January 6, 2010
It’s January, and that means it’s time to talk about the New Year. Given the breadth and velocity of changes in the PR profession in recent years, some practitioners might view this as an exercise in futility. As the late management expert Peter Drucker once observed, “The only thing we know about the future is that it will be different.”
Consider some of the trends that PR professionals saw in 2009. Just when we learned to accept and embrace social media as the tool of choice for the next generation, Forrester Research found that more than 60 percent of baby boomers consume social media content too.
And, according to a survey from Middleberg Communications and the Society for New Communications Research in November, 70 percent of journalists — a group that traditionally labored to differentiate its work products from social media — said that they use social networks to assist with reporting, which has increased from 41 percent last year. This is changing the way that PR practitioners engage with the media, as we must now respect and leverage social media as a vital — if not the pre-eminent —platform for disseminating information about our companies and clients.
Yes, the practice of public relations looks different than it did in the past — and if these recent examples are any indication, then it will continue to evolve. But what does that mean for PR professionals? What should we be looking for in the coming year — and what should we do when we see it coming?
To answer this question, Tactics asked four insightful professionals to discuss some of the top PR trends that are shaping public relations in 2010 and beyond.
Trend No. 1 — PR professionals will compete with other functions for traditional PR jobs.
This will continue because of the down economy, suppressed hiring and consolidated jobs and departments.
“For PR people, this means we will need to fight for our turf,” says Patrice Tanaka, co-chair and chief creative officer of CRT/Tanaka in New York City. “We are seeing the advertising function overtaking public relations’ management of social media, social responsibility officers handling CSR and stakeholder relationships, marketing managers running marketing communications and CFOs managing financial communications.”
Tom Gable, APR, Fellow PRSA, founder and CEO of Gable PR in San Diego, views this development as an opportunity.
“PR professionals are gaining more credibility in the C-suite as strategic and trusted counselors,” he says.
Geno Church, word of mouth inspiration officer for Brains on Fire in Greenville, S.C., agrees: “Some of the best client work I see comes through public relations, because [PR practitioners] are uniquely equipped to develop relationships,” he says.
However, a ticket to that C-suite has a hefty admission price: a solid knowledge of your client’s or company’s business.
“To survive and thrive in 2010, PR people will have to look for every possible opportunity in every business process area, and be more knowledgeable and savvy about how business works,” Tanaka says.
In short, never give an executive — or a client — a reason to choose someone else’s expertise over your own due to their perception that PR people lack business knowledge.
Resolve to find new and innovative ways to gain that knowledge in 2010 — even if you work in a small or budget-constrained organization. Take a class that explores your industry or general business principles. Arrange periodic lunches to update business or finance professionals in your organization or business community. Pool resources with other organizations to sponsor symposia, purchase training or view webinars. And, when the situation demands it, try the low-tech approach. I once spent weeks familiarizing myself with a complex product line by reviewing a set of homemade flash cards at my desk whenever I had a few extra minutes.
Trend No. 2 — Social media will continue to evolve and impact the PR practice.
Consequently, the demand for PR professionals who can assess the impact of social media on their organizations will increase. PR practitioners must know how to use social media to anticipate and respond to issues.
Depending on how technologically savvy your organization is, your main goal of 2010 may be to simply start using social media. If your organization has been depending on traditional approaches to audience engagement, then adopting social media tools can be daunting.
Jay Krall, a product manager at Cision and social media commenter, suggests trying internal social media communications, which can provide a safer environment for experimentation. For example, tools such as Yammer, a microblogging service for users within a given corporate network, can be worth investigating.
In the year ahead, Tanaka foresees the “mobilization” of social media and the further evolution of the “third screen” — consumers will increasingly use their smart phones to obtain more of their news, information and entertainment. As communicators, PR practitioners need to think of new ways to reach consumers through this medium.
“The next big thing will be mobile social apps that take full advantage of location-based services (LBS) that will notify us of a sales promotion as we walk by a retailer or let us know when friends are nearby,” Tanaka says. “PR people should be asking themselves, ‘How do we reach consumers via the third screen, which is quickly becoming the first screen in our lives?’”
While social media platforms remain popular, there is concern among some PR practitioners that too many people are relying upon such tools. Church says that PR practitioners shouldn’t exclude other platforms, but rather should strive to integrate messages across all platforms.
“In 2010, I think we’ll see a ‘back to the basics’ approach. Ninety percent of word-of-mouth marketing is offline,” he says. “The brands that are making headway are the ones that empower their customers — whatever tools they use to do that. At the end of the day, people are the killer app.”
Trend No. 3 — Transparency and authenticity will move beyond buzzwords and become standard practice.
One profound and permanent effect of social media is that organizations can no longer control the message — or the flow of information in general. Since other people will be conducting the conversation— whether positive or negative — organizations will have to speak through their actions and values. In 2010, transparency will finally become more than just a buzzword.
“Web 2.0 has forced transparency upon organizations, and that’s a good thing,” Tanaka says. “With the proliferation of social media, we will be able to easily communicate our grievances to an even greater number of people on the planet.”
The most effective social media strategy for organizations will involve going back to the fundamentals of doing the right things and doing things right.
“Extreme customer service will once again be king,” Tanaka says.
PR practitioners know that transparency and authenticity help establish trust and credibility with stakeholders. But PR practitioners are also finding that more transparent communication can help them gain better access to key insights.
One inescapable consequence of transparency is receiving bad feedback. However, more savvy social media users are learning to welcome and even embrace negative comments.
“Don’t just dive under your desk when someone says something bad,” Krall says. “The Web provides a great opportunity to address issues and clarify what your organization is doing.”
Trend No. 4 — The demand for good PR measurement will increase.
This will be especially true for social media, as more organizations will demand that their PR professionals have the ability to demonstrate social media’s contribution to the bottom line.
Measuring PR efforts has been increasing in importance and momentum for years. But what’s changing now, Gable says, is that “it is imperative to measure not just the amount of media, but the movement of an organization’s image and reputation because clients want to rise above the competition.”
Content analysis will continue to be a critical component, and in 2010 PR professionals will also see growth in other innovative methods of reputation analysis, such as external media audits that involve interviewing key media leaders in your field, he says.
This new measurement environment demands careful consideration and strategic thought before the communication effort even begins. The days of desperately measuring anything that moves — or anything that looks good in a pie chart — are over.
“Measurement can be dangerous because you start catering to the crowd you’re measuring,” Church says. “Remember that it’s the people who are engaged with you who are the recommenders of your brand. You’ve got to ask them what’s important, and you’ve got to ask them up front. If you don’t have the conversation up front, you’ll never get it back.”
In 2010, measuring social media will require a more customized approach. The social metrics of content sharing, such as inbound links or comments, apply to an individual’s blog just as easily as they apply to a big media site like CNN.com, Krall says.
“So in that sense, individuals and news organizations do compete on a level playing field,” he adds. “However, an individual within a social site such as a person using Twitter, while capable of the same type of influence as CNN, does need to be measured differently.”
Krall suggests that one of the best ways to measure the influence of a person on Twitter is using social metrics such as @replies and retweets — which indicate that someone else found the tweet interesting enough to share or comment on.
Looking ahead, traditional media monitoring may become more difficult for PR practitioners. Since the collapse of the financial sector in the fall of 2008, the journalism industry shed jobs at almost three times the rate of jobs lost in the economy each month, according to a study by “Unity: Journalists of Color.” Unity’s 2009 Layoff Tracker Report reports that 35,885 jobs were lost in the news media since Sept. 15, 2008.
Despite these industry shifts, it’s important to approach media monitoring strategically.
“Former journalists may continue to write, but as freelancers or bloggers, PR professionals must absolutely master the art of effective and responsible blogger outreach,” Krall says. “Through good research, you can determine whether an individual blogger serves as a target for outreach with a particular message.”
Regardless, Krall says that freelancers and bloggers can be measured on the same level as professional journalists, especially regarding Web content.
“In today’s changing media landscape, PR professionals must be incredibly attuned to the news media on almost a 24/7 basis,” Gable adds. “We must continue to be responsive, but above all, we need to relentlessly find ways to promote clients.”
Welcome to change
While the future remains somewhat shrouded in mist, our glimpse ahead illuminates one important truth: No matter how tech-savvy PR practitioners are, and no matter how broad and diversified our audience outreach becomes, the personal connections matter most. If PR practitioners excel at innovation but fail at conversation, the future will still arrive — but it’s likely to be a lot less fulfilling.
Each day, PR practitioners can confidently navigate their organizations and clients through upcoming trends. As the PR landscape shifts, practitioners need to think strategically and evaluate relentlessly. If something new comes along, then take a look. If something isn’t working, then change it.
So, welcome to 2010 — and welcome to change. While it may be baffling, uncomfortable and difficult, it’s what keeps the profession exciting. In 2010, public relations is likely to become even more vital, rewarding and exhilarating than ever before.
And would PR professionals want it any other way?
Susan Balcom Walton, M.A., APR, is an associate professor of public relations at Brigham Young University. She has also held communications management positions at various Fortune 500 companies.
Email: susan_walton at byu.edu