David Swinfen Associates | Reimagining PR Strategy for the New Economy
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Reimagining PR Strategy for the New Economy

By David Swinfen


The Fourth Industrial Revolution is marked by breakthroughs in a number of fields, including AI, nanotech, blockchain, quantum, biotech & IoMT, distributed energy, distributed internet and open-source 3D printing from recycled composites.


It’s important to at least develop some interest in at least some of these fields, simply because there’s a lot of talk right now about robots taking our jobs. However, after recently authoring op-eds for a Singapore-based automation company, I’ve come to realise that robots are designed to work alongside humans. This alleviates human effort and instead allows us to deploy our human capital into more thought-rich areas, such as strategy, developmental planning, or education – maybe even into an area like learning the programming of our new robotic pals.


However, I know for a fact that our industry, which is PR, is long overdue for a Skynet-style wipe-out.


PR is a vapid, flaccid industry based on 88-page Powerpoint client pitches, contractual box-checking, false fee-adding that would put a divorce lawyer to shame, and occasionally-applied common sense, the last part of which is then sold to clients as “deliverables”. In most PR firms, large teams of office juniors (“Senior PR Managers”) spend most of their day writing reports on media value (which are 100x over-valued and based on nothing other than thin air; media value is the ‘junk-bond derivative’ of the PR world).


Soon, presumably, you won’t need to use a PR firm because you’ll download a free app, send it your press release and target cities; it will analyse your content, and then it will distribute it to relevant media for 99 cents. And that’s if media still exists then.


This has been a year of massive upheaval for me personally too, as I left my agency job after seven long years of being overworked, underpaid, underappreciated and taking way too long in realising I had no future on my current trajectory.


The whole in-office thing still exists because we live in a world where Darwinian dystopia stemming from profit, greed and conservativism in business limits free thinking and personal empowerment. I believe this is a large part of the reason we see so much growth in the diagnosis of people suffering with clinical depression in almost every country.


We live in a world based on capitalism (and exploitation of workers’ efforts for profit, which of course is what business is). Actually, this is the final stage of the long-ongoing and tiresome era of centralized political capitalism, specifically. But we also spend part of our lives each day in the new economy, which is smart, sharing, co-operative, agile, biosphere-conscious, empathetic, hopeful, and sternly opposed to regressive politics or repressive business practices that limit more lateral thought or three-dimensional advancement. Both of these repellent things existed in darker ages, and some companies insist on their staff still following the ‘clock in and don’t have an opinion’ doctrine.


It’s amazing that after three-slash-four industrial revolutions, there are still firms that operate by applying structural violence against their own staff – instead of encouraging their teams to be agile, always learning, always training, always investing in their own long-term success and that of the company’s by closely collaborating on a correlated, shared vision.


PR, in particular, is changing. You can already distribute targeted press releases using emerging innovations like PressRush for very low cost. So PR agencies that rely on the “print backdrop, set media desk, get MC, add 50% margins” business model of yesteryear are already pre-screwed. Media monitoring, for example (another classic function of old-school PR firms), has been replaced with analytics applied to overlapping data sets to deliver smart outcomes which are strategic, and therefore support client decision-making. PR firms, or at least the venerably-minded ones anyway, are already seeing margins for new clients fall off dramatically and retainer retention rates plummet.


However, agencies that have invested in their understanding of strategic PR (and most can’t define what that is) will be in even greater demand by clients trying to navigate this new world and how it applies to their particular business. This is a massive area in terms of my own work, and something in truth I’ve had to adapt to only quite recently.


I try to avoid problems and overcome challenges on behalf of my clients by anticipating them and using strategic thinking, which means understanding the desired outcome and working backwards to produce it. This is the best way I’ve found to problem-solve, and to deliver a solutions-based outcome and create workarounds to tactical issues you don’t need to worry about (like backdrops).


There is a classic example I continually refer to when I need to define strategy, or explain how to apply a strategic approach to anything and everything. “What’s 2+2?”  Answer 4.  This is tactics, and leads to short-sighted outcomes.


So “What’s 2+2”? Answer: Why are you asking?  In what context? What are you hoping to achieve by asking me what is 2+2? What is the data point we are working from? Are there others? Do they overlap so we can use an analytical or holistic approach?


This is strategy. It yields outcomes beyond the client’s expectation. This equals ‘customer delight’, and that in turn equals retention, etcetera, etcetera.


This push towards strategic outcomes, coupled with company structures that enable teams to deliver against the increasingly technical/digital nature of our working environment (while understanding the sharing economy and what’s driving demand for it) is where we’re at.


This formula is basically what’s driving the consolidation we see in our industry. There are successful PR firms who are different, strategic, agile, future-invested, leading the way for innovation and disruption-based business models, or part-freelance and HYPER-agile boutique operators (sometimes even functioning as a small skunkworks under a large firm). These are the companies that are in such demand, because they operate and understand and help sell the technologies (and the environmental tools) of the day – knowledge sharing, blockchain, collaborative automation, distributed finance, as well as empathy towards the urgent mitigation of climate change and belief states attached to the sharing/ecology economy.


By applying new approaches and spending as much time per day learning as we do on delivering typical PR work – that is, learning about innovation, disruption, application and the view of the younger generation on what’s important in the world, we develop our own world view that is in lockstep with how our world is evolving. This work environment change is being more and more represented in the tasks sent by clients to PR practitioners.


I’m extremely grateful to be contributing content on areas like smart city development, interconnection, data & analytics and IomT. My work with KFC in Hong Kong on sustainability and the reduced use of plastics made the front page of South China Morning Post. The AI, voice assistance, touch/scribe input and reusable materials seen in Microsoft’s new Surface Books during our recent Hong Kong launch not only empower business users who are agile, but will also support and inspire a new generation of users working in the essential fields – open source, blockchain, organic 3D printing and a number of sharing economy-based innovations which will ensure our future is less messed up – as much of the world has now done with climate change, and I eventually did with my office job.


It’s all about recognising in time that your current trajectory is pushing you over a cliff edge and into an abyss. In the words of the immortal Chris Cornell, “I’m down on my knees today, But it gives me the butterflies, Gives me away, That I’ll be up on my feet again”. We are either static, or we are fighting for the cause of reinvention.


However, much as fighting and surviving a war shorthanded equips a soldier with the fundamentals of command, fighting for an agency’s ability to stay in business under difficult circumstances (and similarly shorthanded) equips a lowly editor for leadership. In this ‘conflict’ analogy, a regional understanding of how PR is developing across several countries adds wider theatre awareness, as well as an Area of Operations that is well-known and well-trodden, and to much future advantage. Nobel Laureate Haruki Murakami expresses this perfectly in his writing, when he states, “You have to go through the darkness before you get to the light”.


I’m sure many people commit years of their life in unquestioning loyalty to an employer, only to find that they are on latter-day path to a dead-end existence, after years of serving in exploitative accord with the terms and terrible decisions their employer imposed. They’re the regular people we’ve all met before who always seem to struggle with work, never get the work-life balance correct, are always struggling to make any salary progression, etc. They’re the friends who everyone has that are always complaining about their cushy office jobs, only to leave after a decade of service and working two months of notice without so much as a thank you or a reference.


Indeed, lighting the night sky with the bridges you burned in war can illuminate the freedom of tomorrow’s peace.


But being on a road to nowhere is one thing; being on a road to actively imposed aggressive-regression is dangerous for most people’s life outcomes. After all, companies that struggle to look at work progressively tend not to progress themselves. Firms that obsesses over extorting as much “productivity” (nearly always conflated with “office hours”) as possible for as little cost as possible often struggle with recruitment and retention – and that last point is also why they struggle with retaining clients or long-term retainer value over time.


Neolithic working practises are symptoms seen in developing markets, but not symptoms of those markets as being developing. In terms of the top-down “macros” of PR markets, Singapore leads in fintech, app-based disruption, anything AI and regional roll-out for western blue chips; Hong Kong is still the heavyweight in banking, insurance and gateway access to mainland China; KL’s PR agency cluster doesn’t really exist, and Thailand is still at the ‘headless chicken’ stage of development – 40 firms running around aimlessly, pecking at dots of corn on the floor with no beak. Thailand PR pitches to clients tend to involve ten Powerpoints that look largely the same as each other, and the client’s decision-maker trying to choose between the two that sucked the least.


The great PR firms have their clients’ needs figured out in advance, have capacity in place to support it, plan redundant capacity to grow it, and the bits they aren’t experts in yet they study and buy.


The non-great PR firms tend to just suck generally, because they subscribe to an old-world view, and have no response to it ending as the general public (media consumers) wakes up. They lose clients haphazardly because they can’t manage their demands, or even just plan around doing anything outside of the norm; remote working agreements for staff pursuing agility and greater workday expansiveness to deliver client-side excellence would be something they tend to turn down. These are the sort of agencies that make staff punch in each morning and night – pressured teams slaving harried hours under spineless leadership with no appreciation or understanding of how things have changed or how PR has modernised; stressed-out account managers staying until 10pm to tick off all the old-school KPIs their bosses insist on, because “the market’s tough” and margins are sinking (go figure).


This is not particularly a lucid vision of fairness or future.


I finally have the time to focus fully on collaboratively building insight in partnership with clients, with both regional corporates and leading PR firms signed up for the near and far. Also, happily, much of the work outreach that comes to me is now in Tech, AI, Green ecology and the resource-based economy, as championed by new-era thinkers like Yanis Varoufakis and resource sharing technology-fluent radicals like Peter Joseph.


This is a great time to be at a crossroads, and anyone working in PR, marketing, advertising, content creation, authoring, branding or editing absolutely is. Especially one where the other three directions point only to positivity, exciting shifts in the very nature of work and how it is done, and how our economies are transforming.


This transformation, much like growing awareness for sharing, collaboration and economies built on harmony with our environment, have the power to support a newer, fresher, fairer outlook for humanity, work, and coexistence with our natural and evolving business environments.








Peter Joseph, The New Human Rights Movement: Reinventing the Economy to End Oppression: https://www.amazon.co.uk/New-Human-Rights-Movement-Reinventing-ebook/dp/B01M3NWW48/ref=sr_1_1_twi_kin_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1538222325&sr=8-1&keywords=peter+joseph