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Public relations in 2017

Here are the areas in marketing, media and public relations that I’m thinking about in my day job at Ketchum. They’re not so much predictions as a work in progress.

I’ve spent the first few days of 2017 taking stock of the business of marketing, media, and public relations.

12 months is an arbitrary period to measure change in the sector that is rapidly innovating in some areas such as artificial intelligence and digital media; but woefully slow in others such as diversity and professionalism.

There have been some notable shifts in 2016. Propaganda has made an ugly return to the business of public relations.

You can trace the history of post-truth in the public relations business from Edward Bernays in the 1900s to Max Clifford in the 1980s. More recently from the Iraq War dodgy dossier in the early noughties, to so called fake news in last year’s UK Referendum and US Election.

Here are the issues that I’m thinking about in my day job at Ketchum for 2017. Let me know what you think. We’d love to help your organisation think through some of these challenges.

I’m publishing this essay under a Creative Commons license. Please help yourself and share far and wide.

#1 Artificial intelligence

We’re starting to feel the impact of machines in at least three areas: content production; content distribution and publication and workflow.

The significant step forward in 2016 was content production. At the end of 2016, Quill Content reported that it had created more than 15 million words for customers including Boden, Regus, and Virgin.

In public relations algorithms are commonplace for searching and organising how information is displayed. They create bubbles that insulate us from contrary opinion.

It’s a disservice to our intelligence and democracy. In 2017 work hard to break out of algorithmic bubbles.

We increasingly use tools to make sense of conversations and content shared in networks. Algorithms crunch through huge amounts of data to identify influencers, networks and trending topics.

Public relations like other professions is sleep walking into the issue of artificial intelligence. No one has properly characterised its potential impact on our business. This needs to change in 2017.

#2 Data fatigue

Public relations has moved quickly to integrate data into its workflow to better understand publics but is in danger of viewing it as a means to an end and overplaying its value.

Third party tools are now commonplace in a variety of communication and public relation functions to identify publics, make sense of the content that they are sharing, and identify the best means of engagement.

In 2016 data failed the marketing, media and public relations professions by incorrectly predicting the outcome of both the European Referendum in the UK, and the US election.

Polls are not predictive indicators. At best they are an assessment of how the public is prepared to admit it feels on the day the poll is conducted.

If you’re working on a campaign for 2017 use tools to establish a hypothesis and then put them down and go into the real world to talk, and more importantly listen to your publics.

#3 Rethink content formats

Press releases remain the dominant form of content for the public relations profession. They are well understood by organisations.

The press release is a common format, created through a process of iteration and approval, for communication with external publics.

Everyone knows how they work.

In 2017 most press releases won’t be written for the press. Instead they’ll be posted on a corporate website and carved up into a multitude of formats for customer emails and Tweets.

If press releases are your primary means of communication it’s time for a rethink.

Press releases still have a place as a form of content but their role is less significant as media channels continue to become increasing visual.

#4 Internet shifts to video formats

2016 has seen innovation in virtual reality with significant platform development. This technology has huge potential for learning and development, including immersion in situations that would otherwise be dangerous in real life, and experience of hard to reach locations, or destinations.

Live video could be equally disruptive.

I was brought up short recently when the Associated Press shared live video on Facebook of the offensive to retake Mosel from ISIL and rescue the one million people trapped in the city. It’s a powerful form of first person storytelling.

Both Facebook and Periscope have invested in tools for video producers.

#5 Paying to play with influencers

Public relations in practice is evolving from media relation to influencer relations, and then from community management to social business. These changes are the story of this blog.

Each new form of media from Snapchat to YouTube, and Instagram to Twitter, has given rise to a new breed of influencers.

Media relations, a core area of public relations practice, has shifted from pitching traditional media to working with these individuals across all forms of media.

Whether they are opinion leaders, experts, ambassadors, creators, celebrities, activists or healthcare professionals, the goal remains the same. Influencers provide a means of building trust with specific communities through third party storytelling.

It’s put the public relations business on a collision course with marketing. The last five years have seen the emergence of paid influencers and creators.

Public relations seeks to negotiate with influencers and build long term relationships, whereas marketing wants to buy access to audiences at scale in the same way you’d buy media space.

#6 Representing the publics we serve

According to the PRCA’s 2016 PRCA Census the PR industry remains a young industry, with an average age of 28.

Public relations is a female-led industry, with 64 per cent of its employees being women. There is a significant pay gap between the sexes, on average £9,111 in favour of men.

This is consistent with CIPR State of the Profession survey, which characterised the gender pay gap as £11,698.

It’s a situation that is consistent with other markets.

There has been little change in the diversity of the public relations, with 91 per cent being white and 89 per cent being British.

However, there are signs of improvement thanks to initiatives such as the Taylor Bennett Foundation. The youngest generations in the industry represent important improvements in diversity levels.

A combination of a degree and work experience is the typical route into the profession but data is hard to find.

The PRCA has developed an apprenticeship offer working with the UK government that combines paid work placements with classroom learning, equivalent to the first year of a degree.

Around 250 people have graduated from the PRCA apprenticeship scheme since 2011. It’s becoming an important, mainstream route into the profession.

#7 Media monopolies

The marketing and public relations profession may be working hard to improve gender, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity but the digital media environment is coalescing around a group of monopolies.

Mergers and acquisitions are becoming the norm. We haven’t seen a new platform since Meerkat launched in 2014. It has since folded.

In the UK Google accounts for more than 85% of searches according to Statista.

Facebook has a strong and growing platform of services including Instagram and WhatsApp. Meanwhile Google+ has fallen by the wayside. LinkedIn, now owned by Microsoft, is pursuing an advocacy, content and learning strategy.

Pinterest has posted strong growth in visual imaging. SnapChat has nailed visual messaging and is becoming a strong channel, widening its appeal to an older demographic.

The future of Twitter, Periscope and Vine remains a work in progress.

There are signs that the ad funded model on which almost all these platforms are based is creaking. Tech savvy consumers are increasingly using ad blockers.

400 million internet users blocked ads in June 2016 equivalent to around 12.5% of the 3.2 billion internet population. In the UK the figure was 21% and in the US 24%.

#8 Inside out: social media in the enterprise

The application of social media technologies internally within an organisation have shown early promise but adoption rates are low. Behaviour, culture and technology are all issues.

Facebook’s Workplace offers a potential solution. The platform, launched as a commercial product in 2016, applies all the learnings from the consumer product to a private enterprise environment.

Most of us intuitively understand how the news feed, threaded conversations and groups work. We know how to publish posts and share images or video. We use Messenger for direct conversations.

Applied to the enterprise this technology offers huge potential for communication, collaboration and sharing.

#9 Talk to me

Advances in speech recognition and computer intelligence are set to bring about the next wave in internet disintermediation.

I first tinkered with voice recognition in the 1990s using Dragon Dictation. It was a lousy experience. By comparison the speech recognition built into Apple iOS and Google apps is incredible.

Have a go for yourself – accuracy rates are more than 95% in my experience.

Now imagine voice technology incorporated into Amazon Echo, Apple Siri or Google Home and combined with the contextual data that each organisation has about you and information from the open web.

Both Echo and Home are internet connected devices which summon up services from the internet based on voice commands, and which will create another wave of internet disintermediation.

There’ll be no need for ads or search engine optimisation for a kick off.

#10 Conversations: let’s talk

Organisations have struggled to get to grips with the change of tone required to engage with people on the internet. Much corporate marketing remains focused on the organisation rather than the intended public.

It’s frequently broadcasted with no effort to listen or engage. The result is pointless at best and a reputational issue at worst.

More enlightened organisations are using new media as a means of conversation. Facebook and Twitter are frequently used for customer service.

These modern forms of media frequently now replace customer phone lines or webchat.

Facebook took this medium a step further at its F8 user conference in 2016 when it announced customer chat and bots via Facebook Chat.

Investigate bots for yourself. They offer a huge opportunity for public relations.

#11 Digital discontinuity

We get excited by technology but for now there’s almost always a disconnect between old and new.

No organisation will accept my Facebook or Twitter profile as verification of my identity. Instead I’m typically shunted off to a web form or a traditional channel.

I can order tickets for the cinema or train online or via an app but I’ll need to print them out or collect printed copies in order for them to be accepted.

Apps requiring two factor authentication are becoming the common means for an organisation to establish a verified relationship with a customer.

Every aspect of the customer journey from marketing to purchase, and from delivery notification to customer service, is managed within an app. My phone has become a wallet of logos for banking, shopping and travel.

#12 Living your values

Take back control was the Brexit campaign’s rallying cry during the UK Referendum, backed up by potent messaging around immigration.

President-elect Donald Trump sought to turn around post-industrial economic decline in the US by blaming globalisation. His rallying call was to make America great again.

Whatever your view of these campaigns, they were built on a rock solid message that allowed disparate groups to come together. They set out a simple unifying ambition that was easily understood.

Every campaign needs a clear purpose, something you can summarise in four or five words.

Beyond that organisations will need to take a good look at their values in 2017 and be prepared to take a stand.

Publics are looking for a point of view. A value is only a value when you’re prepared to defend it.

#13 Trump cycle replaces the news cycle

In 2016 messages published to social networks, whether true or false, can quickly become accepted wisdom within a community, even if they’re nonsense.

The Trump campaign during the US election turned the exploitation of these factors into an art form. It moved at speed spraying the internet with propaganda.

This wasn’t about news cycles, they’re long dead, but the Trump cycle. Opponents struggled to counter as Trump moved onto the next story.

Just how much influence issues like fake news had on the UK Referendum and US election is yet to be determined.

Academics, media and technology execs have proposed a variety of ways in which search and social media organisations could address the issue.

Whatever the case, it’s beholden on communicators to be honest in their communication. The CIPR and PRCA both have an ethical code of conduct.

Bullshit and spin have no place in modern public relations.

#14 Integrated Measurement Framework

In the last five years AMEC members have worked hard to create a framework that helps practitioners define a direct relationship between the objectives of a public relations campaign and the outcomes.

The Integrated Measurement Framework guides practitioners through a series of seven steps to create a measurement approach for a campaign.

It was launched last year with a comprehensive website of resource material and an interactive tool to steer practitioners through the process.

It has become a standard at Ketchum. Every conversation around measurement within the business is framed around the Integrated Measurement Framework.

Best of all it’s free. There are no excuses and I guarantee the return on investment of you implementing it will be high.

AMEC’s job for 2017 under the leadership of executive director Barry Leggetter and incoming chairman Richard Bagnall is to make its Integrated Measurement Framework a standard in practice.

#15 Social capital: a community life force

Community is a much abused and maligned word in this social media era.

Create a Twitter hashtag, or build a Facebook or LinkedIn group, and people will come.

Except they don’t. The internet is littered with failed community building efforts.

Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone tells the story of how bowling alley attendance is increasing in the US but bowling alley leagues are in decline.

He suggests this is due to a decline in social capital. It’s an issue we’re seeing in almost every area of public life.

In metropolitan Britain we bowl alone, or in small groups of friends, rather than collectively. Life is becoming more solitary and we’ve lost access to a cross section of society.

Social capital isn’t something you’ll find on a profit and loss statement but it’ll be increasingly important for organisations seeking to build trust with their publics. They have an opportunity to help bring people together.

#16 Community of practice

Public relations is practical. We should learn from the body of knowledge that academic colleagues are investigating and apply it to our day jobs.

Academic colleagues are enabling greater understanding in every area of practice. Meanwhile practitioners challenged by the pace of innovation are reaching out to theory to help make sense of the changes in practice.

A close working relationship between academia and practice is a hallmark of any professional discipline – enhancing real-world practice with research, reflection and theory.

In public relations this relationship is limited, and without the historical perspective and insight provided for by academics, practitioners lack rigour and are limited to trading in simple crafts and tactics.

I travelled to BledCom in Slovenia in 2016 to explore areas in which the two communities could work closer together. The outcome was published as a toolkit with eight practical suggestions.

The Institute for Public Relations under the vision and drive of Dr. Tina McCorkindale is providing excellent leadership in this area.

#17 Creativity as a public relations discipline

In the shift to data driven programmes there’s a danger that we lose sight of creativity.

Tools help us identify publics and their motivation but storytelling and content will always remain the means of engagement.

At Ketchum the creative function is deeply embedded within our planning process, StoryWorks newsrooms and teams. Creative thinkers are held in high respect.

Public relations is rightful place alongside advertising and creative agencies at Cannes and Eurobest winning awards in our own right and as part of an integrated solution.

#18 Are you any good?

How do you train in a profession where the skills you learn are likely to outdated before you complete the qualification or training programme?

Continuous professional development (CPD) integrated with your personal development is the only solution.

The Global Alliance under the leadership of Professor Anne Gregory has completed an excellent project that sets out the skills required of practitioners at both an entry-level and mid-career or senior level.

The Global Capabilities Framework Project sets out a series of behaviours and skills have been attributed to each role.

In the second half of 2016 the PRCA  under the leadership of Francis Ingham launched its CPD scheme with 16 partners including the Association of Police Communicators, Association of Professional Political Consultants, Holmes Report and PR Week, that put it on a collision course with the CIPR.

I’ve long argued that the CIPR and PRCA should cooperate in areas of mutual benefit to the professional. Creating a single CPD standard for the profession would be a good start.

Addressing some of the big issues outlined in this essay such as artificial intelligence would be a good next step.

#19 Professional status

Public relations as a management discipline has become a drum beat of modern public relations in recent years thanks to the CIPR and initiatives such as Sarah Hall’s #FuturePRoof project.

To be recognised in the boardroom we need to adapt the rigour and discipline of other professions.

More than 100 people have achieved Chartered PR Practitioner status in the last 12 months compared with 50 people in the ten years between 2005 and 2015.

It’s a long way from establishing a critical mass in a business of 80,000 people in the UK, but it’s a start.

The challenge now is to scale Chartered status so that it becomes normative not just for practitioners but also for other professional disciplines.

CIPR President Jason Mackenzie and Past President Rob Brown have the goal within their sights.

Chart.PR, the post-nominal letters for someone who has achieved Chartered PR practitioner status, needs to be recognised as a benchmark of quality by anyone hiring public relations services and the broader public.

If you believe as I do that the public relations industry needs to make the shift from a craft to a profession then you should sign up to CPD and start your own journey to Chartered PR Practitioner.

Image courtesy of pixabay

 

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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University. Author #brandvandals, #PRstack, Share This, and others.

Posted in Editor's Picks, Marketing, Public Relations

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