Q&A: Ketchum’s John Bailey on Public Relations in a Full Spectrum World


The field of public relations has seen immense change over the past several years, largely in lock-step with the monumental shift in how knowledge itself is circulated and consumed in our highly democratized world of distribution and discovery.

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Some, such as seasoned PR pros like John Bailey, Partner and Managing Director at Ketchum Singapore, view public relations as one of the most transformed fields out there.


 

“I struggle to think of any trade or profession which has changed as radically or as quickly over the last five years,” said Bailey.

He should know; having notched nearly three decades under his belt, which includes launching Ketchum’s offices in Singapore back in 2005, where he still serves today.

Branding in Asia recently caught up with  Bailey to get his take on the state of PR, both globally and in Asia’s rapidly growing economies.


The word “Disruptive” is often overused these days, but I’ll toss it out there again. What are some disruptive trends in the PR industry you see happening in 2017?


 

Firstly, how we analyze and capture insights from data is evolving. The outcome of the US presidential election, Brexit, and Facebook’s reporting mistakes all demonstrated that we can’t blindly trust data. In 2017, executives will expect a deeper understanding of the metrics and mechanisms of data science to ensure strategies are guided by reliable human insights.

There are any number of sophisticated, home-grown companies across the region which understand that effective communication is a strategic discipline and fundamental to the success and longevity of any successful business, leader, organisation or brand.

Consumer sentiment will continue to become more visual and specialized. Facebook Reactions offers one click to convey multiple feelings. This provides deep insights that other platforms, like Twitter, are likely to emulate. As a result, new visual intelligence tools will be vital for measuring sentiment.

Finally, telling a brand’s story through paid media isn’t just about the content or the ad metrics. It’s about the full user experience with the brand. To see this 360-degree view of a brand’s paid efforts, we must establish and analyze the connection between digital advertising and brand goals. Fostering the connection between traditional public relations, paid media and website analytics is the future of the Paid, Earned, Shared and Owned (PESO) model.

Does the title “PR” still adequately fit the scope of the field?

No, and it generates a lot of confusion among clients who have become conditioned to what “PR agencies” can (or cannot) do. The days when agencies defined themselves – or were defined – by a particular set of capabilities or channel focus are over.

Clients expect access to the full spectrum of capabilities, but with “one throat to choke”.

Having said that, the trump card for “PR agencies” is that they have always looked at the full spectrum of business challenges an organization faces, and understood how to engage and influence all relevant stakeholders, not just consumers.

In the West, PR holds powerful sway at the table. Where is it now in the eyes of Asia’s business leaders?

It’s fair to say that businesses in Asia have generally lagged behind their western counterparts in understanding “PR” and what it can achieve. Even today, many still equate “PR” to “Media Relations” and try to measure its effectiveness in terms of Ad Value Equivalency (AVEs), which went out with the Ark.

But, there are any number of sophisticated, home-grown companies across the region which understand that effective communication is a strategic discipline and fundamental to the success and longevity of any successful business, leader, organization or brand.

Where do you see brands in Asia falling short and how can PR strategy prevent that?

To the extent that brands do fall short, it’s usually by failing to align expectations with delivery. A PR strategy can’t prevent that, or, to quote the outgoing US president, “put lipstick on a pig”. But any effective communication campaign starts with listening and understanding the audience. From that flows insights, which should drive the strategy and the creative execution. Ensuring there is no gap between the brand promise and the consumer experience is key.

What are your thoughts on calls in the industry for consolidation and more collaboration between agencies and disciplines?

It’s already happening. We regularly collaborate with sister agencies with specialist expertise in different disciplines or market presence both from within the Omnicom constellation and outside it. Clients expect access to the full spectrum of capabilities, but with “one throat to choke”.

To the extent that brands do fall short, it’s usually by failing to align expectations with delivery. A PR strategy can’t prevent that, or, to quote the outgoing US president, “put lipstick on a pig”.

The role of the account director is becoming analogous to a conductor in an orchestra, knowing when to bring in the right skillset and ensuring seamless, coordinated delivery. If you don’t have best-in-class expertise in a particular discipline, collaboration is the way to bring it on.

In terms of content, what are the difficulties in the dual task of having an editorial sensibility for what will resonate with an audience, while assuring that the client’s message is received?

Authenticity is everything, particularly in the age of “radical transparency”, where every slip or mistake attracts instant scrutiny and reaction. If the client’s message is not authentic, and doesn’t reflect reality, it won’t be heard – or worse, may backfire and hurt them. So, the editorial sensibility is all about weaving a compelling narrative which perfectly aligns the expectation which is being created against the reality which people will experience.

The average attention span is a mere eight seconds say studies. Some people might not even be reading this question. Your thoughts?

This is something of an urban myth and originates in a Microsoft survey from Canada a couple of years ago, which suggested that we now have an average attention span shorter than that of a goldfish. It’s a nice line, if hard to validate. But there’s no doubt that companies or brands that want to catch our eye had better do it quickly, before we scroll, swipe, or click through to the next thing on one of the multiple devices always within reach. But beyond just grabbing our attention, can brands really engage our emotions, get us thinking, provide a call to action?

You’ve been in the game for three decades. What do you miss from your early days in PR?

It was a lot easier – and slower! But we’re at the epicenter of the greatest and most exhilarating communication revolution in history. I struggle to think of any trade or profession which has changed as radically or as quickly over the last five years. There can’t be many jobs in which you get to learn new things and have your assumptions challenged almost every day –even at my age!

 

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