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PR director of the future: PRs need freedom to experiment

Posted by Debby Penton on 14th December 2015

 Rachel Matthews of Cisco has an interesting job title: Strategic B2B Communications Leader. Neither marketing or PR, manager or director. We spoke to Rachel about what, beyond job titles, stands Cisco’s communications apart from that of its competitors and how this is helping to shape future communications roles. Interestingly, one of the key elements Rachel highlights is the importance of experimentation in the new multichannel world.

Let’s start with the challenges

According to Rachel, the primary challenge for PR and communications professionals is around understanding the business and PR’s contribution to that business. “In-house communications teams need to work harder with the business to demonstrate the value of PR,” says Rachel. “That has to start with changing the perceptions of PR and what the discipline is capable of achieving in terms of business benefits. It goes beyond delivering assets, to delivering benefits – one of which is enhanced reputation.”

Rachel firmly believes that PR’s value is being dragged down due to its association with media relations: “Crisis comms and reputation management are also ‘PR’, but because the discipline is still perceived to be media-led, the rest isn’t always recognised as being PR. What we need is to redefine PR, and then in-house teams need to re-educate the business on what PR actually is and the value of communications as a whole.”

PR is a defunct term

PR as a function now sits in a much broader mix of communication types. This is largely driven by the fact that a business has so many stakeholders now, meaning a single style or approach for communication isn’t viable anymore.

“Customers, influencers, bloggers, employees and other internal stakeholders all require proactive communication, engagement and management. At Cisco, there are lots of teams covering lots of communications needs, from leadership to field-based, but we don’t refer to it as PR because the term is often misused or misconstrued.”

Rachel describes herself as being part of a ‘full service communications team’ because they cover all of the company’s communications needs, plus content generation – which is where most communications campaigns now start. Rachel goes so far as to say that internally, it is likely that there will be individuals responsible for media relations, investor relations, analyst relations – and while all of this technically sits under PR, not one of these individuals is described as a ‘PR person’.

Content land-grab

Rachel is clear that content is the key communication need for businesses today. The challenge is that multiple business areas have a requirement for content, but each has its own objectives. “Marketing-led content focuses on the products, offering a deep level of information and focused on demand generation,” says Rachel. However, she observes that prospective customers don’t enter the funnel and then go immediately down it in a linear way, they bounce in and out, usually because they are looking for recommendations and different opinions to authenticate what they’ve found out.

“Communications has a huge role in shaping the perceptions and opinions of people to get them in the funnel in the first place, but also to keep them in there,” says Rachel, adding that she firmly believes that the earlier the communications team can get involved in planning this journey, the better. “Perceptions brought about by the media and by analyst relations are still highly influential, and triggering a new thought about a brand, product or service via these channels is key.

Each area of the marketing mix has a valid contribution to make to the ‘content journey’. “If you can get your content right, everything and everyone else merely becomes a channel,” explains Rachel.

The value of experimentation

Of course, having content is one thing, but disseminating that content is an increasingly complex task. The paid/earned/shared/owned (PESO) model means there are more channels than ever for PR and comms teams to choose from and getting the mix right can be a challenge. However, this is where Rachel believes that having the freedom to experiment is key.

“It is important for companies to have the ability to try, and perhaps fail, using these new channels,” says Rachel. “Within my team at Cisco, we’ve been pretty lucky in having the autonomy to try all of these new channels – things like Twitter and using different hashtags to reach different audiences. Also, bringing influencers, such as Gartner, into our content is another new approach to content generation and also how we then use that content, posting it into specific LinkedIn groups and other activities. It is more difficult for marketing to do this stuff because they are tasked with specific demand generation, whereas comms is more about changing perceptions and it is vital that companies can do these things in an experimental way.”

So where does PR sit in the marketing mix?

Whether ‘PR’ is the right term or not, Rachel certainly believes that ‘PR skills’ are crucial to the future of brands. Indeed, with content in the ascendancy, Rachel can even see the case that ‘PR’ is actually the most important discipline in the marketing mix.

“During my career at BMC, CA and Cisco, marketing has often taken the content that has been produced by the comms team in order to fuel its demand generation work, but rarely is the opposite true. Content that focuses purely on products, features, functions and benefits can’t have the same impact as that produced by the comms department, which has a much wider focus and remit. As such, you could argue that everything starts with PR and communications.”

Please download the first guide in the ‘PR director of the future’ series, ‘Finding PR’s place in the marketing mix’.

Debby Penton

Motivated, competitive and highly experienced, Debby drives excellence across the agency and leads by example, going the extra mile to create stand-out campaigns and a dynamic agency culture. As CEO, Debby champions a new breed of PR that meets the evolving communication needs of today’s tech companies.