business rather than a channel. Jane Lawrie, global communications director of Tesco, said she enabled the convergence of marketing and PR by creating ring-fenced budgets to be used together on joint reputation projects.

Paid and earned go hand in hand, you can’t have one without the other. You need an editorial audience for paid to have any impact, therefore we need to lose the tension between branded content and editorial. Branded content can offer real value to editorial audiences when done well.

Rachel Thompson, senior UK lifestyle reporter at Mashable

Winston Eavis, director of PR and events at Huawei, discussed how PR is driving sales at launch in conjunction with above-the-line marketing; their ability to measure its success and link to business metrics makes it successful.

Ethics and values in communications

It’s no surprise that in the wake of Bell Pottinger’s demise there would be debate about the ethics of the communications industry at this year’s PR360. There was agreement across the board that a downfall of this scale has shed light in the right places and made agencies take stock and question the clients they work with. A crisis can often be a good way to force individuals and whole industries to review and enable change. Now is this time for communications.

Valentina Kristense, director of growth and communications at Oaknorth Bank, said that ethics are incredibly important in the financial services industry; she will only work with agencies who are CIPR members that have signed their code of conduct.

Trevor Hardy, CEO of The Future Laboratory, said that organisations have an opportunity to fill the gap that governments and charities are unable to due to austerity cuts. This is not just a bid to flog more, but to make better products and be better organisations. Communications professionals need to guide this conversation and help their companies have a point of view, putting their purpose into action rather than paying lip service to their CSR policy.

PR360 image
Image sourced from Matt Cartmell, PRCA Deputy Director General and Director of Communications, Marketing, and Events

Diversity in the communications industry

It wasn’t just the PR360’s diversity panel that discussed the need to promote talent from diverse backgrounds, the theme permeated many of the panel discussions and breakout sessions.

Trevor Hardy from The Future Laboratory shocked with the stat that up to 95% of open source users and developers were male (source: GitHub). This lack of diversity is finding its way into the products they develop. Error rates in AI facial recognition technology are just 0.8% for light-skinned males, yet between 20-34% for dark-skinned women.

Diversity and inclusion should be on the agenda for senior leaders, but often the onus to bring about change is placed on the individual employee, said Amy Rowe, director and partner at Foco Global.

Measuring and reporting on pay gap data (both gender and a plethora of other workplace pay gaps) should be approached with positivity and seen as an opportunity to bring about change. Communications teams should be leading this conversation from the start.

It was agreed universally that flexible working is possibly the biggest thing leaders can implement to support people from diverse backgrounds, whether that means working parents or those who need time away from the office to manage medical conditions.

There is an issue in the UK, particularly in agencies with presentism, that just doesn’t need to exist.

Tariq Ahmed, communications director at Locomizer.

Access to great talent with employee engagement

The role employee engagement has to play in communications was a hot topic at this year’s event. Jane Lawrie opened the conference saying that Tesco’s 33,000 employees are their best ambassadors, and outlined ways her team engages them with good, shareable content. She suggested communications professionals need to be more relaxed about employees sharing content and stories online.  

Encourage agencies and organisations alike to empower your people, especially junior talent. If they feel able to speak up internally about issues affecting them, then they will be likely to be better able to do this for your clients and stakeholders too.

Valentina Kristense

Access to talent is a huge factor affecting client-side communications teams. According to The Future Laboratory and the WEF, 40% of under 30s say a sense of purpose is the most important criteria they consider when job hunting. Organisations must communicate their values and beliefs to attract top talent.

Mentoring for junior and mid-level talent is a good step forward. However, it was also suggested that reverse mentoring should have a role in communications teams to help senior leaders keep abreast of changes and developments, particularly in digital.

The themes that permeated this year’s PR360 conference were business issues rather than those purely focused within the realms of communications. How PR and communications professionals address these issues to grow their business will set apart the great from the average performers in the future.

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Claire Hutchings

Head of Marketing

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