Uncategorized Melvin Yuan on 27 Nov 2007
This afternoon, I had lunch with a journalist who has a brilliant mind for business strategy; and the one question I wanted to ask him was – whether he had any business plans to pursue when he tires of journalism. We never got to that question for lack of time, but I was confident that he would make a good strategist when the time comes.
I must say, I am exceedingly fortunate to count as friends, several other journalists who impress me deeply with their business acumen.
But when I got back from lunch, I stumbled upon a Financial Times article by Michael Skapinker, who asserted that “you can handle the web without an adviser”. In his commentary, he explained how complex the Web was; and went on to question the ability of PR agencies to bring any value to businesses.
“When it comes to your whole industry being damaged, you can look for alternatives (paid-for music downloads, online newspapers),” claims Michael, “but it is difficult to imagine what the PR people can do for you.”
There are some very good observations in his article – such as the relationship between PR and customer service quality, and an all-round 360-degree approach to PR. And I’m not disagreeing with some of what he was saying. In fact, as PR professionals, we should certainly consider some of those issues.
But his headline may not be the most helpful to companies trying to grapple with the complexities of the new media and business landscapes.
In fact, Michael’s article reminded me of a Guy Kawasaki post in May this year titled “The Top Ten Reasons Why PR Doesn’t Work”.
I cannot, for the life of me, understand why these guys are still going on about the same thing.
In an increasingly sophisticated business environment, PR is probably one of the most valued disciplines (I didn’t say “job” or “tool” or “person”) to management. Yet it seems increasingly fashionable for someone – a journalist or, horror-of-horrors, Guy Kawasaki himself – to have a go at slamming the PR discipline and profession. One of the things they seem to like doing is to insist that businesses don’t need PR firms to navigate social media and help them develop strategies to build trusted relationships with customers online.
Michael Skapinker, for one, clearly thinks so.
So why don’t we admit that they’re right. Almost right. Yes, Businesses can build customer and other crucial relationships online without the counsel of PR professionals.
But I wonder how many of these journalists, in making their arguments against the need for PR firms, actually consider the opportunity cost in developing the expertise and implementing those strategies in-house?
I am quite sure that if you think hard and well enough, there’s no big secret to effective web strategy; or Strategy for that matter. If there were, the best strategists won’t be blogging or coaching others; and professional services firms won’t be publishing case studies.
But PR firms can bring broader expertise, deeper insights, economies of scale, efficiency, quality and perhaps more significantly – a disciplined, systematic approach to web strategy that businesses today really need.
Now, I have no doubt that any capable business leader can acquire or develop the expertise to do all this within the organisation or the management team. But at what cost?
Intelligent business leaders do what they are good at. And they outsource the rest by engaging professionals to bring all I stated above to the table. Sometimes, you can bring on your management team, someone who’s great at online public relations strategy. But often, depending on the scale of the business and the business structure, it makes more sense to engage a consultant or an agency.
So yes, Michael Skapinker is right. And in his words, “you can handle the web without an adviser”.
And businesses don’t need professional PR counsel agencies just like they don’t need accounting firms, research firms and IT vendors. Businesses don’t need PR agencies just like I don’t need a plumber, or a laundry mart, or an investment manager.
But how much business sense is there in having the account executive or the relationship manger spend time learning to build the office network. Or how much business sense is there in setting up a full-fledged IT organisation within a mid-sized business?
We are talking about fundamental management principles here, and it’s disappointing to see such simplistic views from credible publications like the Financial Times. Especially when the intent is in question.
If you feel that CEOs and other senior managers are capable of developing strategies to manage their public relations without counsellors, I won’t argue against that. I humbly submit though, that the true differentiating value is not the big strategies, and the creativity and the PR awards (although I admit they are all important; except the awards). But as a PR consultant or an agency, the greatest value that I can bring to businesses is this: a less-glamorous but disciplined and systematic approach. It is the discipline of developing strategy, skill-sets, relationships and whatever else it takes – in order to help companies meet their business objectives. And very often, this means helping business leaders to listen well, communicate clearly, and hold them accountable to the high standards of sincerity and honesty that’s required in building trusted relationships with the Public.
So, Michael-Skapinkers-of-the-world, until business leaders decide that it’s not importance to focus on core competence and manage organisational resources and intellectual capital efficiently, professional PR counsel and services are still your best bet.