December 6, 2023
Brian Pittman's spotlight this week: Ray Kotcher, CEO, Ketchum; Chair, Council of Public Relations Firms
"I've been in this business for more than 25 years and have never enjoyed it more. I don't think there's ever been a better time in PR," says Ray Kotcher, CEO of Ketchum and newly appointed chair of the Council of Public Relations Firms, which turns ten this coming year and whose mission is to advance the business of public relations firms by building the market and firms' value as strategic business partners.
"From a PR firm perspective, for example, we see that our members truly have that proverbial seat at the table now. They have a voice, stature and value that is really becoming appreciated on the marketing communications side of things. We're seeing PR and the things firms can do being taken just as seriously as advertising," adds Kotcher, who is also a member of the World Economic Forum, PR Seminar, and a trustee of the Arthur W. Page Society.
"On the corporate communications side, companies are taking long-term corporate reputation building programs much more seriously—they're looking to us to help build equity, trust and authenticity, and they're also turning to firms for increased crisis and issues work. This is only going to continue in the year ahead," believes Kotcher. "These things are good news for all of us because they really reflect the strategic value this industry brings to the game. These truly are high-level contributions. That's why I say these are extraordinary times for PR firms. It's also why I'm looking forward to a year of great strides forward for the council and its members."
Read on for details into how Kotcher and council leaders plan on turning those strides into leaps:
What have been some highlights and lowlights over the council's first ten years?
There is actually an unusual symmetry in that the founding chair was David Drobis, and he was also the CEO of Ketchum. He had the visionary leadership to start an organization to represent the agency business at large. Ten years later, I'm honored and flattered that the leadership baton has been passed to me. I have a great sense of responsibility to keep it moving in a great direction. That said, it think it's been a terrific ten years for the council.
Obviously, however, 2001 and 2002 were challenging economically for the PR agency business—and for all agencies in the marketing communications sector. The council was impacted during that time, as well, generally speaking. But we emerged in very strong financial shape. Similarly, agencies and firms also emerged on the other side as a strong sector overall. In fact, we're in better shape with a more solid foothold in the marketing mix and in terms of our relevance to corporate communications clients.
Along the way, in addition to meeting challenges like that, the council has become a stronger voice and advocate for the PR firm business. For example, there was a period in 2005 and 2006 when the whole PR industry came under incredible scrutiny related to ethics. The council took a leadership voice in that. At Ketchum, we have a highly sophisticated program for all employees being recertified in media relations—and it includes a focus on proper standards, procedures and ethical behaviors. We donated that to the council in 2005.
More than 40 firms have gone through that certification program since then—so more people in business are aware of the proper way to deal with media, handle business affairs in the most ethical way and so on. The council has over 100 member firms and forty have taken this—so it's a big accomplishment. We're very proud of that, as well as the council's leadership stance in making sure members are practicing at the highest levels.
Similarly, we have produced all kinds of guidelines and best practice benchmarks so members have a better idea of how to go about everything from writing and executing contracts to financial management, procurement and even things like how to secure group insurance discounts.
We have been there through good times and bad—and were very active in the 2005 to 2006 period when PR was being scrutinized very fully. We've also conducted regular, proprietary studies for members tied to benchmarking performance and so on. We also do regular monitoring on key issues that are likely to impact firm members and the business, and we provide marketing and communications materials for members that serve as templates for leadership. Another highlight worth mentioning has been our "Find a Firm" program, which really has driven business for members. So, overall, I think it's been a great ten year time period for us and our members.
What key initiatives can we expect from you in the year ahead?
I have a very strong point of view on what we need to be doing as a council. So if there's one mark I'd like to make in the year ahead as chair, it would be to build the voice and understanding of the value of public relations firms. I want to reinforce that in the PR world, and I want to articulate it more broadly. That value is an important story outside of PR circles at a time when the communications landscape is changing so dramatically. The time we're entering represents an extraordinary opportunity for PR. The big question is how do we make sure our value is understood and appreciated more broadly?
What's the answer—how is the council planning to communicate that value?
For starters, we're planning a special purpose publication designed to do this. It will be a weekly newsletter on what's happening in the agency world. It will go to members, as well as non-council members, including many in corporate communications. We're very excited about this.
We're also going to focus on mobilizing staff at member firms in voicing firms' value. Basically, we're going to make sure that our activities are communicated not just to senior executives at member firms, but also through all tiers. We estimate that members collectively have 12,000 employees in the U.S. The PR business is a $4 billion-plus a year industry—and council firms represent most of that. So, we want to build channels that communicate more regularly with member firms, purchasers of PR services, and everybody across that spectrum—not just the top "decision makers." The weekly publication will help with this.
A third area under this key initiative of communicating value relates to the Arthur W. Page Society, with 80-percent of its members coming from the corporate communications side. I also serve on their board. They just completed a major project interviewing 31 CEOs on how they view the PR function currently and where they think it needs to go. The society took that research and did an in-depth research paper on the data, including analyzing the current communications environment in comparison to other areas like HR and even finance—basically analyzing how they evolved from staff functions to executive level departments or areas. Since this paper focused on corporate communications, the council has agreed to do companion research and pieces about where agency business needs to go to complement the corporate communications function. That's another example of articulating the value of PR firms to the outside market.
Yet another example includes working with the Association of National Advertisers, through Andy Cooper at member firm CooperKatz. The ANA is one of their clients, and it's also one of the premier trade organizations representing top marketing officers in companies. Through Andy, we have been able to negotiate with the ANA and put together a series of strategic alliances so we can make sure the council has multiple opportunities—like at their annual meeting—to highlight the contributions of our members and to demonstrate the value of what PR firms can do in the marketing mix overall.
A fifth example—and we don't have a name for this yet—is something we're thinking of calling the "Public Relations Index." We're basically going to take a look at major issues and moments in the media and national dialog by working with strategic partner VMS—and we'll analyze how opinions around any news event, company, product or issue begins to move through the media ecosystem we have today. For example, we will be able to take a look at food safety. How did that issue move through the media eco-system? How did it spread across national papers, local papers, network TV, and even blogs?
What will this index show—how will it contribute to your overall mission?
Depending on the issue or product, it will show different media driving discussions. We want to show that PR understands how the conversation is being driven—with the purpose of demonstrating to people outside PR how we can provide value not only in terms of understanding the conversation's dynamics—but also how we contribute to and help shape that conversation. This—and all these initiatives, really—are geared to driving that value home in the minds of the market.
What skills can agency execs and staffers strengthen to help drive that value perception?
I think something that is really important in PR firms is the ability to manage and lead well. It's not only a function of managing your staff or group, but also of managing the clients. So often we find people in the business who are superb writers, journalists or even new media experts—but they haven't been developed in terms of how to lead and manage. That's a huge challenge for our business.
How can firms overcome that—what can be done to elevate leadership in PR?
At the council, we have a few programs that begin to attack this issue. For example, we have something called "PR Quick Start." It's an immersion for people who just joined the agency world. It's a self directed tutorial you can register for online that helps you manage better, lead better and learn how to prepare for life in the agency world.
That said, I want to back up to the key skills question. Powerful, clear writing will always be of high value in PR. But we now also have to understand the language and tactics of the whole new media area. To be successful in this business these days, you now also need to have visual understanding, audio understanding, graphic skills, technology skills and so on. All of these are the "new language" you must be fluent in—it's not just about words on the page anymore.
So another real challenge for firms beyond the leadership issue is finding and retaining good people who are expert in all of these exciting new areas. Where are the new sources of people we can look to? Well, maybe we should be looking at schools of fine arts—people like sculptors or even musicians, for example—and boosting them through immersion boot camps to understand the communications and PR agency world.
If we can do that—tap people who see and hear and think differently and put them into the flow—that is extremely exciting. I'd like to see the council take an active role in this and make it happen. I'd like to see a boot camp for people who may be career switchers. There is great opportunity there beyond the leadership training we're already doing.
What are you passionate about in your free time—how does it influence your work?
I am a media junkie. I really am. I believe having insatiable curiosity is fundamental to the PR business. Whether it's spending time clicking through a thousand cable stations or standing at a newsstand or going online in the middle of the night to read breaking headlines, blogs and wire stories … It all comes down to curiosity and learning. That's what I love about this field. I'm an information seeker. Knowing what's going on in the world and synthesizing it into your work is a big part of what we do, and it's a big part of what makes us valuable to our clients.