Future of PR: 2020 edition

This is my annual long-read essay on the future of the PR business. It’s a work in progress. Let me know what I’ve missed.

Dr Jon White is a reflective PR practitioner and scholarly provocateur. He published a paper called PR 2020 on behalf of the CIPR in 2011 that examined the future of PR. The PR 2020 project was based on interviews with PR practitioners throughout the UK and the outlook for the forthcoming decade.

Many of the conclusions reached by Dr White are as relevant today on the eve of 2020 as they were when the paper was originally written. PR is a social science. It is an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary discipline.

There are long standing issues such as alignment with management, measurement, talent and diversity where incremental progress is made each year. And then there are areas of practice that have moved more rapidly. The greatest of these is the shift away from media relations as the dominant means of public engagement to working across all forms of media.

The Paid, Earned, Shared and Owned (PESO) model has emerged as a planning model. PR leads with earned and owned media but also uses paid and shared media for amplification and targeting. We’ve lost some battles but won others. Other disciplines, notably marketing, have encroached on PR practice in areas that lead with paid media, such as influencer marketing and search engine optimisation (SEO).

Macro issues facing PR

There are two macro issues facing the industry both of which were spotlighted by the recent General Election in the UK.

First, the ease with which disinformation can be created and spread via social media has huge implications for public engagement and discourse in society. Second, structural issues in the mainstream media as it continues to transform to digital should be a concern for all practitioners. Public service broadcasting is failing to pick up the shortfall.

I’ve explored these issues, and more, in this essay. Here are the headlines. Please keep reading for the full analysis. They are all issues that will occupy us all in 2020.

Issues in practice
1. Demonstrating value and the talent paradox
2. Gender diversity in PR is an issue as old as the industry itself
3. Representing the public that we serve
4. The mental health and wellbeing conversation is getting louder

What we do
5. Tackling fake news and disinformation: an ethical issue that strikes at the heart of practice
6. Is purpose a means for organisations to rebuild trust in society?
7. Digital: investment in content and paid social, but cuts in SEO and social listening
8. Influencer marketing is messy

How we do it
9. Alignment with management; PR refuses to learn
10. PR slow to adopt an integrated tool stack
11. Waking up to the impact of automation and AI on PR practice

Media in pain
12. News media in pain but new formats emerge
13. Public service media is failing the public

Thank you

My thanks to the following communities and individuals.

In the past 18 months I’ve been fortunate to work with Dr Ralph Tench at Leeds Business School on the fifth edition of Exploring PR. The project has brought me into contact with a new community of more than 50 thinkers and doers. It’s pushed me to read more widely and think more critically.

The #FuturePRoof community goes from strength-to-strength. In 2019 it has published papers on disinformation and influencer marketing. Its founder Sarah Waddington is my fiercest critic but she’s also my most loyal advocate. She always improves my work.

Vuelio named this blog the best PR and communications blog in 2019. That’s thanks to you. I appreciate your comments by email, Facebook and Twitter. Drop me an email if you’ve an idea for a contribution in 2020.

Happy New Year.

Issues in practice

1. Demonstrating value and the talent paradox

Talent remains a critical challenge for the PR industry according to The ICCO World PR Report 2020. At every level of the industry, and in every region of the world, there is a challenge in recruiting and retaining talent.

ICCO consists of national PR trade associations in 55 countries. The report provides an international perspective on the challenges facing the PR business. 43% of respondents reported that there is a lack of talent in PR. Almost half said that the industry failed to recruit from outside.

The issue lies in the inability of PR to achieve its value. It uses proxies as a measurement of success rather than key performance indicators that are aligned to the organisations that it serves.

Advertising value equivalent (AVE) is at the sharp end of this issue. According to The ICCO World PR Report, this continues to be used by almost half of respondents. Use of AVEs is reported as 16% in the UK and 18% in North America. It remains a dominant form of measurement in Asia Pacific (56%), Africa and the Middle East (70%), Latin America (74%), Eastern Europe (56%) and Western Europe (58%).

Measurement and analytics are cited as the leading area of investment in 2020 ahead of influencer marketing (36%), content creation (34%) and research (31%).

Demonstrating the value of the work of PR to organisations is the profession’s Achilles heel. It is its own worst enemy. AMEC is helping drive change raising standards of evaluation all around the world. Its Integrated Evaluation Framework provides a consistent and credible approach that works for organisations of all sizes, but which can be tailored to specific use cases and objectives.

2. Gender diversity in PR is an issue as old as the industry itself

Gender issues in the PR industry are well documented. A study called the Velvet Ghetto commissioned by the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) first called out the gender pay gap in the PR profession in 1986. It suggested that women see themselves as practice rather than management focused and are paid accordingly.

The issue of gender pay has continued to be explored since the IABC study with notable work by Linda Aldoory, Bettina Beurer-Zuellig, Glen M. Broom, David M. Dozier, Larissa A. Grunig and Elizabeth L. Toth, among others.

Other gender issues featured in a book called Women in Public Relations – A Literature Review (1982-2019). This covered the glass ceiling, pay gap, lack of mentorship opportunities and stereotyped expectations of leadership style, where leadership is usually seen as a masculine trait.

The book is a multi-author project led by Dr Martina Topić, a Senior Lecturer in Public Relations at Leeds Business School. It was published by Leeds Beckett University at the Euprera Congress 2019.

Accord to Topić a possible explanation for the PR industry’s lack of progress is the so-called bloke-ification in which women adopt masculine characteristics to progress faster in their career. It’s a theme that Topić has been exploring in her work on women in journalism. She believes the same issues apply in advertising and PR.

Bloke-ification and masculine culture as part of patriarchal social structure says Topić. Offices are predominantly structured around masculine way of working and doing things and around masculine behavioural and leadership patterns.

Women in Public Relations calls on future research to investigate the hurdles that women face in their careers to address the root of the issue. It also calls for investigation into work culture and structures that have so far prevented gender equality in leadership in PR.

3. Representing the public that we serve

Like gender inequality the lack of ethnic and socio-economic diversity remains an ongoing challenge for PR. It’s impossible to keep coming up with creative ideas to reach and resonate with audiences who are not represented by a PR team.

Agencies are trying to improve recruitment practices or partnering with organisations such as The Taylor Bennett Foundation, a charity that exists to encourage black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) graduates to pursue a career in communications. BME PR Pros is a community created by Elizabeth Bananuka that promotes black, Asian and ethnic minority diversity in the creative industries.

Progress is slow. 89% of practitioners in the UK are still white and 80% are graduates and a third are privately educated. In 2019 the created a Schools Outreach Programme in a bid to tackle the issue. It will provide practitioners with the assets and resources they need to visit schools, introduce students to PR, and drive awareness of PR as a career option. The programme is the brainchild of the PRCA’s Diversity Network, led by Pema Seely and Rax Lakhani.

Each corporate PRCA member will be expected to engage with a local school each year. More than 100 members have already committed to supporting the scheme.

4. The mental health and wellbeing conversation is getting louder

In 2017 Sarah Waddington and I investigated the issue of mental health in PR for a #FuturePRoof report published by the PRCA. We found that mental illness in the PR profession was frequently ignored or managed as a line management or performance issue.

It’s a very different situation two years on. Mental health is cited as one of the top issues impacting the profession. It is firmly on the agenda of industry bodies and progressive organisations are talking steps to address it for employees. The managers of agencies and in-house teams have recognised mental health and wellbeing as critical to retention, utilisation and good work. Bold creative and excellent campaigns cannot be delivered by an organisation with a sick culture.

PR can be a stressful occupation. We work in an always on environment, often as an intermediary between stakeholders with very different expectations. If you work in issues and crisis it can be especially acute. The 2019 CIPR State of the Profession survey reported that around a quarter of PR practitioners have taken sickness absence from work on the grounds of stress, anxiety or depression.

There’s also a need for personal responsibility on the part of individuals. Good employers can support the mental health and wellbeing of employees through good management and a progressive workplace, but the organisation needs to deliver its commercial goals.

What we do

5. Tackling fake news and disinformation: an ethical issue that strikes at the heart of practice

The great hope of the web was that it would democratise the publication and sharing of information. It enabled anyone with access to the internet to publish and distribute content at no cost. The internet provided a means for people to connect and communicate with each other, irrespective of location. It disintermediated all previous forms of media enabling anyone to become a publisher.

As traditional media has fragmented, individuals and organisations have created their own media on almost every form of social network. The web and the internet have enabled communities to form around an organisation, topic or issue. The web was the most significant shift in publishing since the invention of the printing press in the 15th Century. The nineties and noughties were a period of huge shifts in media that continue to play out. It was also a time of incredible innovation.

This period corresponded with the rise of mobile networks and devices. You’re likely to be reading this on a mobile phone or you’ll have one within reach. These devices have provided the means for consumers to connect to the internet wherever and whenever.

The web has overhauled organisational communication and marketing. It has created many new forms of media for organisations to engage with their publics using paid, earned, social and owned media. Thirty years after the invention of the web we’re only beginning to realise that it hasn’t brought about the communication utopia that was originally envisaged.

The internet has fragmented into a series of closed networks operated by platforms including Facebook, Google, Instagram and Twitter. Each user has a different algorithm-driven experience based on the data that these platforms gather about us. Public conversation on these personal versions of the internet is corrupted by the loudest voices with the biggest budgets. Algorithms reward bullies, extremists and trolls, and can be circumvented by payment.

Finally, there’s an issue of authenticity. Fake news has become a catch-all term to describe everything from bullshit to blatant manipulation. Legitimate news sources vie for attention in algorithm-driven news feeds along with disinformation and propaganda. It’s a race to the bottom. Regulation is urgently required. Governments and law makers are slowly awakening to the issue but aren’t moving quickly enough.

The Parliamentary Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee made urgent recommendations in its report Disinformation and ‘Fake News’ published in February 2019. It’s finding haven’t been debated in Parliament because of Brexit. In the meantime, professional communications need to keep their wits about them. Sarah Waddington summarised best practice in a #FuturePRoof guide that shares its name with the Parliamentary report.

6. Is purpose a means for organisations to rebuild trust in society?

Trust in organisations is at an all-time low. Seemingly every data points to a breakdown in the relationship between individuals and government, business, non-governmental organisations and media.

The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer reported modest rises in trust across all areas of society, coupled with widespread disenfranchisement. It’s a contradiction that Edelman suggests is contributing to a rise in activism among business leaders, employees and the public. Only one-in-five people believe that the system is working for them, with high levels of injustice, desire for change and lack of confidence. Fears of jobs losses, lack of skills, the rise of automation and international trade are all contributing to pessimism about the future. Edelman cites the Gilet Jaunes protests in France, India’s Women’s Wall for equality, and various employee protests as examples of the public taking issues into its own hands.

In 2019 purpose continued to emerge as a theme in corporate leadership as a means of reconnecting organisations with society. It’s an issue that is quickly rising up the corporate agenda. Larry Fink, CEO, BlackRock, used his annual letters to business leaders in 2018 and 2019 to call companies to account on their societal impact. Purpose is not the sole pursuit of profits but a driving force for achieving them, he said.

“Profits are in no way inconsistent with purpose – in fact, profits and purpose are inextricably linked. Profits are essential if a company is to effectively serve all of its stakeholders over time – not only shareholders, but also employees, customers, and communities.

“Similarly, when a company truly understands and expresses its purpose, it functions with the focus and strategic discipline that drive long-term profitability. Purpose unifies management, employees, and communities. It drives ethical behaviour and creates an essential check on actions that go against the best interests of stakeholders.

“Purpose guides culture, provides a framework for consistent decision-making, and, ultimately, helps sustain long-term financial returns for the shareholders of your company.”

Fink’s words carry the weight of the largest investment fund in the world with more than $6 trillion under management. It’s a conversation that will continue to grow louder.

7. Digital: investment in content and paid social, but cuts in SEO and social listening

Practitioners are embracing social and owned media alongside earned as a means of engagement with an audience or public. This is the conclusion of The PRCA 2019 Digital Report.

The use of social platforms and the creation of content, notably video, are both up year-on-year. Oddly social media listening, used by practitioners as a means of planning and alerting, has fallen. However, it is also an area in which brands wanted more education indicating that they have invested in tools that they aren’t using.

Areas that have seen a reduction in budget are organic and paid social media optimisation. However, paid social media is a significant growth area. It’s indicative of the fact that outside of customer service, social media engagement has largely become a paid activity.

The main reasons for brands having a social media presence are to drive awareness of what they do (86%), to drive wider audience reach (71%), to increase brand awareness (65%), and to use it as a customer service platform (40%).

61% of respondents said that their PR and communications department are responsible for digital and social media content, up 4% year-on-year. The most popular social media platforms amongst in-house organisations are Twitter (90%), down 4% year-on-year, and Facebook (81%), up 9% year-on-year. This is followed by LinkedIn (76%), YouTube (69%), and Instagram (63%).

In terms of the future, technologies that practitioners are seeking to develop skills include augmented and virtual reality (32%), voice/search apps (25%), and chatbots (24%). Voice/search apps have taken over chatbots as one of the areas in which agencies need more education.

8. Influencer marketing is messy

In 2018, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) received 352 complaints about influencers. In 2019, this has more than tripled to above 1,300. According to Markets and Markets the worldwide influencer market is currently estimated at £4.5 billion in 2019. The value exchange between an organisation and influencer is the driver of the relationship. It can be exclusive access to content, products and services, or financial remuneration.

The tension between earned and paid isn’t only a challenge for marketing and PR practitioners. It has also led to influencers themselves breaching advertising and trading standards law.

In the UK influencer campaigns are governed by existing ASA and Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) laws. But these laws are misunderstood. Members of the CIPR and the PRCA have to adhere to their codes of conduct.

The common perception of influencers is individuals on Instagram or YouTube selling stuff. In fact, the market is maturing and far more nuanced. Influence is often confused with popularity. But influence is the ability to shape or change a person’s opinion or behaviour.

Similarly, influence is often used interchangeably with advocacy, but influence is not necessarily positive. Brands can suffer the effect of negative influencers just as much as from positive ones. Selling is only one outcome of working with influencers. Other outcomes include brand awareness, crisis communications, employee advocacy, and social change.

A #FuturePRoof best practice guide published in 2019 provides practical advice on media law as well as information from advertising, marketing and PR professionals. We’re All Influencers Now written by Scott Guthrie, and I, highlights best practice and addresses the need for influencer marketing governance in PR.

How we do it

9. Alignment with management; PR refuses to learn

The drumbeat of PR as a management discipline has grown louder and louder in recent years. Practitioners seek to assert their place in the boardroom. It was cited as the second biggest challenge in The 2019 CIPR State of the Profession survey after the changing digital landscape. However, there’s a significant gap between aspiration and reality. Four percent of senior in-house practitioner are directly responsible for the strategy of their organisation. Less than one-in-ten respondents in senior roles are executive members of a board.

Craft rather than technical or management skills account for the most popular skills in PR at all levels. In junior roles media relations (58%) and social media relations (45%) make up the top three most commonly undertaken tasks after writing. In senior roles media relations and campaigns are equal second (48%).

There remains a notable difference, particularly at a senior level, between the skills that employers seek and the capabilities of practitioners. At a junior practitioner level, recruiters value technical and digital; research and evaluation; and project and account management skills. Practitioners don’t identify these as strengths. At a senior level a gap exists is areas such as research, evaluation and measurement; corporate governance; and people management. PR is the profession that seemingly refuses to learn.

There’s an indication that practitioners recognise their weakness. Failing to be recognised as a profession and an expanding skillset were ranked third and fourth as challenges facing the industry. The rewards are clear for practitioners with ambition and a commitment to continuous learning. Average salaries amongst full-time employees grew by almost £1,500 to £53,044 per year in 2018. Chartered Practitioners earn an average of £18,000 more per year than the average respondent, while those with a professional qualification earn an average £3,800 more.

10. PR slow to adopt an integrated tool stack

Workflow in the PR business is typically built on point products strung together with Excel and Word documents. Meanwhile the market for technology in marketing and PR is exploding. There’s seemingly a tool for every aspect of our work. It’s possible to run a news desk or community management campaign from your phone using listening, content, channel and monitoring apps.

Martech: 2020 and Beyond published by BDO, WARC, and the University of Bristol, estimates that worldwide marketing technology is $121.5 billion. It says 22% of companies are starting to embrace a platform over a suite from best in breed vendors. 48% use a primary vendor along with specialist providers.

PR tools are a subset of marketing automation, characterised by a small number of platform products and a series of point solutions. Three years ago, the #PRstack project identified more than 150 different PR apps and tools.

Platforms have typically been created by acquiring and stitching together products. Cision has made more than $1bn of acquisitions in the past five years in a bid to develop cloud based workflow. It’s the gorilla in the market. The Cision Cloud platform includes listening, influencer identification, content planning, channel distribution and measurement.

Access Intelligence built out its tool platform this year to include social media listening and audience segmentation (Pulsar) alongside influencer and journalist identification (Vuelio) and relationship management (ResponseSource).

Tools to watch include answerthepublic (Google search intelligence), Brandwatch (consumer intelligence), coveragebook (automated coverage books), Newswhip (predictive news intelligence) and Traackr (influencer marketing).

11. Waking up to the impact of automation and AI on PR practice

An Office of National Statistics (ONS) report, The Probability of Automation in England: 2011 and 2017, published in March 2019, analysed the jobs of 20 million people in England and concluded that around 7.4% or 1.5 million jobs in England are at high risk of some of their duties and tasks being automated in the future. Younger people are more likely to be in roles affected by job automation. Of those aged 20 to 24 years who are employed, 15.7% were in jobs at high risk of automation.

In the PR sector AI is transforming media and workflow. The ONS report is consistent with the CIPR’s analysis in this area. Humans Still Needed, a paper by Jean Valin published in March 2018, suggested found that 12% of a PR practitioner’s total skills (out of 52 skills) could be complemented or replaced by AI today, with a prediction that this could climb to 38% within five years.

It’s not all bad news. Fundamental human traits such as empathy, trust, humour and relationship building can’t be automated. AI is creating opportunities for practitioners to help organisations communicate about AI and its impact on society. Venture capital investment into the UK’s AI sector has risen almost six-fold in the last five years according to TechNation. In 2018 AI companies raised almost twice the investment of counterparts in France and Germany.

A PwC study published in 2017 estimated innovation in AI could fuel GDP growth of ten percent by 2030. That’s equivalent to adding more than £200 billion to the economy. AI and Data are one of the four so-called Grand Challenges set out in the government’s Industrial Strategy in November 2017. The three other areas are clean growth, the future of mobility and the ageing society.

AI is also the subject of a Sector Deal aimed at partnership between government and industry to create significant opportunities to boost productivity, employment, innovation and skills. The Office for Artificial Intelligence is taking responsibility for overseeing the AI and Data Grand Challenge and delivering the commitments as set out in the AI Sector Deal.

An AI Council and Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation have also been established. The Council brings together academia, industry and public sector. The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation provides independent, expert advice on AI and data-driven technologies.

Media in pain

12. News media in pain but new formats emerge

More than a third (35%) of the UK public claims that it avoids the news according to Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2019.The UK is suffering a collective breakdown triggered by the news media. People report that the news negatively affects their mood and they feel powerless to affect events. Trust in the news has fallen 11% since 2015. Even the most trusted brands such as the BBC are perceived as biased especially on issues such as Brexit and climate change.

Newspaper brands continue to suffer as readers shift from print to digital. Popular newspaper brands have suffered double digit falls in print circulation year-on-year with The Daily Star (-18%), The Daily Mirror (-13%), and The Daily Express (-12%) hardest hit. Broadsheet titles have also suffered significant year on year declines in print but are pinning their hopes on new online revenue.

Advertising-supported media has been affected by widespread job cuts including around a dozen people at digital-born BuzzFeed. The local and regional media has been hit hardest with the net closure of 245 local news titles in the last 13 years according to Press Gazette research.

This is the story that has played out over the past two decades as advertising revenues have shifted from print to online. Facebook and Google account for almost 60% of the online advertising market. Good news is hard to find. Blame is directed squarely at social media platforms and the BBC. Regulation of social media platforms seems to be inevitable in response to increasing political scrutiny.

Alternative business models and content formats offer a glimmer of hope although revenues are limited despite the best efforts of the news industry.

More than a million people worldwide have voluntarily contributed to The Guardian in the last three years, with 650,000 currently paying to support the publication on an ongoing basis. A new slow news venture, Tortoise, launched in April 2019 with 2,500 paying members. It’s an open model of journalism in which readers and the communities on which it reports are invited into the newsroom. Double Down News is an innovative news project by George Monbiot focused on the news values of people, ideas, evidence and community. Like Tortoise it engages its readers in news gathering process.

More publishers are getting involved in audio. The Guardian, The Economist, and The Financial Times have launched or rebranded daily news podcasts in the last year. The BBC is investing heavily in smart speakers and AI while The Guardian has set up an experimental Voice Lab.

13. Public service media is failing the public

The audience for public service news is old and educated. Public service media in many countries is failing to provide a universal service. They are struggling to reach younger audiences and people with limited formal education. These are the findings of a report called Old, Educated, and Politically Diverse: The Audience of Public Service News by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. The report draws on survey data from The Reuters’ 2019 Digital News Report. It covers eight European countries: Finland, Germany, United Kingdom, Czech Republic, Spain, Italy, France and Greece.

The reports finds that public service media struggles to engage with audiences online. Most of the people they reach online are already reached offline.

The BBC in the UK is a notable exception. It’s the only public service media whose cross-platform reach is significantly greater (10%). In most cases online adds five per cent or less to the audience reach. It compares online and offline news consumption by 18- to 25-year-olds. It benchmarks against rival commercial online news media, Facebook and YouTube.

Social media platforms are the primary source of news in many European countries. Herein lies a flaw in the research as public service news is also served via these platforms.

Young audiences cite Facebook as a source of news in seven out of eight countries. YouTube ranks higher in six of eight countries covered.

The report documents how public service news audiences skew towards older people. Over 55s account for about half of total weekly reach, ranging from 42% (Czech Republic) to 52% (Germany). Public service media relies on offline news content to reach younger people. Half or more of the 18- to 24-year-old audience are reached offline only, in most countries.

Public service news may be exacerbating social inequality rather than closing this gap. The report finds that public service news is less used by those with limited formal education. In Germany, only 13% of the least-educated group use the ARD and ZDF online services at least once a week. This compares with 17% of the wider population. This number drops to 11% for RAI in Italy, 9% for RTVE in Spain, and 8% for the joint PSMs’ online services in France.

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