Here’s my analysis of the opportunities and challenges that public relations faces in the next 12 months.
There’s no formal methodology and they’re not so much predictions as a series of stories that I’ve recorded on my blog during 2018.
It’s where I’m placing bets over the next 12 months. Please let me know what I’ve missed.
#1 What’s your purpose?
Purpose is something you’ll be hearing a lot more of in 2019. Larry Fink, CEO, BlackRock, fired a warning shot in January 2018 about the contribution of corporations to society beyond profit. In his organisation’s anniversary letter to business leaders he called companies to account on their societal impact.
Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. To prosper long term, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also benefit all their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers and communities in which they operate.
John O’Brien and Andrew Cave’s book The Power of Purpose is a good guidebook to organisational purpose.
#2 Building a post-Brexit vision for Britain
Brexit has divided nations, regions, political parties, organisations and even families in the UK. If, like me, you’re a Remainer and two years on from the referendum you’re struggling to figure out why the UK voted to leave the EU, Robert Peston’s book WTF? is a helpful primer.
Whatever your view of Brexit or the future of our relationship with the EU, public relations practitioners have an important role in helping unite the country and heal the tear in society that has resulted.
That process needs to start with listening and bringing people together. Practitioners have an important role in supporting international trade, and engaging public opinion in shaping a vision for the future of Britain.
#3 Digital divide: digital isn’t democratic
The benefits of the last ten years of internet connectivity have not been distributed equally among UK citizens.
According to Ofcom’s Communication Report 2018, lower-income households and over-54s are less likely to have smartphones, laptops and tablets, but are as likely to have a TV. Mobile phones (96%) and TVs (95%) are the only communications devices with near universal reach in the UK.
Do not make the mistake of assuming that because lot of people have access to the internet everyone does. It’s an issue identified in the United Nation’s report on poverty in the UK. You need to work hard to reach non-internet users.
#4 Weaponised media
Fake news is used to describe everything from blatant lies to any subject with which an individual or organisation disagrees. It’s an issue as old as media itself that has been given renewed stimulus by social media and the internet.
The past two years have seen media weaponised by political discourse. There are some interesting innovative media models seeking to reverse the trend.
Spaceship Media is a US start-up that seeks to support dialogue between polarised groups through community management. Its goal is to find areas mutual understanding and uncover stories.
The role of public relations in modern organisations
#5 Internal communications and the shift to the social organisation
Internal communication is enjoying a renaissance and significant growth thanks to the emergence of the social organisation.
These forward-thinking organisations are using new technologies as a means of listening and engaging with employees. Social leaders use platforms and technology to build relationships externally with employees, customers, and other stakeholders. It’s a power form of advocacy.
Julian Stodd’s work at Sea Salt Learning is must read in this area.
#6 Management recognition
Practitioners want to be taken seriously by the board. The CIPR’s focus in 2018 has been for public relations to be recognised as a management discipline.
To make the shift from tactical activities, practitioners need to align and measure everything they do with the objectives of the organisation that they serve.
They also need to professional development seriously, in the form of accreditation, qualifications and continuous learning.
The #FuturePRoof community founded by Sarah Hall supports the managers of agencies and communications teams with best practice advice and guidance aimed at promoting public relations as a management discipline.
Characterising the UK public relations industry
#7 Business is booming
In 2018, the public relations business is worth £13.8 billion to the UK economy according to the PRCA Census 2018. That’s growth of seven percent since 2016 when it reached £12.9 billion. The PRCA claims it employs 86,000 people, up 3,000 from 2016.
CIPR data is more conservative. Its State of the Profession survey reports a workforce of 71,000.
The industry may been booming but its changing fast. It’s a story borne out by the end of year hiring freezes and redundancies in the publicly owned networks.
#8 Back to the future
Only in the public relations business would an organisation reclaiming its profession be a story. It’s happened twice in 2018 as both Golin and M&C Saatchi have restated their commitment to the formal definition of public relations.
Here’s the issue: public relations used to be synonymous with publicity and media relations. That’s changed with the fragmentation of media as agencies have used new forms of media to engage with the public in the broadest sense.
#9 Shifts in agency land
Exceeding client expectations and being brave while delivering growth and modernising around an integrated media proposition is as tough as it gets in the agency business. This is the challenge that all agencies that are part of publicly listed groups face.
In the last two years back office, infrastructure and brands have been consolidated. It’s an inevitable trend that is set to continue in agency land wherever maximising shareholder value is a primary goal.
Exploring the modern media landscape
#10 Who influences you?
Influencer relations is a developing area of marketing and public relations that is fraught with confusion and complexity.
Reach is prioritised over relationships. Planning and measurement are limited. The cost of paid influencers is often inflated. Governance and transparency are a work in progress.
The good news is that the tool market is helping to make sense of the market. Social media listening and network analysis is used to understand the resonance, relevance and reach of influencers for a campaign.
#11 Peak social media
Facebook has reached user saturation in developed markets. Daily active users have reached 1.5 billion.
There’s been no sign of the much predicted backlash in 2018 as a result of either data misuse, fake news or polarised discourse, although research by Pew Research suggests that two-fifths of users have taken a break in the last 12 months.
Twitter’s monthly active user numbers have declined from 336 million in Q1 2018, to 326 million in Q3, 2018 however the platform continues to have significant influence on the news media and is used regularly by politicians, journalists and activists.
#12 Tell me a story
The lack of innovation in social media platforms is further indicator of the medium’s maturity.
The Story format has been adopted universally by consumer social media platforms after being developed originally by Snap. These are collections of photos, messages and videos that delete after 24 hours. Instagram and Facebook have both adopted the format.
Facebook said organisations have yet to be convinced to adopt this within advertising campaigns. The same applies to earned stories.
#13 Voice is hot public relations tech
Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have been strong bets in annual analysis for innovative forms of media in the last five years. Neither has gained traction with the public beyond niches such as gaming.
The hottest area of innovation in public relations in the next 12 months will be voice. This new class of technology is incorporated into voice assistants such as the Amazon Echo or Google Home.
The opportunity is to create content to respond to voice queries; serve news and information; and build apps or skills to serve your audience.
Skills to get on and get ahead in public relations
#14 March of machines
Technology and tools continue to drive public relations practice forward enabling us to work more efficiently and demonstrate our value.
We’re using tools to identify publics and listen to conversations. We use tools such as Brandwatch and Talkwalker for social media listening and insight; Traackr for identifying stakeholders; and Quid for natural language analysis.
According to a report by the CIPR called Humans still needed: An analysis of skills and tools in public relations 12% of public relations skills can already be undertaken or significantly enhanced by artificial intelligence. This figure is likely to rise to 38% over the next five years.
Future proof your career in public relations by focusing on the skill areas where artificial intelligence is unlikely to impact practice: law, ethics, professional and personal.
#15 Basic skills: coding and writing
There’s a significant focus on coding in modern education. Codecademy is an online interactive platform that offers free coding classes in 12 different programming languages. It’s an excellent initiative backed by Facebook, IBM and Google that has seen 45 million students graduate.
Coding is a critical skill for the future however in public relations, writing academies may be more appropriate. 73% of practitioners responding to the CIPR State of the Profession survey reported copywriting and editing as the most commonly undertaken activity in their current job. The CIPR has kicked off its State of the Profession survey for 2019 and would welcome your views.
#16 Managing measurement
AMEC is an organisation that shouldn’t need to exist. That it does shows that the public relations industry still has a significant way to go to align and measure its objectives against the objectives of an organisation.
The organisation added an important tool to its toolkit this year, alongside the Integrated Evaluation Framework. Its Measurement Maturity Mapper, or M3 for short, enables organisations to benchmark their approach to research, planning and measurement.
#17 Listening to conversations
The internet has created an explosion in data. Third party data services enable public areas of the social web and internet to be explored. It’s like having access to a massive focus group that no one has commissioned.
We have finally started to shift from data used as a means of monitoring to it be applied as a form of intelligence. The opportunity is for this data to be used as a form of insight to improve products and services, and an organisation’s relationship with its stakeholders.
The cost of tools is creating a two-speed industry split by those that budget tool costs and those that seek free solutions.