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Public relations in 2016: 16 areas of change

The issues and people that will make a difference to public relations in 2016. Here are 16 areas that I’m thinking about in my day job in marketing, public relations and social media at Ketchum.

I’ve been reviewing predictions for media and public relations in 2016. Much of the analysis has been consistent for the last ten years or more.

Maybe it’s just that 12 months is a long time on the internet and a short time for the business of public relations. Maybe I’m getting old and grumpy.

I have one prediction for the year ahead. Public relations in 2016 will be a lot like it was in 2015. It will be characterised by change.

No shit, Sherlock

We can identify macro challenges. At this time of year everyone becomes a sage.

We can characterise the big issues: diversity in all its forms, media change and measurement.

The reality is that change is slow and ours is an anxious, insecure profession.

What’s missing from all the analysis I’ve read is practical advice on how we can learn, develop and change. In this post I’ve tried to take a different tack.

What, how and who is modernising public relations

So which issues are organisations likely to face in communicating with their publics in 2016, and what can we do about it?

I’ve characterised 16 challenges that I think our profession faces and some of the people that are making a difference.

This is my blog and my list from my community. You’ll undoubtedly have a different one.

Read on. I’ve no doubt you’ll put me right if I’ve missed anything or anyone.

#1 The 100+ year old content format

Cision’s $841 million acquisition of PR Newswire at the end of 2015 confirmed that the press release, first used in 1906, remains public relation’s primary form of content. The internet loves audio, images and video. Investigate your mobile device. It’s a multimedia production suite.

Paul Clarke (@paul_clarke), Dan Slee (@danslee) and Scott Guthrie (@sabguthrie) were all a big influence on me in 2015 and have pushed me to explore different forms of content.

#2 Data and the demise of demographics

Traditional marketing models based on age, gender, location and income no longer work. Marketing segmentation was never that simple but in 2016 social media subverts all norms and hierarchies. If you’re a brand, listen, and I mean really listen and then let’s have a conversation based on what I say, and more importantly, what I do.

In 2016 watch for further back-end integration of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. The dataset will rival Google’s planning and paid engagement capabilities.

#3 Stop posting shit on the internet

Public relations is proving its value as a means of lead generation thanks to inbound content-led techniques such as those pioneered by Hubspot. It’s a smarter form of marketing that starts with listening and it’s called public relations.

Hubspot’s Iliyana Stareva (@iliyanastareva) and SpinSuck’s Gini Dietrich (@ginidietrich) are my go to people to learn about this developing opportunity called in-bound public relations.

#4 Gender is a public relations issue

The headlines are well rehearsed. Women are paid less than men. Current analysis shows the figure is £12,591 less across the profession according to the CIPR. Women aren’t adequately represented in senior positions, on conference panels or in industry activities.

There’s no single solution. Everyone in the profession has a responsibility for change. Hill+Knowlton Strategy’s Vikki Chowney (@vikkichowney) and the PR Conversation’s Judy Gombita (@jgombita) are both strong advocates.

#5 Who influences you?

We’ve shifted from journalists being the primary influencer to a variety of people – and not only celebs – across different forms of media from Instagram to YouTube. A modern day Wild West is playing out across the internet. Paid sits along earned and every market has its own ecosystem. This is a big area for me in my day job at Ketchum in 2016.

#6 Equality isn’t solely a gender issue

Gender gets the headlines but there’s work to do in lots of other areas of public relations. Equal employment opportunity for all irrespective of disability, ethnicity, class and sexuality remains a work in progress. The CIPR reports active discrimination of ethnic minorities and an obsession with youth, despite an ageing and diverse population and skilled older workforce.

#7 Creativity is a public relations discipline

Public relations has taken its place as a discipline that can deliver creativity and return on investment. We’re taking our rightful place alongside advertising and creative agencies at Cannes and Eurobest and inside the large marketing services groups such as Publicis, WPP and my own firm Omnicom.

#8 Are you any good?

Time serviced is the traditional measure of competence in public relations. It’s bullshit in a business that is changing so fast. Professionals need to invest in their own professional development. By all means take advantage of training offered by your employer but also take responsibility for developing your own skills.

Alex Aiken (@AlexanderAiken) is defining competency frameworks as he leads the modernisation of UK government communications.

Jason McKenzie (@jasonmackenzie) and Lindsey Collumbell (@lindscollumbell) have led a project at the CIPR to overhaul Chartered practitioner status that may ensure a few more sales of my book Chartered Public Relations.

Jean Valin (@jeanvalin1) heads a project at the Global Alliance that has the bold ambition of defining a global competency framework for public relations.

#9 Dark web: Tor and hidden conversations

The dark web describes two areas of the internet: communities and content using encrypted services such as Tor; and messaging services, both private network or walled gardens that are beyond the reach of search and listening tools. These areas are challenging and relatively new for those in public relations.

#10 Tools and workflow

Much of the public relations business runs on Post-it notes and Excel spreadsheets. There are tools to optimise every area of workflow from listing and planning, to content and relationship management.

Investigate #PRstack, the community I founded with Fred Vincx (@fritsbits), for a description of more than 250 tools and 50 how-to guides.

#11 Paying for it

Search and social media algorithms are throttled so that organisations have to pay to maximise the reach of content. Paid is no longer a dirty word;  it allows us to work smarter, amplify the outcome of campaigns and assure results. Smart practitioners have cracked SEO.

Stella Bayles (@stellabayles) wrote a book that nailed SEO for public relations and helped unlock bigger budgets. David Sawyer (@zudepr) reads and shares more about SEO than anyone I know. My own paid team at Ketchum fill in any gaps.

#12 Show me the money

The revised Barcelona Principles reasserted the need to route measurement in objectives that are aligned to an organisation’s objectives. The response was understandably mixed. People hoped for more. Watch out for practical templates that you can apply to campaigns in 2016.

Barry Leggetter (@amecorg) and Richard Bagnall (@richardbagnall) are leading AMEC’s work in this area.

#13 Vision and values

Consumers and citizens respond to emotional stimuli aligned to their own goals in life. Smart organisations are confident and root their communication in their organisational purpose. They understand their publics because they listen and create content that resonates, is appropriate and easy to appreciate.

My boss David Gallager (@tbonegallagher) Prof. Anne Gregory (@gregsanne) and Dr. Jon White (@drjonwhite) keep me straight on the purpose of public relations and its value to organisations as a management discipline.

#14 Pigs, lipstick and authenticity

In 2016 any gap between what an organisation does and what it says will be called out. This is an issue that has been played out since social media went mainstream.

Traditional media frequently harvests lousy examples from Facebook or Twitter. You can put lipstick on a pig but it will still be a pig.

Brand Anarchy and #BrandVandals, the two books that I wrote with Steve Earl (@mynameisearl) remain handbooks for my day-to-day professional practice.

#15 Inside out

The best advocates for an organisation are almost certainly the people on the payroll. Yet most organisations gag their employees with policies and rules. Equal effort should be applied to external and internal publics. My tip would be to always start with your internal stakeholders and work outwards from there.

Rachel Miller (@AllThingsIC) is someone that I always start with to explore new forms of media as it relates to internal and external communications.

#16 Community as media

My big lesson from the last 12 months is that private communities are the most influential form of media. People come together to form publics to discuss and tackle issues around a common purpose. Organisations can provide a home for conversations and facilitate communities but otherwise need to stay out of the way.

Sarah Hall (@hallmeister) created #FuturePRoof in 2016 as a community to explore the future of public relations. I’d urge you to check out the book and join the Facebook group if you’d like to join the discussion about where our profession is headed.

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Stephen Waddington

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

86 Comments

  1. Thanks for the mention, Stephen. I often quote Madeleine Albright (from her keynote speech at Celebrating Inspiration luncheon with the WNBA’s All-Decade Team, 2006):

    “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

    She was a United States Ambassador to the United Nations (1993–1997) and the U.S. Secretary of State (1997–2001).

    My concern is that many younger (female) PR practitioners do not seem to appreciate this continuing “gender gap” when it comes to authority (via senior positions), profile (conference keynotes and mainstream media and trade publications written articles), let alone the salary differences–in an industry that is dominated by women!

    More understanding, appreciation and active support from a cross-section of generations of females working in public relations (in-house and agency) would be heavenly…..

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