Ray Kotcher on the role of PR in a digital economy, Ketchum’s global presence, and students entering the workforce

Ray Kotcher is a highly distinguished alumnus for Boston University and the College of Communications, and is a Professor of the Practice in the public relations department. He has spent more than 30 years in the agency business and served as the CEO, and then Chairman, of Ketchum for 16 years, helping shape and lead Ketchum to be one of the world’s largest and most awarded PR and communications agencies today. Kotcher currently serves on the national board of directors for the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and is in the Arthur W. Page Society Hall of Fame for his profound professional achievements within the public relations industry.



Alyssa Espiritu: Keeping in mind how PR practices are evolving due to the emphasis on digital media, technology, and data, where do you see the role of PR heading in the future?

Ray Kotcher: I think one of the biggest issues, which is something Professor Sheffer talks a great deal about, is that we live in a world of pervasive risk. A friend of mine, who was the Senior Vice President of Communications at IBM, did a telephone survey of around 100 CEOs of large international corporations. They found that the biggest challenge they face is their ability to bring their workforce together to be quick and agile in terms of responding to issues. With all this, a growing importance is going to be employee change communication.

We also see the news business changing in such an extraordinary way. You see traditional journalists who need to write even more quickly. Very closely related to that is the impact of social media driving a real change in how people are living, working, and getting their information. We also live in an attention economy, which I think is a good thing for public relations. PR people generally grew up responding quickly to news stories on behalf of clients, but think about how that pace has accelerated today with social media.

You also have another part of that which is the gatekeeper system that PR grew up in, working with newspapers and reporters on a story. Now, there aren’t any gatekeepers. Companies can go directly to their audiences, so what’s happening now is media is becoming much more of a platform for micro-targeting.

AE: So, with disintermediation, where consumers and companies can directly communicate with each other rather than through a “gatekeeper,” would you find that helpful for PR professionals? Or is it a little more challenging for PR professionals to do their jobs more accurately and effectively?

RK: That’s the question. That means there are new areas that are rapidly emerging to be of importance for public relations professionals, like being able to apply data and analytics, or being able to produce content on new channels, and understanding new platforms and technologies. What you have happening now is many of these technologies are in the hands of the consumer and the hands of companies – who are bringing together a lot of disciplines to be able to fight these information wars more effectively.

Companies are bringing together public relations, marketing, and technology, taking every asset that they can find because they are in a marcomm arms race. They need all the potency and firepower they can bring together. So that is where I think your question comes in. If all these resources are being put together, where does PR fit into it?

AE: That brings us to the next question. Now that we are talking about how the role of PR is not only changing, but also expanding, there are more roles PR professionals have to take on. Now, we see more PR professionals working with data, analytics, and market strategy. Do you think the distinction between marketers and PR professionals is blurring?

RK: Because companies are in the marcomms race, bringing together a lot of disciplines, they are looking at how they can reduce the duplications and find efficiencies so their work can be even more concentrated. There’s a lot of discussion about this in the PR industry today on if this integration of marketing and PR is a good thing or not.

Marketers have been using data for years and PR people are more recently starting to look at it too. When we asked professionals the Bellwether Survey if their company integrated, 60% said their marketing and PR departments are integrated, but 40% said that it’s not working as effectively as it could.

AE: Do you know why that 40% isn’t working as effectively?

RK: My guess is we, PR people, don’t understand the marketing world as well as we need to. According to the Bellwether Survey, PR people are not finding it extremely important to understand paid media, paid content, media buying, and new technologies, specifically artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and augmented reality. For me, that’s a big concern.

Corporate communications is still very important and highly valued. Particularly when it comes to reputation and crisis. For the most part, the day-to-day work for public relations involves sitting alongside marketing people, unless it is for crisis communication and risk. I still think PR is highly valued in organizations, but for us to remain valuable, we need to be knowledgeable in not only a reputational sense but also on the marketing side of things. We need to be as fluent in marketinging as marketers are.

However, we have skills that give us a competitive advantage such as agility and ability to respond quickly. PR people’s skills are rated very highly and are needed to communicate in a world of information, earned media, and influencer work. They are also rated very highly when it comes to social corporate responsibility, ethics, and transparency.

RK: With management consulting and tech firms entering the digital communications and media industry such as, Accenture Interactive, Deloitte Digital, and IBM iX, how do you think integrated PR agencies can keep a competitive advantage? What needs to change for these PR and communication agencies that have been in the game for such a long time?

AE: I think the power of new technology and multiple channels are having an impact on the agency world. Companies can do more of the stuff that we do because of technology.

I was having a conversation with Professor Mike Fernandez, who was the CEO of Burson-Marsteller and was previously the CCO for many of the biggest companies in the technology, insurance, and financial services industries. Now, companies are thinking about who they can go to when it comes to outsourcing. CCOs are sitting there thinking, ‘Am I going to Edelman, Weber, or Ketchum? Or am I going to go to Deloitte or McKinsey?’ They are going to shop all of them and see where the best solution for the company is.

If you think about the things that we PR people understand, that as of now, no one else does as well as we do, it is the idea of social purpose. More and more traditional investors are also looking at how companies are contributing to society. Larry Fink at BlackRock just wrote in his CEO letters that when they’re making investment decisions, they are not just looking at financials, they are looking at social values as well. That’s something that we PR people do, but I think we need to be careful and make sure that we are focusing on our strengths and making sure we are developing new ones as well.

AE: In an article on Holmes Report, it was mentioned that during your time as CEO of Ketchum, you and your team expanded the agency’s global presence and even became one of the largest firms in Europe. How were you able to successfully and significantly build an international agency?

RK: As your clients are growing you need to be able to grow with them. If that means your clients are doing business on a global scale, you need to be able to move with them on that global platform and service them in other markets that are important to them. Strategically, you need to be in major markets geographically where your clients are doing business. Likewise, you need to be able to continue to build your muscle and offerings in vertical categories and specialties that your clients are looking for.

An area where we put a lot of effort into building was the area of change management. Again, as you mentioned before, consultancies are moving more rapidly in that area in particular, but around 2005, it was an area that our clients were looking at more and more seriously and needed partners to help them. So, we doubled down and made a strategic bet. Having people like Tyler Durham there helped a lot and we were fortunate.

AE: What advice would you give to your students at the College of Communication seeking a career in PR or related fields?

RK: Making the transition from school to the world of work is really daunting. It’s very anxiety-provoking and I totally understand that. A large part of what we tried to do in our PR Career Management class at BU is to prepare and help shine a light to see the way forward. You need to know where you came from, why you studied communications, and why you want to devote your career to it. Everyone has a story, but it’s not always easy to see the connective threads in those stories. You need to be able to develop a compelling story and tell that story effectively. Another thing that was spoken about in the class was also all the soft skills, which matter a lot. Are you a listener? Are you creative? Can you collaborate and problem solve? I would say you need to be able to demonstrate hard and soft skills through your life experiences. The field is changing so quickly and it’s so complex today. Know the specific area of PR you want to go into and then make sure your skills smoke.




Alyssa Espiritu, Staff Writer

Alyssa is a senior at Boston University, majoring in public relations with a concentration in computer science. Originally from the Bay Area, Alyssa is looking forward to staying on the East Coast to pursue her career. Alyssa will be joining the Adobe team as an Associate Consultant starting in September in the New York City office. In her free time, you can find her napping, eating hot cheetos, and going to spin class.

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