10 Key Trends That Will Change the World of Public Relations

10 Key Trends That Will Change the World of Public Relations

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Michael O'Keeffe, Chief Executive, PSG Communications
Michael O’Keeffe, Chief Executive, PSG Communications

Like many industries, the world of public relations is changing rapidly. Michael O’Keeffe, chief executive of PSG Communications looks at ten key trends that will have an impact of PR professionals

  1. Convergence

There was a time, not long ago, when you knew who your competition was. They offered the same services more or less, charged in around the same as you and looked and talked pretty much like you did. Now however, all has changed.

There are changes happening all around PR firms. Media buying agencies have hired creative folk, digital experts, content generators and sponsorship strategists. Traditional below the line agencies are now offering social media and digital, some consumer PR and influencer engagement, while Creative agencies have hired PR experts, social media experts and more. PR agencies on the other hand are now delving deeper into brand strategy as well as offering new services such as creative, video, digital and design.

In addition, the more traditional corporate and Public Affairs agencies in many cases own the relationship with the CEO and are guardians of the reputation and strategy, and are now in competition somewhat with management consultancies in some places. Your competition set is now far more complex and diverse. This isn’t going to go away in the next 12 months so you need to think differently about who you are competing with and how you differentiate yourself.

Convergence of a different kind is also a threat to PR agencies. As companies expand their service offerings, especially in technology, clients and potential clients start moving into a conflict space. A modern Communications consultancy has to be able to manage this as accountancy and legal practices have.

  1. Reputation is key

“It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.” – Benjamin Franklin.

Reputation management will become even more important on the list as a primary PR service in 2017. It has been there already, but in a very fluid and volatile world, its importance is ever increasing.

From media coverage to political changes to cyber-attacks to social media to online reviews, businesses, governments, organisations and individuals will rely on communicators to build, protect and enhance their reputations.

Following the revelations that Russia may have interfered with the outcome of the US democratic elections, there is even more concern about the destruction of reputations and brands through fake news sources and damaging leaks. Fake news sites could be a new threat in creating or elongating communications crises issues that could harm an organisation’s reputation. When you also factor in the explosion of online rating websites, the need for public relations and communications professionals to actively work to protect brands is even more relevant and apparent.

While social media platforms such as Facebook have announced plans to deal with this issue, it is nonetheless a significant challenge for communications professionals. As one commentator put it, these issues need emotional intelligence and skill and cannot be solved with one-click algorithms from firms who send out generic responses to complaints. This new dawn requires thoughtful consideration from communications professionals. 

PR firms need to look to enhance their skillset to provide deeper and more accurate reputation auditing, reputation management and reputation recovery services, in a coherent and sellable way. The opportunity is significant.

  1. Data is everything

PR companies are great at coming up with creative ideas. The key for 2017 and beyond, is to show the insights that led to that idea via research and to illustrate through data the impact this idea may have.

An idea on its own is simply that. An idea. A standalone tactic.

It is easier now than ever to collate data, especially from the internet to back up an idea or concept or tactic.

You will need to use data to drive your PR campaign including getting to know your audience based on the stats you know about it, figuring out which type of content you have created, disseminated or posted is most popular and determining the best time to post based on when your audience is online. This seems obvious and some have been doing to for several years.

Data is essential for measurement too. Measuring the impact of your PR campaigns has continued to evolve with the digital landscape, and today we are able to more accurately measure the engagement, reach and results of PR efforts.

  1. Influencer marketing and PR role

As Consumer trust in advertising weakens and even trust in traditional media is showing signs of decline, some reports now say we trust so called “influencers” as much as close friends. This seems particularly true in those age groups that have not embraced traditional media and have grown up in a mobile first world.

Recommendations from strangers and social media stars dominated much of 2016 and is likely to get more sophisticated as brands move away from throwing freebies at over exposed social media influencers who jump from brand to brand, adding little value to the brand or their own brand outside of guaranteeing eyeballs.

Agencies and brands will get smarter in 2017, seeking those who will really resonate with their target audience and who are really aligned to the product or service and values. A partnership approach can be agreed, whereby the influencer can leverage the brand for their own career purposes and the brand leverage the influencer for authenticity and cut through.

Finding authentic advocates who actually connect with their followers and your target audience is the new guide. …not just numbers and not just ticking a box.

Celebrities and influencers just looking for a cheque won’t be a priority for most companies. The much-reported backlash against influencer marketing is more about its evolution and why in 2017, authentic voices will take the spotlight and deliver results for brands and this needs to be embraced and not scorned. Influencer marketing rules will be tightened up and this particular form of engagement with target audiences will become a firm part of most consumer PR and social and even sponsorship activation plans.

Influencer marketing is entering the difficult teenage years but is here to stay. If done correctly, then everyone can benefit. Consumer. Influencer. Brand. Agency.

  1. Visual Storytelling – Video is now the star

PR professionals are storytellers.

However, how publics consume media and stories has changed. As our society and day to day existence becomes more and more visual, video has been a top trend for a few years. Recent research shows that the average person watches at least one video every day and it’s no surprise given live video’s success, especially on social media. One report even optimistically suggests that by 2020, 75% of mobile traffic will be video.

What is a fact, is that live video is racking up billions of views on Facebook, Periscope and other platforms. Live video exploded in 2016 and will continue to dominate conversations next year. Despite recent revelations that of inflated video viewing figures, video will continue to be a key asset in reaching your target audiences. With that comes its own challenges. Such is the level of video content consumers are now saturated with, some commentators hold the view that you now have a window of just three seconds to grip your audience. This presents an even greater challenge for brands and communications professionals alike in 2017. The content must be eye catching and snappy.

There is obvious evidence available to start using video and other visual tools – such as infographics, images and slide shows – in your PR campaign.

As was the case with great PR photography helping hugely to sell a PR story, visuals that are easily developed and cost effective will help your story be shared and successful in the new visual fast consuming world we live in.

  1. PR’s role in bought and sponsored media

Being first cousins of journalists, many PR professionals are experts in developing content. It used to be press releases, statements, opinion articles, blogs, speeches and photography captions.

The rise of sponsored and “bought” content provides PR forums with a massive opportunity.

Sponsored content, paid for content and advertiser generated content is something that is not going to go away, especially as ad blocking continues to rise and media owners seek revenue streams and are open to accepting content from a trusted third party.

Traditional PR and media types may not like it, but anything branded in look or tone will shift towards the sponsored or paid for variety. Instead of fearing this, both media owners and PR firms need to embrace this. Buying media space is one thing. Writing and creating content that readers will actually want to read is another.

Good PR firms have the ability to bridge this gap between what is commercial and readable. Good commercial content can and should be valuable and readable. Advertisers and media buyers simply cannot provide this function. Pure journalists struggle with this concept too. This gap can and should be filled by good content generators from communications companies.

  1. SEO and PR continue to align

The missing link to bolster PR campaigns and PR generated content may be the search knowledge behind content. SEO and Public Relations will continue to align more closely in 2017 so all content published addresses the key messaging, is of high quality and optimised for search.

SEO has traditionally been a function of the digital experts and agencies but as earned media and thought leadership continue to dominate, we will see this skillset continue to develop in PR professionals.

  1. Real time response

You no longer have days to react in PR. In fact, in many cases, you no longer have 24 hours.

You now have hours and sometimes minutes, and you have to be prepared. Real-time responses will be among the big PR trends next year. Good social media experts have been doing it for years. This will now become less the exceptional and more then norm.

Consumers are now getting used to getting instant responses from brands and seeing them react quickly to events, and you will have to live up to their expectations and be ready to pounce in a way that doesn’t jar or look too corporate. If you are on social, you need to be “on”. Real time PR and “newsjumping” is here to stay.

The same applies to crisis management. The first “holding” response needs to be early and needs to be on message and tone, even in the absence of all the information. Empty vacuums filled with inaccurate voices and misinformation can have a disastrous impact in a crisis making the need for a real time response even greater.

  1. Employer Brand and Thought Leadership

There is undoubtedly a “war for talent” at all levels in Dublin as well as other busy major cities throughout Europe. Being a EMEA hub for technology is one particular pinch point.  What differentiates one company over another when the basics of salary and hard financial benefits are similar? The days of free food and fancy table tennis tables attracting young talent are on the way out.

Companies are looking to tangible CSR programmes, value based propositions and even treats and experiences via sponsorship properties to attract talent and retain.

A relatively new PR trend I envisage coming more to the fore involves companies and their key executives becoming thought leaders. The need to earn the attention and trust of your audience by showing that you are an authority on a particular subject is important. Expect to see more senior executives publish articles, blog posts, email newsletters and videos that educate clients, potential clients and staff.

Public Relations and Communications experts are skilled at profiling companies and senior executives, and know that it is valuable for key employees and industry leaders to create high quality content that has cut through.

You will likely witness thought leadership pieces that are created by leading PR professionals on behalf of clients being driven by data and analytics. The content will engage audiences and articles should be optimised and promoted for search to grow traffic.

Companies will be looking at innovative ways to attract talent by either breathing new life into tiring Graduate programmes or looking at innovative benefits to attract and retain highly paid senior executives. Being a thought leader is an important element of this.

  1. Value not cost

For many years now, PR and Communications firms have applied the traditional and restrictive “Pay-by-the-hour” system, most likely through retainers and projects. One has to question if this is the right model for both client and agency longer term.

However, as PR and Communications become less and less of a Monday to Friday operation and as the value of certain strategic advice increases, charging for the value and potential business impact of the work rather than its cost, may become more prevalent and PR firms need to consider being more bullish about the true value of their work.

We are now witnessing communications professionals operating at boardroom level for major companies and there is some who will argue that in today’s fluid business environment, a Head of Communications or Corporate Affairs is just as important to a company as a Head of Finance. This is something PR firms need to be acutely aware of in 2017.

In summary, PR and Communications Professionals will have to adapt to changing techniques and remain fluid and agile. A recent Microsoft study in the UK showed that senior CEOs believed that their business models had only another two years before they would need to change. Senior leaders will need to adapt to telling an evolving story to an ever changing audience, both internally and externally. PR and Communications Professionals will need to adapt and innovate to stay relevant.

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