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#TheFutureByDesign: The Future of Public Relations

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This piece was first published in #TheFutureByDesign. Click here to download the publication with insights from the leading minds in marketing, creative, technology, media and advertising industries.

Public relations is heading into a crisis, and it’s not the economy — it’s the sorry state of tertiary institutions, churning out PR ‘graduates’ who are ill-equipped for the industry.

When I was working as a financial journalist, I always rather fancied the job of an economist. They never seem to have to commit to any firm opinions. Have you ever noticed how, when they’re asked to predict what will happen in a market, economists invariably answer by sketching out two scenarios of the future which may or may not play out?

I suspect this is because smart economists have learned the downside to crystal-ball gazing. If your predictions are wrong then your shame will live on in print and cyberspace forever.

As a rule I subscribe to the ‘economist club’ when it comes to opining on the future of my industry – or that of any other. In fact, I’d rather listen to Barry Manilow on repeat for the rest of my life than write one of those awful ‘the future is digital’ articles or (heaven help me), the ubiquitous ‘this time content really is king’ missives that seem to plague industry journals.

I do, however, care very deeply about the future of PR and specifically the talent pool that emerges to work in the industry.

And I think it’s in trouble.

Irvine Bartlett is almost five years old and we’re now a mid-sized agency, pulling in decent blue chip clients; so our recruitment needs have evolved to the point where we require every level of skill and experience. By that I mean we now need everyone from an intern all the way through to experienced account directors who can kick the proverbial and take names.

I’ve turned to drink more than once in my frustration over recruitment, particularly as it pertains to more junior staff. And I’ve tried every well-worn avenue, from advertising to peer referral to specialist recruitment firms.

But the skill I need just isn’t there.

The truth I’ve had to face—and I know I’m not alone in thinking this—is that tertiary qualifications for the Public Relations industry in South Africa are utterly pants. They are not fit for purpose because these colleges are simply not producing graduates who understand what will be required of them in a career in Public Relations.

One expects that there will always be a degree of distance between the academic textbook and commercial reality, but the distance in the PR industry is so wide as to be preposterous.

By way of example: the graduate who, when asked about their writing competency, proclaimed: “Yes, we covered writing in our second year.” Then there was the job applicant who boasted of his four-year degree in Public Relations but could not name four men’s lifestyle magazines in South Africa because, as he put it, “you didn’t say there was going to be a test.”

These are not one-off anecdotes either. I’m presented time and again with graduates’ academic qualifications telling me that they consistently scored upwards of 60% across all subject disciplines, when it’s clear that they have no media knowledge, struggle to prepare cogent written material and have no real understanding of why Public Relations is of value to business.

And it’s not the graduates’ fault. The kids are all right. They simply need to receive the education they’re paying for. But frankly, I don’t see that happening any time soon and I’m too damn busy running a growing business to go on any crusade to improve the quality of tertiary qualifications for the Public Relations Industry. I don’t have time for that fight.

The sober reality is that recruitment will continue to get a whole lot more expensive because we are going to have to ‘grow our own’ if we want to stay competitive and ensure any level of succession planning.

The mega-agencies have—to a greater or lesser extent—had internal training programmes for ages, because their inherent infrastructure and scale allows it, but small and mid-sized agencies (which make up the bulk of the industry in South Africa) haven’t really ever budgeted for the formalised and intensive newbie-and-beyond training that is increasingly necessary.

But to survive and compete, smaller agencies are going to have to re-examine budgets and even staffing levels, to allow for client work execution and proper time to train and shape new talent. The impact this will have on margins and, by implication, pricing, cannot be ignored.

While digital disruption to media and communication methods and platforms is a real and pressing issue facing the industry globally, here in South Africa, I believe our future owes more to an investment that PR business owners will need to make in the 3 Rs.

About Rachel Irvine

Rachel Irvine is MD of Irvine Bartlett, a full-service PR company. She has more than 15 years of experience working as a communications professional. She spent the first years of her career crafting output across print, radio, television and online media. She counts organisations such as e-tv, Radio KFM and Sky Business Television as previous employers. Rachel offers clients a rare mix of business and media insight which ensures that she is able to offer strategy that resonates both with a client’s business objectives and media agendas.

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