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This article was written for the International Public Relations Association 

Three quick points:

  • Social media is ours for the taking
  • China presents tomorrow’s PR opportunities, for all of us.
  • With status comes standards. We will need to lift our game.

1. Social media is ours for the taking

Of the triumvirate (advertising, PR, and other forms of marketing/promotion), PR has the most to gain. My thesis is: the rewards are coming.

First, the cornerstone of PR is openness and trust; likewise for social media, led by consumers increasingly learning to sniff spin. This creates a problem for some PR sectors (e.g. government spin doctors), but a greater problem for marketing and advertising. Truth in advertising is increasingly mandated by legislation restricting the way food, cosmetic, or pharma products are presented to the public.

Second, social and online media is ultimately about good quality content, not promotion or one-liners, and so again PR is called to centre stage.

Third, journalism is going to be increasingly starved of funds as traditional media continues to restructure and move online, and will increasingly depend on PR for content.

The stress appears to be on upper management. Australian research in November by Pitcher Partnersacross nearly 500 companies found that:

  • 83% of CEO’s felt their marketing activities were ineffective;
  • 79% of CEO’s also believed their marketing contributed little if anything to actually generating revenue.

The response? It appears to be, ’More PR please.’ Research commissioned by the Public Relations Society of America found that:

  • 98% of the 204 U.S. business leaders polled believe that business schools need to incorporate instruction on corporate communication and reputation management into the MBA curriculum.
  • 94% of executives believe that top management needs additional training in core communications disciplines.

2. China presents tomorrow’s opportunity, for all of us.

Go East Young Man. Apologies to Horace Greeley, (New York Tribune, 1865): “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country”.

In today’s language: simply follow the money, and the emergence of an enormous middle class hungry for consumer goods and knowledge. PR has not yet taken off in China, where it is seen as a western discipline/invention/affliction (likewise internet freedom, the connecting link being ’openness and trust’); but my thesis is, that will change – the rewards are coming. In the words of our IPREX comrade in Beijing, Maggie Chan of Newell PR:  “Best Practice public relations and corporate communication is in its infancy for companies in China, but it will mature quickly. The social media channels like Weibo (250m members) are enormous and businesses are learning quickly how to communicate through them. We Chinese are very good at business and with money, but responding to stakeholder feedback is not a strong point. When it finally does take off, many many companies will want to learn how to interact with the public. This will not happen this year as everyone watches the change of leadership in Beijing, but it will happen.”  (For more on this go here.)

Now what does this mean for all of us? The reason Australia has a healthy economy is because the Chinese need our coal and iron ore (and everything else we can dig up!) and so we are having one of the first ‘China’ experiences. Other countries will follow. Australian Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson, in mid 2011 expressed this China syndrome well (Sustaining Growth in Living Standards in the Asian Century):

“On some projections, China and India are expected to comprise around one-third of world GDP by 2030…

“…short of major social dislocation or global geo-strategic tensions it is hard to believe that the industrialisation and urbanisation currently underway in both countries does not have many years to run. Let me be clear, I am not suggesting that China’s growth path will be without volatility, but rather that viewed through the prism of history, this will look like cycles around a strong trend in growth. This means the impacts on Australia will be sustained and profound.”

Back to openness and trust. Yes, China has a distance to travel. One of the real issues for the leadership must be, who do they turn to for a role model? There’s not a lot of how-to guidance coming from Washington in the run-up to November this year. Or from Murdoch in Britain. Or from Greece and Italy. Or from the Middle East. In reality the Middle East has shown China that the path to openness and trust is riddled with hazards.

3. We are all going to have to lift our game.

Again, my thesis is that the rewards for PR practitioners are coming, but will arrive at a price.

Journalism has its more strict Codes of Conduct, that have evolved over three millennia – it is about 130 years since Randolph Hearst became proprietor of the San Francisco Examiner and gave birth to popular journalism in the US, and the need for standards to regulate it. And in journalism, if the public doesn’t catch misbehaviour, someone else will – witness the Murdoch debacle.

Such public outings are ahead of the PR industry, as we become more prominent in online media. Metrics and measurement and the need for ROI will increase that pressure.

This trend was identified in the recent UK survey by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations which recommended actions, including:

  • Education and training for public relations practice need to be taken to higher levels, which will involve greater collaboration with  education for public relations;
  • Codes of Conduct should be strengthened.

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