Never mind advertising, insight and planning should be core skills in PR

Stephen Chapman's picture
by Stephen Chapman

The core skills in public relations should be insight and planning, that's the view of Phil Reed, managing director at Aberfield Communications.

Back in 2012, when Aberfield first opened its doors, one or two eyebrows were raised in the PR world when we described our approach as being based on audience insight, and our measurement on the degree to which we had influenced those audiences.

Insight and influence were words more commonly associated with research and ad agencies.

The PR industry has certainly progressed over the past five years, and the message that PR needs to do much more than raise ‘awareness’ is starting to get through. That’s in no small part due to the efforts of the CIPR and PRCA, who have championed better measurement and evaluation, and are moving the industry towards a more insight and data-driven approach.

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Because the nature of PR has changed – now involving paid and owned media, as well as experiential marketing etc – the need for audience insight and detailed campaign planning is more important than ever before.

And that requires a shift in how agencies are organised and managed. That’s why I was interested to read an article by Pete Marcus, group planning director at tech PR agency Harvard, about the role of planning in PR.

Pete argues that PR agencies need to adopt ad agency principles when it comes to campaign planning.

Planners use insights and their analytical skills to identify the target audience and develop the overall communications strategy. Not surprisingly, many have a research background.

“Ad agency planners, for example, often base their insights on individual findings, comments in focus groups or anecdotal feedback,” says Pete Marcus, adding that “we need to open our minds to other sources of insight and inspiration, apart from data alone.”

As a planner himself, it’s no wonder Pete wants PR agencies to be investing in planners. But I think, as an industry, the priority is investment in planning, not planners.

Clients expect insight from their ad agency planners, but in the advertising world there are clear differentiations between planners, creatives and account handlers.

In PR, you’re generally expected to be a planner, creative, media expert and account handler all in one, because of the fluid nature of PR. Now that may not be ideal (it’s a lot to expect one person to have all those skills), but it’s the nature of the beast. Very few PR agencies will have the resources for a separate planning team.

So the key is to make account handlers better campaign planners.

Too many PR agencies skip the planning and go straight to delivery, focusing on the ‘big idea’ and ignoring the key question: how do we best reach and influence our target audience?

The inevitable consequence is that campaign measurement is limited to media impact, rather than customer or business impact. Did the client get value for money? Who knows?

Insight and planning should be part of every PR professional’s development – whether that’s at university, in their day-to-day jobs or within a structured training programme.

Agency owners and senior managers need to champion the planning process. Every creative brainstorm should start with the audience insight, and every client proposal should answer the question ‘why will this work?’

If we do that we can make insight and campaign planning as valuable a skill in PR as creativity and media handling.

 Phil Reed is managing director at Aberfield Communications.

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