Public relations in 2018

Here’s my analysis of the opportunities and challenges that I believe public relations faces in the next 12 months. They’re not so much predictions as a work in progress.

This is an article and deck about the outlook for public relations and social media in 2018. It’s based on insight from my day job working at Ketchum and incorporates crowdsourced feedback to an initial draft.

I’ve included data and links to third parties wherever appropriate. I’ve also included a call to action that may be helpful in your planning for 2018.

If there’s anything that I can do in my role at Ketchum to help your organisation address any of the issues highlighted, please let me know.

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

This week has been Working Out Loud week, an initiative promoting collaboration in shared spaces as a means of accelerating learning and development.

I shared a first draft of this article as a Google Document via Twitter; with MA PR students at Newcastle University; and with colleagues at Ketchum on an international webinar.

I’ve also published a blog of key international events in the public relations calendar as part of the project.

Thanks to everyone for feedback, in particular Scott Guthrie, Alan Smith, Paul Sutton and Paul Wilkinson who all made direct contributions.

Finally big thanks to my partner Sarah Hall who has edited almost every word that you’ve read on my blog for the past two years. She also gets a mention in the article.

#1 Professional status: public relations

There’s a growing shift to public relations becoming recognised as a management discipline.

The drum beat of professionalism in public relations has been getting louder over the past decade and has accelerated since the Bell Pottinger scandal this year (£).

My view is that 2018 will prove to be a breakthrough year for the professionalism of public relations as a result of a concerted effort on a number of fronts.

The Public Relations Communication Association’s (PRCA) expulsion of Bell Pottinger drew a firm line in the sand around ethical practice. The conversation around ethics will inevitably get louder in 2018.

The International Communications Consultancy Organisation (ICCO) spearheaded by Francis Ingham called on the international industry to stand by 10 principles of ethical behaviour at its conference in Helsinki.

Sarah Hall takes up her 12 month Presidency of the CIPR in the UK in 2018. It coincides with the organisation’s 70th anniversary.

Her vision is of a profession that is recognised and valued as a management discipline. It’s an issue that she’s sought to promote over the past two years through the #FuturePRoof community.

The international work of the Global Alliance to define capabilities and skills in public relations for managers and practitioners is being continued at the University of Huddersfield by a team led by Prof Anne Gregory and Dr Johanna Fawkes.

Continuing Professional Development (CPD), a hallmark of any profession, is increasingly acknowledged as critical in public relations to enable practitioners to keep at the forefront of practice.

Finally, there’s a growing community of practice between academics, teachers and practitioners, around issues such as diversity, gender and fake news. A strong interchange between theory and practice is critical to the development of our profession.

Action: If you haven’t already, please consider starting your professional development journey in 2018.

#2 All of life is shifting to the internet

The quarterly data published by social media platforms tells the story.

There are currently 4.3 billion people of the world’s 7.6 billion population connected to the internet.

By 2030 everyone on the planet will be connected.

Organisations need to communicate in the spaces where their publics do. It’s an obvious point but one that is often forgotten.

Connectivity should improve inclusivity however the digital media environment is coalescing around a group of monopolies.

Facebook has a strong and growing platform of services including Instagram and WhatsApp.

LinkedIn, now owned by Microsoft, is pursuing an advocacy, content and learning strategy.

Pinterest has posted sustained growth in visual imaging. Snap, once the darling of visual messaging, has had a tough year losing users to Instagram and its Stories product.

It’s not all bad. Wikipedia continues to grow as a global knowledge resource. It’s at the forefront of sharing medical and scientific advances as researchers and scholars increasing adopt Open Access approaches.

Action: Investigate the changing media landscape in the market or sector in which you operate. Understand how publics are shifting to new forms of media thanks to the internet.

#3 Social media matures

Social media is maturing. It is becoming increasingly visual and in the moment. Short video messaging is the current vogue.

Platforms are copying features from each other in a bid to engage users for as long as possible.

This emerging media environment faces challenges with fake news and transparency.

In other sections we’ll explore how social media is a fillip for public relations, providing us with new channels and enabling us to understand what’s being said and by whom.

Action: Choose a social media platform, publish content and a build a network. It’s the best way to learn.

#4 Identifying audiences or publics

Two billion monthly Facebook users generate a huge amount of data. The platform has become a powerful planning tool.

But it’s not alone. Every post, click, like and comment that we leave on a social media platform leaves an audit trail.

Public relations and marketing practitioners use this data to discover and identify audiences and publics, and understand their motivation.

It’s a good place to start to understand the public.

Action: Explore the native planning tools on platforms such as Google or Facebook as a means of characterising and understanding a public.

#5 Listening to conversations

The application of data in public relations isn’t a new trend. What is new is the scale of data in public relations and the growing availability of third party tools that enable us to make sense of it.

Practitioners need to be aware of the provenance of data and the ethical implications of using it to inform insights. We tend to afford greater integrity to data that reinforces our pre-existing opinions.

Open Data offers opportunities for organisations to have deeper conversations with their publics providing that it isn’t used opportunistically. Selective hearing helps no one.

Twitter is the largest ever market research exercise that no one ever commissioned. The shift to 280 characters makes it an even richer source of data.

You need to be mindful of the profile of Twitter users and avoid bias and bubbles, but there’s no doubt that it’s a window on the psyche of public opinion.

Action: Explore how you can use the native tools within platforms to access data, listen to publics and gain insights. Next, explore third party tools.

#6 Tell me a story

The craft of telling a story across different forms of media, and engaging a public, is more important than ever. It’s critical to cutting through a cluttered media environment.

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

Creative and content, the keys to good storytelling, are frequently overlooked elements of public relations. They lie at the heart of inspiring conversations and storytelling.

The ability to communicate complex messages through compelling and relevant stories remains a fundamental value of public relations.

Public relations has found its rightful place alongside advertising and creative agencies at Cannes and Eurobest and is today winning awards in its own right and as part of integrated solutions.

Action: Read widely and consume a variety of media. Explore how other organisations in your market or sector use storytelling as a means of engagement.

#7 Shift to newsroom workflow

Public relations operations have become more like traditional media operations in the last decade.

The simple fact is that public relations practitioners don’t have hours to respond to an issue. It’s difficult and not always perfect but the organisations that are sufficiently brave, win.

The skills, technology and workflow used in media and public relations are converging. Frequently people switch between the two disciplines.

If there is a difference it’s the pace. Media works to 24 hour cycles whereas public relations typically works as quickly as an organisation’s processes will allow.

But this too is also changing.

Organisations are realising that they need to work real-time if they want to be part of the conversation on the internet.

Action: Challenge your organisation to determine whether your current processes and workflow are fit for purposes for working in modern media.

#8 Performance public relations

Measurement should no longer be an issue within public relations. But outdated practices mean that practitioners remain wedded to old forms of measurements.

Measurement is hard and so the public relations business has developed proxies.

We’ll be taken serious as a discipline when we provide meaningful measurement that is aligned to the organisations that we serve.

AMEC has developed a best practice framework for measurement and planning in public relations. You should investigate it in 2018, if you haven’t already.

Action: In 2018 if you want to maximise your value you need to align your objectives with the objectives of your organisation.

#9 Mainstream media resurgence

The use of earned media as part of a public relations campaign didn’t ever go away.

Undoubtedly traditional media has modernised. It’s become social and uses data.

Fake news primarily on social media, means that traditional media brands have reversed declines and are enjoying a resurgence.

Unfortunately the same isn’t true for local media. It continues to struggle as ad revenue moves to Facebook and Google.

Action: Map your organisation’s media channels against an axis of engagement and trust to learn how and when each should be best deployed.

#10 Communities as media

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.

Successful communities, online and offline, are co-created around a shared purpose.

They coalesce around people with shared interests and value, and those in these communities rely on information from those they trust.

The skills of public relations in listening, storytelling and content, can make communities vibrant.

Action: Participate in an online community. It’s the best way to understand their dynamic and learn community management skills.

#11 Leadership becomes social

Executives that are serious about leading a modern organisation will invest in their social media footprint in 2018.

10 years ago executive profiling meant targeting features in the broadsheet and trade media.

Today’s modern executive is more likely to seek support in optimising their social networks and content.

There’s a growing recognition of the opportunity to use the social web as a means of engaging directly with a variety of stakeholders including customers, employees, prospects and suppliers.

The catalyst for this shift has been the growth of LinkedIn, as both a professional network and content publishing platform. Its data shows clear return on investment in investment in social media.

Action: Publish and share your ideas and thinking as a means of building your social capital. It’s the most powerful means of learning and development.

#12 Polarised tribes and filter bubbles

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

It’s contrary to the promise of social media, namely that we’d be able to connect with each other and have an equal voice in public discourse.

Facebook has achieved the reach. It connects 43 million voting UK citizens via its mobile app and website. It’s a very intimate form of media that reaches us via our devices reinforced by the signals from the people in our networks.

The platform is incredibly powerful but you’d struggle to make a case that it has helped improve the democratic process. In fact, I’d argue the opposite.

Action: Challenge yourself to scrutinise the impact of algorithms on your media diet and break out of filter bubbles by exploring contrary points of view.

#13 Diversity

There’s an increasingly accepted premise in public relations that teams of practitioners should represent the publics that they seek to serve.

The same applies to the media and social media platforms.

We need equal and equitable representation of age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and socio-economic background.

Work is underway on a number of fronts.

In the ten years since the Taylor Bennett foundation was founded more than 170 BAME graduates have been through its traineeship programmes. A further 700 have attended a graduate assessment day and received support with their job search.

The CIPR tracks the gender pay gap in the UK through its annual State of the Profession survey. In 2017 it report a £5,784 disadvantage for women.

The PRCA has developed an apprenticeship offer working with the UK government that combines paid work placements with classroom learning. Around 250 people have graduated from the scheme since 2011.

Action: Benchmark your own attitude to diversity and consider unconscious bias training as a means of broadening your perspective.

#14 Trump cycle

Facts can be fickle beasts. They are always open to interpretation to suit an agenda.

Post-truth communication ranges from blatant bullshit to data that can be manipulated and spun to suit a story.

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

President Trump has turned the exploitation of these factors into an art form, filling the internet with his personal propaganda.

This isn’t about news cycles, they’re long dead, but the Trump cycle. His own administration, let alone opponents, struggle to keep pace before Trump moves to the next story.

Organisations need to be confident of their purpose and position on issues within their market. They need to be responsive and use a newsroom model (see #7) as the basis of their frontline public relations workflow.

Action: Political cycles can create huge and unexpected change for society. What is your brand’s purpose and role in society? Think legacy.

#15 Influencers: relationships versus reach

Public relations in practice is evolving from media relations to influencer relations, and then from community management to social business.

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

Media relations 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.

There’s a growing realisation that influencers are best used for their ability to create relationships through compelling content, rather than their reach.

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.

Action: Investigate the influencers in your market or sector, and the potential to build relationships for mutual benefit.

#16 Artificial intelligence normalised

Artificial intelligence was the shiny new thing in public relations in 2017.

I’ve been using artificial intelligence since I used WordPerfect 5.1 in the early 80s. In fact it’s never been bettered as a word processor.

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

In public relations algorithms are commonplace for searching and organising how information is displayed.

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.

Action: No one has properly characterised its potential impact on our business. This needs to change. It’s an issue that I plan to explore in 2018.

#17 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 around 90 per cent in my experience, even for the Geordie accent.

Consider the application of voice technology incorporated into Amazon Echo, Apple Siri or Google Home, combined with the contextual data that each organisation has about you and information from the open web. It’s another reason why the growing conversation around Open Data is important.

I called this trend early last year but I firmly believe this new class of device will create another wave of internet disintermediation.

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

Action: Learn about this technology. Put an Amazon Alexa or Google Home on your Christmas list.

#18 Chatbots are hot bots

Facebook launched a chatbot platform for its Messenger application last year. 100,000 bots have been created on Messenger in the past 12 months.

With more than 1.3 billion people using Messenger, inevitably the market has got hot.

Bots have been developed to help with customer service, support and sales.

Ultimately convincing people to interact with a robot requires a significant change in behaviour but it’s no more significant than previous shifts in technology.

There’s also a serious ethical challenge. If a bot creates content that breaches copyright or defames an individual or organisation, who is liable?

We’ve seen time and time again that legislature cannot keep up with the pace of technology, and in particular the internet.

We’re at the early stage of the adoption curve of a technology that could prove incredibly exciting for public relations.

Action: Explore where you could apply bots in your organisation. They’re best applied in areas of high and repetitive engagement. Could you replace your ‘frequently asked questions’ documents with a bot?

#19 Fake news and brand misplacement

There are two main purposes for fake news. The first is propaganda and the second is profiteering.

Researchers at City, University of London uncovered more than 13,000 suspected bots that tweeted predominantly pro-Brexit messages during the EU referendum.

US voters may have seen up to 126 million ads during the US election originating from Russia. Meanwhile Twitter has identified 2,752 accounts and more than 36,000 bots which tweeted 1.4 million times.

We’ve only just started to understand how social media can be manipulated.

In 2018 we need greater disclosure from social media platforms, more academic research, and the introduction of legislation to start to deal with this issue.

We also need greater education so that consumers are alert to the problem.

Action: How would your organisation rebut fake news? Have you considered this as part of your crisis planning? What role will your brand play in dealing with this growing threat?

#20 Social platforms tackle governance

Social media need to be held accountable to the same rules and regulation that apply to mainstream media.

This should be governed by prevailing advertising and media law, and in particular the democratic process.

Platforms are scrambling to address governance and transparency in a bid to avoid being reclassified as publishers.

Instagram recently added tags for paid posts, and opened up its analytics. Facebook for its part has committed to showing users how ads are funded in 2018.

It’s a work in progress.

Action: Expect to see a rash of new transparency features from platforms as they seek to address governance ahead of legislation.

 

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