The nature of public relations is changing as clients are increasingly demanding more complex marketing and advocacy campaigns that draw on specialties as diverse as polling, media buys, web design, and integrated social media.

The result is that the lines that separated such previously distinct fields as public relations, advertising, and marketing are disappearing.

With the increasing convergence of these fields, today’s practitioners must be nimble and cross-functional to be effective.

The Public Relations Society of America’s National Capital Chapter recently hosted a panel discussion at the National Press Club on just this convergence, and the implications it holds for the future of communications.

A key theme throughout was that, much like globalization, this convergence is happening whether you like it or not. So the way to thrive is to adapt to new skills and mindsets and help lead the change before you become a victim of it.

The panel included insights by:

  • Cary Hatch, CEO of MDB Communications;
  • Carrie Schum, EVP at Porter Novelli;
  • Bob Farrace, Director of Public Affairs at the Marketing Design Group; and
  • Mark Hamrick, Senior Economic Analyst and Washington Bureau Chief at

The group collectively shared the following 10 observations and insights:

1.     “FOMO” can lead to inappropriate decisions.

Many PR practitioners today are so overwhelmed by the pace of change in social media that they suffer from FOMO (the “Fear of Missing Out”) – say, on an opportunity to score big with a well-placed tweet or clever Snapchat video that goes viral.

Thus, many PR firms (particularly digital agencies) are quick to try to harness the power of new technologies or platforms on behalf of their clients, even when it might not be the most efficient use of a budget.

The answer to this lies in:

2.     Integration.

Many PR firms market themselves as “integrated” and “full-service” without first adopting the necessary culture to support those claims.

Rather, “integration” is a mindset, not a service offering – it’s something you do as a firm, not something you sell.

But another key to success is to “stay within your lane.” Clients want to hire the best, no matter where it is found. Thus, firms need to be honest with themselves and play to their strengths by identifying and marketing their core competencies rather than trumpeting their ability to “do it all.”

3.     There is an arms race for talent.

All of the panelists agreed that attracting high-end creative talent in DC is difficult.

For traditional PR agencies, the best digital practitioners and designers are so rare locally that they “may as well be unicorns.”

Thus, investment in human talent and technology remains a constant challenge.

4.     There has been no better time in history to work in communications.

For all the challenges of the new digital landscape and explosion in social media channels over the last few years, the ease of reaching consumers and the velocity of change keep things exciting.

Twenty years ago, the only major distribution channels for advertisers were television, radio, newspapers and magazines. In addition, there was little or no pressure to report on exact viewership numbers or return on investment.

Today, robust analytics allow firms to show clients exactly how many viewers watched a video, visited a website, or liked an Instagram photo.

5.     Words matter.

How you talk about aspects of your PR campaign internally influence your results. For instance, is that element a platform, a concept, a theme, a tagline, or an insight?

Without consistent framing – setting a consistent vocabulary internally — you  cannot properly express your value proposition to clients.

6.     You must offer functional excellence.

This should go without saying, but while clients may buy the “sizzle” — the biggest, splashiest pitch presentation in the room — it’s the “steak” (the execution) that keeps the account for the long term.

7.     It’s up to the PR and marketing practitioners to demonstrate marketing’s ROI.

CEOs often expect their marketing people to be business people first, and marketers second. Marketers often need help in explaining how their work translates into business value.

Research has thus become a key component for marketing campaigns, as it offers metrics to support the expense of an effort.

8.     Hiring has changed.

One speaker told a story about Marty Baron, the current editor of The Washington Post. Asked how hiring prospective reporters today is different than 20 years ago, he noted that you used to hire for potential and train new reporters on the job.

Today, he hires new reporters primarily for their existing skillsets in hopes that they will help raise his organization’s game.

Likewise, in the PR arena, speakers noted that, since communications skills are a given, they are more likely to hire employees with the additional insights that academic backgrounds in history, English, or IT could bring rather than those with academic backgrounds in communications per se. The same goes with recruiting the mid-level hire, where key talent is just as likely to hail from Accenture, Deloitte, or IBM as from large PR agencies like Ogilvy or Edelman.

9.     Freelancers are key.

Often today, the best creative talent prefers to remain as freelancers so that they can charge top dollar for campaigns they want to work on and enjoy greater flexibility.

At Porter Novelli, for instance, “having 39 1099s on our payroll is not unusual.”

10.  Expectation-setting is key.

One speaker related how important it is to set expectations of success with clients from the outset.

In the example she used, a public relations team’s campaign led to fewer website visits in a 90-day period than the marketing team’s direct email campaign.

While this initially made the public relations team’s efforts look less effective, the difference was in the make-up of the distinct audiences: those reached by the email campaign were overwhelmingly existing customers, while those reached by the PR campaign were overwhelmingly new customers who had never before visited the client’s site. Thus, the PR team’s efforts resulted in an expanded overall audience.

By properly setting expectations and success metrics with the client from the outset, the PR team could have avoided confusion and the need for an initially defensive posture following the campaign’s completion.