10 areas of work in progress for public relations

As we head into 2014 here are 10 areas of work in progress for public relations that I’m thinking about at Ketchum and in my new role of President of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR).

Happy New Year.

1. Press releases remain dominant tactic

Despite almost 20 years of new forms of media, communities, and the emergence of new influencers alongside journalists, public relations remains wedded to workflow that is more than 100 years old. Change is coming but it’s slow. Modernising public relations agencies and teams is one of the biggest challenges that the profession faces.

2. Big data an illusion

Big data emerged as a hot topic for public relations last year but little data is where the action lies. Public relations practitioners need to use tools to deliver insights from data relevant to their publics; tools such as Traackr for analysing networks, Brandwatch for listening, Unmetric for benchmarking, and Google Analytics for tracking web traffic. Related to my previous point there’s a significant third-party tools market emerging. That’s a good thing.

3. Brands need a human voice

Hands up if you spotted a brand sharing an image of fireworks over the New Year period? There were almost many as there were photos of snow and Santa at Christmas time. Hardly very creative or original eh? Social networks are based on relationships between people. To be successful in this form of a media a brand needs to be authentic, original and human. Copy should be conversational and not mangled by approval process.

4. Dodgy data

Data enables us to make informed decisions yet much of the data we surround ourselves with is flawed. Likes and web hits are easily gamed. Playing with influencer algorithms has become a sport. That doesn’t necessarily mean that this insight has no value but it does mean that it needs to be analysed through a sceptical lens.

5. Content and channel distractions

You don’t need a content strategy, or a channel strategy, you need a strategy that meets your organisational objectives. That should be based on measurable objectives and rooted in audience planning, listening and measurement. Only then can you consider content and channel. So what if the kids have left Facebook? You knew that already.

6. Slow march to professionalism

Practitioners demand a place at the boardroom table alongside other professions. There are notable individuals that operate at the highest levels within organisations but they are the exception rather than a rule. In my view, the public relations industry isn’t going to make progress in building its’ own professional reputation until it holds itself to standards set by other professions.

7. Reaching for a higher purpose

Why do you get up in the morning? I’m sure that it isn’t to draft press releases and spam journalists. The formal definition of public relations is to enhance reputation by promoting mutual understanding. My Ketchum colleague David Gallagher believes that public relations has a much higher calling. He states that it can change the world for good through economic growth, social change and personal fulfilment. So what’s your motivation?

8. Buying media ain’t dirty

As media fragments organisations are figuring out new ways of making money. If you’re Facebook that’s sponsored content, for Twitter it’s promoted tweets, for The New York Times it’s native advertising, and for The Daily Telegraph it’s content amplification. These new formats are different attempts by organisations to create a sustainable media and if they provide the most effective means of engaging with a public we need to embrace them. The future of the media, like the future of public relations, is a work in progress.

9. Power of internal communication

Social media has no respect for the traditional hierarchies within an organisation.  Organisations are porous. Messages are shared via text, email, and social network. There is no longer any distinction between internal audiences or publics, typically employees, and external audiences. With the right communication strategies, content and engagement, employees have the potential to be the most powerful, and crucially, trusted advocates for an organisation.

10. Part of organisational change – or dead

Public relations has the potential to become incredibly valuable as a management discipline if it positions itself centre stage of the huge changes taking place in organisational communication. As social forms of media impact every operational area of a business, public relations skills are shifting beyond their traditional silo of corporate communications or marketing. But if practitioners remain wedded to traditional media they face becoming irrelevant.

Image of first press release dating from 1906 via Wikipedia with thanks.

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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.


  1. Hi Stephen

    First off happy New Year!

    Couldn’t agree more on the “little” data point. I wrote about this very topic for the Holmes Report a few weeks ago http://in2.holmesreport.com/2013/11/bigger-data-is-not-always-better/ and Brendon Craigie wrote a good piece here http://www.prmoment.com/1588/what-does-big-data-really-mean-in-pr-asks-hotwire-brendon-craigie.aspx in a similar vein.

    Two quotes sum up the challenge around data for me. Writing in the Guardian last year http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2013/apr/25/forget-big-data-small-data-revolution, Rufus Pollock, Founder and Co-Director of the Open Knowledge Foundation, said: “Size in itself doesn’t matter – what matters is having the data, of whatever size, that helps us solve a problem or address the question we have.”

    The other is from prediction guru Nate Silver ““We’re not that much smarter than we used to be, even though we have much more information — and that means the real skill now is learning how to pick out the useful information from all this noise.”

    The PR professionals (and tool designers) who can see past the “more must be better” approach to data and apply the wisdom in these words will be the ones who find the most valuable insights.

    Good luck with your year as president! :-)


    • A great post & a great comment.

      To further underline the point – Google Analytics, Traackr, and the other tools mentioned could as easily be categorised as ‘big data’ tools as they could ‘little data’. Their main purpose is to *try* and collect the information that helps us solve particular problems, and to *try* and present the most useful pieces among the noise.

  2. Great stuff Wadds. Timely too as was just thinking about planning our conference… most of these themes would be good for further exploration. Perhaps a curated event might be in the offing……. up for inputting? :)

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