Interview | PRCA CEO looks ahead to period of growth and innovation 

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Almost four months into his new role as CEO at the PRCA, James Hewes spoke with Laura Oliver for Strategic a week before he flew to Dubai to meet international members of the industry’s trade association. He’s focused on developing cutting-edge guidance and identifying new priorities for the PRCA, as he looks to lead it into a new period of growth and innovation.

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A former president and CEO of FIPP, one of the world’s oldest media trade bodies, Hewes brings more than a decade of experience with BBC Worldwide and years as a publisher in the United Arab Emirates to the role. He spoke with
Strategic about the challenges and opportunities currently facing the public relations industry and professionals, and how the organisation adapts to those demands.

“The PRCA is a large and prestigious organisation with a great history, he said. “This is an opportunity to help it focus.”

Diversity and inclusion

With the help of the PRCA team and conversations with members, the new CEO has a clear sense of the most important issues facing the industry and the association in the next few years. Diversity and inclusion top that list.

According to recent data, 87 per cent of public relations practitioners in the UK are of a white ethnic background with just 5 per cent identifying as Asian and 3 per cent as Black. PRCA data shows these numbers have not changed significantly in the past decade.

With that in mind, the body has commissioned fresh research into pay gaps across the industry, including ethnicity pay gaps. It will continue several pre-existing initiatives focused on diversity and inclusion, including its PR and communications apprenticeship and schools outreach programmes that aim to introduce PR as a career option to individuals from all backgrounds. Since relaunching its schools programme, the PRCA has facilitated more than 30 visits to schools and colleges to educate students aged 16 and over on the benefits of a career in PR and communications.

“We are continuing the work to make our industry accessible to everyone, to ensure there’s no discrimination and that we are providing equal pathways into the industry for all groups,” said Hewes.

The ‘business challenge’ of AI

As in every creative industry, said Hewes, the PRCA’s members want to know what impact artificial intelligence (AI) will have on their businesses.

Global research suggests nearly two-thirds of PR practitioners have already used generative AI at work with research and list building cited as the biggest areas AI could impact. Of those already using the technology, 67 per cent are concerned that younger or newer PR professionals will become overreliant on AI tools, overlooking professional standards and principles.

The association will work to establish and share principles and best practices for working with AI, explained Hewes. “Understanding the principles means that, before you start working with it, everybody in the business understands the areas where you are and aren’t comfortable.”

The PRCA wants to share examples of the business and use cases where AI is beneficial – and where it’s not – to help members make better decisions.

Sharing more human-led successes alongside better data is also an opportunity for the PRCA and wider industry. The field’s financial value is regularly measured and publicised, but more needs to be done to show the impact and effectiveness of having people involved in campaigns and businesses.

“We’re a human business and that aspect is our competitive advantage – we mustn’t lose that,” he added.

As technology and AI-powered tools for audience and data analysis become increasingly sophisticated and offer PR practitioners deeper insights into what clients want, Hewes is confident the industry will use these to win more business.

Improving the pitching process

With Hewes at the helm, the PRCA is also working to improve the pitching process for business, as there seems to be ‘widespread dissatisfaction’ with how it currently operates.

“As a trade association, we’ve got a role to play there and in making sure that we set some standards and enforce some standards around how we expect to be treated and how we treat others,” he said.

There’s been a drive to eliminate fees paid for pitching in the past, but there’s more work that the PRCA can do on this front, said Hewes, starting with addressing the enormous amount of work that goes into pitching for business. “You’re putting in a lot of time and effort generating creative ideas, making wonderful presentations and rehearsing them,” he said. “If you lose the pitch, you get nothing, which doesn’t feel like the right balance between effort and reward.” 

The PRCA aims to ensure that the pitching process is fair and equitable. Through its free Matchmaker service, the association acts as an independent marketplace for business. Having a trade association in this role is something Hewes believes the industry welcomes.

“We want to be a kind of fair broker between the agency world and the client world, helping everybody to win more business,” he said. “There’s nothing more powerful as a trade association than to win business directly for your members.”

Growing the PRCA

Hewes also has plans to grow the membership of the trade body and the services it offers its members. For example, expanding the PRCA’s industry research and insight capacity and output to fill gaps left by existing trade publications is of interest.

In terms of members, while there is already a significant number of in-house communications professionals as members, this could be grown further, said Hewes.

The other biggest opportunity for the trade association is its international reach and operations, said Hewes. Expanding the PRCA’s services and operations beyond its existing international reach would benefit all members, he said “Bringing our services into other markets benefits those markets, but it also benefits the UK by spreading the cost of those across more markets and making them more efficient for everybody.”

Setting the culture

On his first day, Hewes gave out his phone number and advised colleagues the best way to contact him was through WhatsApp. He made it clear that when he works from the office he is there to be part of the team, setting boundaries and a sense of the working culture from the get-go.

“The culture we’re trying to encourage is very much about being open and allowing people to challenge and ask questions,” he explained. “It takes time to build but I’ve seen very encouraging results. People feel they can come to me and ask and that’s what we want.”

Slack has been introduced to encourage better internal communication and more collaborative working. It means the PRCA teams internationally can access the same conversations in the same way and have “properly structured conversations around specific projects”, said Hewes. 

In addition to Slack, the association will revamp its CRM system to ensure it has the right members’ data and be more data-led. “You can’t operate a business like this at scale on instinct alone; you need to have data to back it up and we need to enhance the data we’ve got.”

This open culture must extend to PRCA members, added Hewes finally. “As an association, we thrive on engagement from our members. Members must tell us what they’re thinking, so I encourage them to reach out to me if they’ve not already done so. I’d be delighted to hear their experiences.”