PR but not as we knew it

Written by Jim Walsh

The first issue of Marketing magazine in September 1990 featured a round-up of PR agencies. Comparing the number of agencies in business today with those of 25 years ago shows a huge change in the companies operating in the sector. Leaving aside the six agencies from north of the border included in 1990, there were 66 PR companies listed.

Since then 49 (75 per cent) are no longer exist. Of the remaining 17 companies, 15 are still operating today under the same name, while two agencies changed their name. Today, there are about 110 PR companies operating in the Republic. It means that over 90 new PR firms were formed in the past 25 years. So much for all the consolidation some people predicted.

The sad part of looking back 25 years is seeing the names of PR leaders no longer with us – Jim Rowe, Tim and Michael Dennehy, Patrick Crane, Sharon Prior, Owen Patten and Bill O’Herlihy. New agencies is not the only change in PR over the past 25 years. Other key changes come under four headings: gender balance, education, reputation and technology.

In terms of gender balance, over half the PR agencies in Ireland are now managed by women. In 1990, just 24 of the 66 agencies were headed by women. I suspect that the international picture is somewhat similar. Walsh PR is a partner in the IPREX international network of independent agencies where the balance of male/female CEOs is also close to 50:50.

The issues of gender balance and education are interlinked. It is no coincidence that the ratio of women in senior PR positions was much lower up to the 1990s. During that time, the senior people tended to come into PR from journalism, marketing, advertising and other businesses – and they tended to be men. Since education courses became an established route into the business the number of women entering PR with formal training has increased.

While the Public Relations Institute (PRII) organised courses almost since it began in 1953, it was not until the late 1970s that the first formal courses were run by established colleges. Most courses taught the syllabus devised by the PRII. The first DIT graduate diploma in PR was run by the College of Commerce in Rathmines, which also had a certificate course.

Today, masters, diploma and certificate courses are run by colleges and institutions around the country. In terms of reputation, what is long gone – and good riddance – is the labelling of PR as ‘the gin and tonic’ business. The description was never wholly accurate but there was enough socialising in PR in the 60s and 70s, as there was in journalism and business, to give the claim some validity. The G&T man was in a coma 25 years ago and has since died.

No doubt the development of PR education has helped change the perception of PR in business over the years but so has the work of the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA), founded in 1990.The PRCA’s consultancy management standard has worked well and an updated CMS should further enhance the reputation of PR agencies soon.

Today, I would contend that PR is largely seen as a professional business discipline. There is hardly an enterprise or organisation of note that does not employ a professional PR service, whether it be in-house or through an agency. The role of professional PR is now recognised as a valuable contributor to corporate and marketing communication.

Finally, as with many other facets of business, technology has changed how PR operates. It has also driven motorbike couriers into extinction. In 1990, Dublin was overwhelmed with couriers like Pony Express flashing from PR agencies to newspaper offices and out to RTE in Donnybrook. Their black bags would be bulging with press releases and photographs in hardback envelopes. Today the same releases and photographs are sent digitally.

While the core work of PR agencies, helping their clients communicate with specific audiences has not changed, the evolution of digital and social media has changed how the service is delivered. Devising communication strategies, knowing how the media works and what are the best channels to utilise still remain the key competency of PR professionals.

But in 1990 the delivery was mostly about producing content for media and print material. Now it is about providing content and managing digital and social media to achieve results. It has been an exciting rollercoaster 25 years and with the evolution of new media and the sector’s continued moves in education, the next quarter century should be just as exciting.

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