The Changing Role of Public Relations: 5 Insights from the Global Communications Report 2017


In-house PR professionals, agency PR professionals and client-side marketers are known for their differences of opinion about the future of public relations. Key points that these stakeholders disagree and agree on are outlined in the Global Communications Report 2017, compiled by the USC Center for Public Relations and the Association of National Advertisers in consultation with their partner organizations. Here are five important insights drawn from the report and its associated research on The Evolution of Public Relations.

1. PR is becoming more important to marketing, even as both disciplines continue to converge

Client-side marketers plan to increase both internal staffing and overall spending on public relations over the next five years, according to ANA’s 2017 survey of U.S. marketers.

Increased spending suggests that public relations is “becoming more important to marketers”, said ANA’s Group EVP Bill Duggan, citing the crucial role for PR in managing digital communication and feedback loops.

At the same time, a majority of surveyed marketers (61%) believed that PR will become more closely aligned with marketing, while 20% went so far as to say that PR will become a subset of marketing.

The global and U.S. PR professionals surveyed, however, were more hesitant about the convergence of PR and marketing. PR agency leaders indicated that they report most frequently into corporate communications (39%), which is more than into marketing (21%) or brand management (12%), but this gap is narrowing as client solutions become increasingly integrated.

Meanwhile, 18% of corporate communications departments were reporting into marketing. This proportion could grow if more organizations follow the example of Procter & Gamble, Virgin America and other well known companies by restructuring their marketing functions to include PR.

Whether convergence will expand or diminish the role of the PR professional is hotly contested. What does seem likely is that a broader skill set will be required to navigate the fluidity of marketing and PR in a digital world.

2. Declining revenues from earned media will put the spotlight on paid, shared and owned media – and the skills required to profit from them

PR agencies and in-house PR teams alike expect declining revenues from earned media over the next five years, prompting more spending on paid, shared and owned media.

Supporting this shift, over 60% of surveyed PR executives believed that branded content and influencer marketing, which are both primarily paid, will be important trends over the next five years.

Paid content, however, has long been the domain of advertising. PR professionals in a changing media landscape may benefit from mastering media buying, the report suggests, but this currently ranks last on the list of skills PR professionals consider important for future growth.

Meanwhile, more than half of the PR executives in the study believed that the consumer of the future will not distinguish between paid and earned media. Another one-third disagreed. The answer to this debate could have significant implications for all stakeholders.

3. PR professionals must harness social listening, digital storytelling, and social purpose

Digital can improve the quality of public relations by enabling instant outbound communication and inbound feedback. In this dynamic environment, PR professionals believe the most important trends impacting the future of the PR will be digital storytelling (88%), social listening (82%), social purpose (71%), and big data (70%).

Marketing professionals showed some consensus with PR professionals about these trends, but prioritized social listening (88%) over digital storytelling (80%), and real-time marketing (69%), influencer marketing (68%) and branded content (67%) over big data (63%).

Both groups agree on the importance of social purpose, which can be vital to the direction, cohesion and outcomes of the other top trends.

4. More clients will hire agencies to provide strategy, expertise, and creative thinking

The rising emphasis on strategy and creative in the client/agency relationship is a clear theme in both the 2016 and 2017 editions of the Global Communications Report.

For the in-house marketing professionals surveyed in 2017, the top reasons for working with PR agencies were strategic insights (67%), creative thinking (64%), specific practice areas (63%), media relations (62%), digital and social media (60%), and measurement and evaluation (60%).

For in-house PR professionals, the top reasons for working with PR agencies were similar: strategic insights (69%), creative thinking (69%), specific practice areas (62%), and digital and social media (61%). However, there was less emphasis on measurement and evaluation (50%) and media relations (49%).

The growing strategic and creative input of PR agencies needs to be reflected in compensation models, says Fred Cook, Director of the USC Center for Public Relations, who suggests focusing more on value delivered than hours spent.

5. The value of PR will depend on achieving measurable business objectives

The vast majority of surveyed PR and marketing professionals believed that PR can best increase its value by demonstrating how PR programs achieve measurable business objectives.

However, improving measurement of results itself was a lower priority for PR in the eyes of PR professionals than marketing professionals, who, in turn, were less preoccupied about PR’s ability to address the wants and needs of all stakeholders. These disparities in stakeholder expectations can be reduced by establishing clear goals from the outset, as the report recommends.

The report also highlights the growing demand for PR to develop sophisticated ways to measure less-tangible variables like brand reputation, purchase intent, leadership, and creativity.

Repositioning PR to maximize relevance and talent

The five key insights above provide some clues as to how PR might reposition itself as an aspirational career choice – something which less than one-third of PR executives believe the industry is doing well. Given that recruiting and retaining the right talent remains a big challenge for PR, it will be interesting to see how the growing demand for strategic thinking – ranked in the study as the most important skill for today’s PR professionals – will shape PR in the years to come.

Table: The Evolution of Public Relations report by ANA and the USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations
Graphs and charts: the Global Communications Report 2017, presented by The Holmes Report and USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations

How Brands Are Using Live Video Events: The Opportunity for PR


New Balance, MasterCraft, Pottery Barn. Three big U.S. brands, one innovation in common: using live video events to improve public relations. The game changing potential of live, interactive broadcasts is already in motion. Take, for instance, the rapid growth of live-streaming platforms such as Ustream, Brandlive, Meerkat and Periscope. How are top brands using these live video technologies successfully, and what role should PR play in this process?

New Balance: Finding the right balance between in-store and online media
Sports footwear giant New Balance uses live video to build multi-event product launches. Consumers and retailers have been invited to “hear about all the latest in #runnovation and get your questions answered by the product team, live from #NBHQ!” Company spokesperson Tom Taylor has praised live video as “a powerful and consistent means of visually connecting with fans and customers, bridging the gap between in-store and online”.

If retail is on track for a high-tech, interactive future, the footwear brand is stepping in the right direction. Video kiosks at the brand’s retailers create in-store hype, while its live webcasts integrate social feeds, chat and e-commerce. New Balance also uses live video internally to give field reps the low-down on its products and brand message.

MasterCraft: Mastering the art of product education
Another brand using live video events for both training and consumer awareness is premium sports boat manufacturer MasterCraft. The company sought a streamlined method to inform its 150 boat dealers about new models. It also desired real-time, visual engagement with its geographically diverse consumers. As MasterCraft’s Director of Marketing, Jason Boertje, told Retail TouchPoints, “The more we can show our product when we educate the consumer, the better off we’ll be.” Using live videos with real-time question and answer feeds has increased the sense of participation from consumers and dealers alike.

Boertje believes that an interaction-based live video model offers a promising return on investment. Digital marketing research by MasterCraft’s live video platform, Brandlive, indicates that consumers are more likely to buy a product featured on a live, interactive broadcast than on a pre-recorded video. Plus MasterCraft can use Brandlive’s post-video quizzes and attendance stats to gauge the learning and loyalty of its dealer network. Creating and archiving live videos about sales, product specs and upkeep is proving convenient for the company and practical for sellers to access.

Pottery Barn: Harvesting the hype around holidays
Home-furnishing store chain Pottery Barn is converting public fanfare around holidays into live video. Online events such as “Host a Spooktacular Halloween Party” and “DIY Easter Baskets” are fun, informative and useful. Quality content adds value for viewers and can improve brand loyalty. Therefore, Pottery Barn crafts the perception of valuable content by asking viewers to register for “exclusive access” and by posting Facebook promos with in-house designers.

Nick Wheatley from VideoCommerce observes that, like Pottery Barn, the majority of brands using live video are not hiring professional talent. Instead, they are putting their own employees in the limelight. This strategy not only reduces costs; it also lets employee devotion and knowledge shine through.

How PR can ramp up its offerings
In a world where companies can deliver PR messages straight to the consumer via live video, how and why should PR firms assist with this process?

Fritz Brumder, CEO and co-founder of Brandlive, puts forward the following case in PR Daily:

“The good news is that PR firms are uniquely qualified to claim ownership of live video, because their media outreach efforts tend to focus more on timely news or event-driven campaigns such as product launches.

A PR agency looking to beef up its live interactive video offerings must know how to successfully build on its traditional skill sets. Based on our experience at Brandlive producing over 3,000 live interactive video events for over 120 brands, PR firms that can pull together a team with the following skills to form a “live streaming video center of excellence” will be best positioned to succeed:

  • Structuring and crafting brand and product stories
  • Preparing client executives for on-camera/on-stage appearances
  • Activating social interaction
  • Knowledge of audio/video production”.

The business case for PR involvement
As Brumder points out, PR agencies must formulate “a business case for why their live video capabilities would provide better value or produce more valuable results” than unassisted live broadcasts by companies.

Martin Shepherdly, the CEO and founder of BeThere Global, comments that live streaming has three advantages over traditional PR mediums:

  1. The level of engagement and two-way communication engendered among the audience through interactivity
  2. The customization of the viewer experience for specific audiences, and
  3. The detail with which viewer statistics can be measured.

PR agencies must learn to harness these benefits for clients if they are to swap pre-prepared, commercialized spin for natural, personal interaction. As futurist Ross Dawson reminds us in an article on where PR is going, PR is no longer “about hiding or manipulating the truth; it is about providing access, being open”. Live video bolsters a massive opportunity for PR: helping brands to engage with a world that favours dialogue and transparency.

Image sources: New Balance, MasterCraft, and Pottery Barn