Belli: Sustainability agenda makes consumer PR truly ‘strategic’

I’ve heard that the boss of one big corporate PR agency has a blunt but effective new business strategy. He calls up the CEOs of FTSE 100 companies and tells them their share price isn’t high enough. “Put us on a retainer, I’ll call some newspaper editors and fix that for you”, is the pitch.

This story may be apocryphal, but it speaks to a core truth about our industry. For all that we moan that PR is not seen as strategic, the truth is that corporate PR has long been viewed as just that. It’s what has enabled big, high margin comms businesses like Brunswick and Teneo to be built around ‘CEO advisory’, bypassing operational budget lines to reach the person who signs the cheques. 

This brand of reputation consultancy isn’t very creative, nor does it pretend to be, but it is ‘strategic’ in the truest sense.  Strategy is a word that is used a lot, so it’s useful to reconnect with its true meaning: the pursuit of competitive advantage. Bluntly, the more a function is seen to confer an advantage over the competition, the more strategic it is.  

Unfortunately, because it is time-bound, responsive and dwarfed by advertising, consumer PR falls quite low in this hierarchy. That makes it a relatively low margin business and explains why big corporate consultancies are uninterested in delivering creative campaigns.  

But this is changing. Brand and reputation have grown closer and this has made creative PR increasingly valuable. It’s no longer possible to run promotional brand communications separately from reputation management, the silo that that gave rise to the increasingly defunct consumer/corporate duality in the first place. This in turn increases the need for agencies and practitioners that view brand and reputation as convergent.

The increasingly importance of corporate sustainability, not just in environmental terms but encompassing workforce wellbeing, ethical supply chains and in some cases, support for a social justice agenda, is an even greater opportunity for those with a background in consumer PR.

The core skills, connecting activism, behaviour change and an understanding of a rolling news agenda give this the chance to be viewed as strategic function for the first time. Whether ‘consumer’ PR remains a useful name for it is another question.

Graz Belli is a co-founder at Third City. This article originally appeared in PR Week