Tomorrow’s World: 17 things you need to know about the future of PR and social media

What do you need to know about the future of PR and social media? Co-Chair of the CIPR Social Media Panel Dan Tyte (@dantyte) shares his and the Panel’s musings.


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The script of an episode from BBC Tomorrow’s World in 1994 read: “Imagine a world where every word ever written, every picture ever painted and every film ever shot could be viewed instantly in your home via an information superhighway” .  Yes, imagine indeed.   Whereas we used to have Maggie Philbin and co transmitting trends directly into our living rooms every week, now tomorrow’s world has become today, things are different.  We’re living in a world of increased complexity. Our crystal ball is more like a snow globe with new things appearing in a non-linear, unpredictable way.  The future’s not what it used to be…

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And that social media thing you’ve all been banging on about is dead. Yes, you heard me d-e-a-d.  Okay, controversial maybe.  But if you think about it, all media is social- newspapers have always had letters pages, radio stations have always had phone-ins, TV shows now have hashtags and the online channels of traditional media outlets now have a gazillion Facebook fans to share stories with.  So let’s just drop the ‘social’ bit shall we? It leads to siloed, separatist thinking.

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And while we’re at it with the death thing, the ‘social media expert’ is dead too.  Should have been dead for a long time actually.  Now Fawlty Towers is a perfectly reasonable Mastermind specialist subject- the BBC made the last episode in 1979.  But it’s ballsy to the extreme to choose ‘social media’.  It’s changing. Right now. While you read this.  The challenge of professionalising public relations is a very real one and one which the CIPR is taking head on (see any number of blogs from current president Stephen Waddington). If everyone and their Nan are calling themselves ‘experts’, how can PR people be taken seriously?

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But it’s not all bad news- after those two funerals, there’s a wedding. Okay, it’s not quite Richard Curtis stuff and tell your mum she doesn’t have to buy a new hat.  This marriage is with the other disciplines. The marketers.  The ad people.  The campaign of the now and near future blends earned, owned and paid media.  There’s sponsored content, native advertising, platform partnerships etc etc, all different, all needing a bespoke approach. We need to become experts in everything, not just the media relations bit.  And after we get hitched, we need to stand up for ourselves.  Less deference to the flashy ad folk with their jaunty hats taking their dogs to work*.  Not being in awe of the marketer’s gigantic spreadsheets.

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Our understanding of relationships, networks, influence, people and media means there’s a huge opportunity for PRs to be the strategic lead in these relationships.  We need to be storytellers, not just storysellers. Our skills deserve to be deployed in the creation of the very essence of the campaign, not just being the people with a contact book and unlimited minutes who get the glory for the other clever creatives.

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Community-finding is going to be key in this brave new world. PRs have always been experts in taking a message from an organisation to an audience, generally through the media. Whether we’re looking for conversations with CEOs in India, English speakers in Berlin or train spotters in the UK, it’s never been easier to hunt down a crowd online and that’ll only increase as traditional media communities dissipate. And when we find them- a bit like Michael Palin going into the deepest, darkest Amazon- we’ve got the skills to listen, learn and engage.

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Without sounding like a Scandinavian early years teacher, the best approach for PRs is to learn through play.  Build in 10 or 15 minutes a day alongside the time we’d have traditionally used to get newsprint on our fingers checking the news agenda.  As new technology, channels and apps becomes available, test them, understand them, make mistakes and learn from them.

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How many of us got into PR because we like ‘writing’? How many times have we been described by colleagues or clients as ‘wordsmiths’ and glowed as if the lineage from Shakespeare was oh-so-apparent in our perfectly crafted press release? All well and good.  It’s nice to have a way with words.  But PRs have got to be so much more to survive and thrive in the future.  What are our data skills like? Can we design? How about some simple coding? Can we use a camera? Video editing software? Can we be a 60 second Spielberg?

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Gartner had predicted that by 2014, 80 per cent of gamification apps would fail. Why? Because they’d fail to understand the motivations of the audience. People don’t want a digital hi-5 or a gold coin. They want freedom, a sense of purpose, and the ability to learn something new.  The same organisation now says that over the next couple of years, gamification could enter the ‘trough of disillusionment’ driven by a continued misunderstanding of how to engage players through design.  Whatever happens next, it seems fairly certain that internal comms practitioners will continue to use games to improve internal engagement. Here’s  what the Queen of IC (and fellow CIPRSM panelist) Rachel Miller has to say about gamification.

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So rather than just being a one-trick pony, the PR of the (near)-future (or the now) needs to be a ringleader, pulling together a whole range of skills and using them to deliver multi-platform campaigns which tell stories everywhere the audience can be reached.

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Hands up if you had a Global Hypercolour t-shirt in the 90s? Easy, don’t show off your sweat patches….Apple’s Watch may have put the eyes of the world on wearable tech, but will it last longer than the heat-sensitive tie-dye tees of two decades ago? And will it have more of a meaningful impact? Well, the answer seems to be yes. Health apps like Nike+, Map My Run and Strava have already helped individuals improve their well-being, share their successes and become part of collaborative challenging communities. Wearables just around the corner will be stuck to the skin, getting us closer to our audience than ever before.  The data available to PRs, especially those working in healthcare or the public sector, will give us access to research which can inform our campaigns like never before.  Virgin Atlantic has already trialed Google Glass in its executive lounges at Heathrow to give staff information on the preferences of customers.  But what happens when the visor becomes a contact lens? When the consumer doesn’t know what information the person they’re engaged with has about them? And where does a PR fit into such an intimate relationship? The CIPR hosted a debate on the ethics of wearable tech at the House of Commons in July of this year.  Stephen Davies asked those present how they felt about a contact lens which “analysed skin tone for changes in blood flow to know when you’re feeling under pressure or indeed lying”.  As a PR, how would we feel if a journalist had this up their sleeve (or next to their eye) when questioning our spokesperson on a difficult subject?  It seems certain the future is going to make our jobs an information-heavy ethical minefield.

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‘Dan, Dan, Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan, Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan’. Sorry, I had an Alan Partridge moment there. But it’s nice when people remember our name. It makes us feel wanted. Special. Over and above the rest of the drones.  Every time we log on, we’re served with ads about those shoes we were browsing or that apartment in Berlin we fancied staying in. My Facebook feed seems to have toned down the baby photos and holiday snaps in favour of news stories it knows I’ll click on.  In the near future, this personalisation is only going to get more seductive.  Organisations want our data and the quid pro quo for the individual needs to be too good to turn down.  As PRs in the future, we’re going to have this data at our fingertips. We need to be able to interpret it in order to inform the campaigns we create to keep the consumer on-side.

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The Facebook revolt is already well and truly underway among Gen Z, even if Facebook just continues to buy up the communications tools the next generation is using like WhatsApp and Instagram.  So it wasn’t going to be long before Instagram started trialling ads too. So along pops Ello with its altruistic manifesto, claiming “Ello doesn’t sell ads. Nor do we sell data about you to third parties”, even though they will charge for “premium content”. Maybe. Hoorah.  Because we’re all pissed off with Facebook harvesting our data aren’t we? While Ello’s current clunkiness seems like it won’t provide the alternative just yet, the future will see certain sections of society opt-out, fed up of being data farms for brands, regardless of the pay-off.

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Speaking of Gen Z, be brave in the way you try to communicate with them in the future.  I’ve been bowled over by the amazing work West Midlands Police are doing using Snapchat (yes, Snapchat) not to send nudie pics but to do serious and damned effective work.  Ever since Snapchat released its ‘stories’ feature earlier in the year- which lets user share multiple photos in one post which lasts not 10 seconds but 24 hours- the comms team has been sharing images of missing teenagers with some success. Even Mail Online has written about them.

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With all this talk, it can be easy to forget our old pals.  Those members of the fourth estate who have been our friend or foe so many times over the years.  But while the decline of print sales is news to no-one, the rise in online readership has been a huge success story for local media over the past 12 months.  The Trinity Mirror-owned Wales Online (the South Wales Echo and Western Mail in old money) has hugely invested in its digital newsroom and recently reported a 58 per cent rise to 2.2m unique users each month.  Which isn’t too far off the circulation total of 28 days x 2 local papers.  So whatever happens in the future, make sure you invest time in your more traditional relationships.  News outlets all have their own sizeable communities on social networks, so package your story in a multi-platform way (e.g. not just a press release, but with a video, a listicle etc) and see your content shared with a highly engaged audience.

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We’ve struggled for so long to evaluate our impact properly, sometimes on purpose, scared of our real value to organisations.  Measuring the impact of our campaigns is now easier than ever.  The Social Media Panel has recently published guidance on using Google Analytics here.  And for the first time this year, we got together with AMEC, PRCA and the Cabinet Office to agree a framework for evaluation of social media.  You can find templates, case studies and videos on how to use it here.

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And when reputations built up over years can be lost in seconds with one misjudged tweet, whatever happens in the future, PR practitioners have probably the most important job in the world.

A big thanks to the CIPR Social Media Panel for their input, particularly Simon Collister, Michelle Goodall, Elayne Phillips, Paul Wilkinson and Dom Burch.

*Not all ad people have jaunty hats and dogs at their desks but there’s a funny story about a New York agency I was in last year that I should tell you about another time. Remind me…

Founded in April 2010, the CIPR Social Media Panel (#CIPRSM) has played a significant role in the development of CIPR policy guidance, education, and training on the topic of digital and social media in public relations. #CIPRSM is made up of some of the foremost social media thought-leaders and contributors.

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