1998 seen from 1988

To mark the passing of Dr. Reginald Watts Hon FCIPR, former President of the Institute, the CIPR have for the first time digitally republished Reginald’s contribution to the 40th Anniversary edition of the The Journal of The Institute of Public Relations (Volume 6, Number 4), first published in Summer 1988.

The piece discusses the PC revolution, multi-channel television, and the future impact of smartphones and artificial intelligence.

The role of the futurologist is not a happy one. His dreams may come true, but nobody notices.   No businessman wakes on a Monday morning and notes how the forecaster’s fantasy has become a reality. Each step is so small that nobody notices the change. All they see are the symptoms. A competitor goes out of business, another wins an order, staff problems proliferate and difficulties change their clothes; nobody actually tracks the underlying trend.

This scenario of slow change may be altering. The acceleration has become so rapid that twelve months ahead is like a glimpse into a new world and any PR practitioner who fails to notice the symptoms quickly sees others driving past on the inside track.

So, what changes can we expect in our business during the next ten years? Certainly, there will be less preoccupation with the structure and organisation of the Institute than we saw in Geoffrey Lewis’s forward look when, in 1973 he wrote ‘Looking Ahead to 1998’. A tougher business climate has made public relations practitioners concentrate almost solely on bottom-line considerations, whether they are those of their company or their client. In-house, the practitioner is concerned with gaining a competitive edge for his employer, while consultancy staff have to be more money conscious than ever before and concerned with their own bottom-line.

Geoffrey Lewis, writing in 1973 about the PR discipline, saw it as part of the behavioural sciences—as I did when I wrote ‘Reaching the Consumer’ back in the sixties. Today few people would even question the fact that academically we are really part of business studies. The direction and the techniques we call upon have all changed as a reflection of the nation’s economic mood. We are likely over the next decade to become more and more a part of the wider business scene.

What then are the milestones we’ll pass during the next ten years?

  • There will be such a revolution in telecommunications that each of us, with PCs on our desks and in our briefcases, will network straight onto client, journalist or business colleague’s screens. Items will be checked and discussed by miniaturised personal radio and we will be automatically designing our own communications style with graphics software straight from screen to page. There will be a need to break through the information clutter that will be a hundred times more dense by 1998 than it is now. It will mean short, sharp sentences, visual graphics to drive a point home and more cross-system information sources. As you dial someone on your video phone you will be able to see the recipient in a window on the screen where you’re working and data will be inserted immediately. The combination of micro-film and CD-ROM will mean all practitioners will work only on PCs. All the background data they need will be called up on the screen as they write. This does not mean a lessening of print media, in fact desk-top publishing software will be part of everyone’s PC. This means a flood of more magazines, sponsored journals, street give-aways and controlled circulation formats. The only difference will be that they will be more immediate, produced on the spot and directed at audiences by name.
  • Despite the availability of 30-40 television channels, some by cable, some by satellite, the majority of programmes will be pap. The specialist channels will be a PR open-house and by 1998 practitioners will still not have conquered how best to use the television media for day-to-day work. Major placements on an increasingly commercialised service will have expanded and some PR departments (including the large consultancies and some boutiques) will be coming to terms with small, newsy fillers. Unfortunately, the skills in PR will not have grown in proportion to the demand from this medium. The reason? The expanding television service will suck in all the talent and there will not have been time for a fall-out of executives into PR as there has been in print journalism.
  • Equally, the businessman (or woman) you are trying to reach through your public relations work will be accepting messages and ideas on screens in his office that will have replaced the need to read hard copy. Inter-personal communications, whether we like it or not, will have reached such a level of intensity that we can only hope coronary heart disease will be cured by then! The personalised and miniaturised portable telephone, probably with a small video screen, will mean you can’t get away from telephones or people. Decision-making will be faster, more immediate because of the availability of data on which to base decisions, and more dangerous as your words are automatically recorded. Your word truly will be your bond by that time.
  • The use of research and direct marketing techniques will have changed public relations from being a macro-communications system to one of directing messages to people by name. The drawing together of extensive data-bases, with the pin-point accuracy that enhanced Acorn-style research can offer, will mean an end to the generalised listing of target audiences for PR programmes under bland headings such as ‘investment analysts’, ‘national media’ or ‘all ABC1 consumers’. This will be a thing of the past. Target audiences will be listed by name like mailing lists, and PR practice will consist of a merging of the techniques now used in direct marketing, research, direct mail and media planning, so that one quantified communications plan is calculated, designed and then measured for results.One area where this type of precision attack will be used is the City. The days of ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink — I’ll get you a mention in the Sunday columns’ will be over. The quality of practitioners will not only have improved. but the skills will have changed as more and more merchant bankers with IT experience will have begun to dominate the City PR scene.
  • In amongst all this high-tech precision, the role of the generalist, the senior practitioner who can absorb all this information, draw a view and advise precisely how the message should be put, will have grown and expanded. Such practitioners’ time will be on sale at a very high premium. After all, when everyone has the data it’s the man who can add the magic ingredient who wins. Fifth generation computer software will not produce the lateral ideas that separate artificial intelligence from the real thing.
  • When it comes to the shape of the consultancy sector we can expect the current trends to continue but more so. The large consultancies will have come to terms with the appalling shortage of management skills among their staff—a few more consultancies will have fallen apart and been absorbed in other groups by 1998, but the sensible consultancy groups will have started sending senior staff to business school. Dr White will find no shortage of students for his Cranfield MBA if he can hold out long enough — while the large international agencies, historically slow to change their attitudes, catch on to where the real need lies. The burgeoning of small specialist consultancies will be the phenomenon of the 90’s, as it will be in the general business consultancy field. Depth of knowledge and intellectual fire-power will be in great demand by clients, and anyone of whatever size organisation who can offer this will be able to charge high fees. The booming economy will make consultancy work less price-sensitive than it is now providing the quality of service is there.
  • All consultancies will operate across national frontiers as a matter of course. With English the lingua franca of business there will be even less need to learn foreign languages and the leadership position held by US and UK practitioners will mean they will be heavily in demand on the Pacific Rim. Joint companies will be set up, less for straight forward referral than for the need by Far East practitioners to thaw on US and UK expertise in communications. Once they’ve learnt they will soar ahead of us. Europe, operating as a simple economic community for six years, will be fighting back and PR operations will have almost ceased to think in terms of individual countries.

What do these milestones mean to the poor practitioner plodding forward on his daily trail? Public relations will either embrace all these new disciplines and master them, or it will be left behind in the race for success. The training function of the Institute will grow, but its relevance will depend upon our ability to train trainers as the re-skilling of most practitioners could become a problem of greater magnitude than anyone believes possible today.

The Institute will have probably changed out of all proportion by 1998. It will be more a facilitator, a resource centre offering knowledge-based help and support. It will be less concerned with committees, with structures and with formal meetings. After all, why meet for decision-making when the Director, or task-oriented chairman, can call up all the members on his screen and get an on-the-spot decision.

Because the members will be working less hours and money will more readily available (Britain will have had ten years of economic expansion and it will show), there will be less inclination to sit around, pontificating over issues. The golf course, the squash court and the art gallery will be calling by 3.30 in the afternoon and decision-making by senior executives will be restricted to those areas where it really matters and during a shorter working day.

All the signs are that the work ethic as we know it will be on the decline and people will only be prepared to work the extra hours if it brings satisfaction or more money to buy better leisure pursuits. This means the cost of public relations as a knowledge-based service industry will have risen and every pound spent on it will be judged and quantified.

There will be a massive growth in the consultancy function — as there will be throughout the whole business scene — and in-house practitioners will see themselves increasingly at boardroom level. The need for junior staff in-house will fall as it becomes easier and more economic to buy outside time on an ‘as and when’ basis. But the public relations director will assume a powerful role as the bridge between boardroom strategy and consultancy activity. Some consultancies, however, will themselves bridge the gaps between academic study and business usage, so that they themselves become strategy boutiques involved in detailed elements of corporate semiology and communication theory.

In summary, by the time the next decade closes, we can expect to see more capital investment on computer and telecommunications hardware, more high-powered business school trained practitioners at the top and less, much less, argument about what is and what-is not public relations. Our practitioners will be concerned with one thing — how best to communicate an idea so that it is accepted and acted upon. It will be an exciting time and it’s just my luck that I’ll be thinking about retirement when it arrives.

  1. What an appropriate tribute. Reggie’s piece is very good, though it probably took 20 years to get there rather than the 10 he anticipated. ‘Short, sharp sentences, visual graphics to drive a point home’. Good stuff!

  2. So sad to hear about Reggie’s passing. I worked on a number of occasions with Reggie. He combined an astute PR brain, consummate manners, overlaying a fundamental decency that touched all he met.
    His study of semiotics in his ‘retirement’ years was a shining example for all us all to renew our talents, thinking and intellect.
    Hope we can find some way as a profession to uphold his memory and inspiration.

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