Revisiting the future of PR


For many reasons PR (or perhaps rather what PR could be) is close to the center of my interests. As we shift to a world driven by social media and influence networks, arguably the PR industry has the best background and capabilities to help organizations deal with the new challenges and opportunities that are emerging.

Yet the PR industry has not markedly prospered relative to adjacent industries, which have muscled in on the new work generated in a rapidly changing landscape. ‘Public relationships’, if we take the term literally, dominate the agenda, yet PR is not dominating the discussion.

I recently recalled that I wrote the article Six Facets of the Future of PR well over 5 years ago now. It’s nice to see that it is still the #1 result on a Google search for ‘future of PR’.

As a good article about the future should be, it is still entirely relevant today. I thought it would be worth revisiting a few of the points I made, as they probably bear repeating.

Six Facets of the Future of PR

“PR has a PR problem,” The New York Times quoted Professor Brenda Wrigley of Syracuse University as saying recently, reflecting on how the industry is perceived. On the one hand, in a world in which society and business are largely based on the flow of information and ideas, there is a massive opportunity for those professionals who can help organisations get the right messages out. Yet the industry has been assailed by problems, ranging from the ethical to the financial. Despite its privileged position, it is generally not seen by senior client executives as providing critical, strategic advice or services.
1. Clients expect more

Clients are seeing their PR agencies and marketing peers as readily replaceable commodities. The majority of PR agencies have, perhaps unwittingly, encouraged this by firmly positioning themselves as “black-box” providers. Far too often firms describe their services as “outsourced PR” or similar, deliberately disengaging the client from the process. This makes it very easy for the client to replace them. The future belongs to those firms that can successfully engage their clients in true “knowledge-based” relationships, that are based on deep mutual knowledge, and a high degree of collaboration in achieving outcomes.

2. Media is transformed

Media has become a participatory sport, in which not just journalists, but literally anyone can provide their perspectives on what they are seeing and what is happening. If the content is interesting or they uncover something of note, they can quickly garner a significant audience. From a narrow pool of arbiters of what is newsworthy, is growing a vast array of deeply interlinked news sources and filters.

3. Business is a conversation

Organisations must enable human conversations, between the humans that work for them, and the humans who buy from them. While this is fraught with challenges, there is no question that customers will flow to companies that they can have human interactions with, and from companies that persist in presenting unassailable formal corporate faces to the world.

4. Information flows in every dimension

From podcasting to mobile video calling to home video studios, and video screens soon to appear on every surface you can imagine, audio and video will predominate in our world. PR has traditionally been rooted in the world of words. While that will remain important, the new skills required to play in a world driven by other media forms will be critical.

5. Transparency is a given

Know and expect that the truth will come out. PR’s traditional role is almost turned on its head. In this world, even more than before, the role of PR must be trusted. Broken trust is not soon forgotten. The only way to gain trust, to be credible, is to be transparent. It is an immensely challenging shift to make, yet those who do not truly believe this will soon find a day when their credibility and livelihood disappears.

6. Influence networks are at the heart

PR will become largely about how to identify, access, and influence the key influencers, either individually, or by understanding how influence networks are structured.

Emerging opportunities for the PR profession

As the role of perception becomes ever more central, senior executives need to—and are—paying attention to these issues directly. Previously, PR executives very rarely had access beyond the Chief Marketing Officer, and often were managed by considerably more junior client staff. Those PR executives that demonstrate they can understand their clients’ strategic issues, and engage at that level of the organisation, will have the opportunity to do so. Moving beyond the ever-more trenchant issues of reputation management and related spheres, agencies can extend themselves to work with clients on other critical and highly relevant issues such as customer-driven innovation.

We are entering a world in which the flow of information and perceptions will drive much of the value creation in a highly networked global economy. The PR industry should be looking forward to a time of massive prosperity, in which it extends itself to play in entirely new fields of media and communication. Yet many of the existing participants will need to adopt a new stance and actively develop new skills to do this effectively. Those that reconceive their role and potential impact, could well be masters of the universe.

The continually emerging opportunities in a world of ever-unfolding public communication are still there to be seized. Let’s see if the PR industry – or others – best take them.