PR And Communications Trends For 2021

In PR and elsewhere, 2020 has been a year like no other. Even the Oxford English Dictionary is at a loss for words to describe it. If we could wipe it off the calendar and start again, most of us probably would. So, the sooner we finish our 2020 roundup posts and 2021 forecasts, the quicker we can turn the page, right?

Seriously, not all the news is bad. The year of COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, assorted climate disasters, and a historically divisive presidential contest has accelerated existing trends. It also opened new opportunities for professional communicators. Here are some observations on what we can expect in 2021.

Work will be fully digital

The pandemic fueled the digital transformation already underway in most business sectors. Gartner predicts that an “anywhere operations model will be vital for businesses to emerge successfully from COVID-19” in 2021. This is particularly true for marketing, brand and corporate communications. Remote work is now a permanent option for many office employees, and all internal and externally focused campaigns must be fully digital. The rush to digital operation has obvious ramifications, including a greater emphasis on digital security, and automation of repetitive tasks that frees up humans for higher-touch communications.

Livestream goes mainstream

2020 brought innovation in communications tactics, especially the use of live/streaming video platforms like Twitch. We’ll see lots of new ideas and platforms for customer and employee communications. One likely trend will be a continued mainstreaming of tactics like live digital events, podcasting, and real-time chat for routine programs. The future of event marketing growth will be in hybrid happenings that attract both physical and virtual participants and attendees.

DEI becomes mission-critical

There are no more excuses. No more talk of empty pipelines or hiding behind a revolving door of diverse candidates whose needs aren’t met by the organization. Agencies and clients alike need to walk the talk when it comes to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Promises and pledges that were made in a reactive way in June of 2020 won’t be forgotten in 2021.

The stakes rise for employee engagement

For similar reasons, stakeholder communications will become more important, but nowhere more than for than the new, distributed workforce. With remote work and fully digital programming becoming common. corporate communications will be challenged to involve and engage employees, with an emphasis on mental health and wellness, team-building, and creativity. It will require new technology tools as well as unprecedented involvement on a strategic level by corporate communications pros.

Our work will be bifurcated

Repetitive tasks and back-end office functions will be more automated. COVID proved that we don’t need constant travel any more than we need to deposit paper checks at the bank. At the same time, the pressure will grow for highly personalized media, customer and stakeholder communications. For example, content campaigns will be informed by customer data and therefore must focus on topics that truly resonate with specific segments, based on where and how they consume it. This means quarterly or even monthly adjustments, because few things are more valuable than agility in communications.

Marketing and corporate communications will overlap

There’s always been a tension between marketing and PR/communications within large companies. This is because the two compete for budget, and because marketing is seen as a proactive discipline responsible for driving growth, while communications is considered more defensive, involving crisis and reputation management.  The smartest companies will ensure that the two work in tandem to meet customer expectations for values-based marketing and communications.

PR must communicate values, not just message points

Of course it’s not new, but all evidence points to continued pressure on brands to align their marketing and communications with corporate values even beyond diversity, equity and inclusion. 2020 has seen a great deal of norm-shattering, and only some of that is for the better. We’re beset with deep divisions over culture, politics, and even the nature of objective fact. The loss of trust in institutions means that businesses will play a larger role in expressing brand and corporate values than ever before.

New social platforms drive influencer culture

A year ago, who would have thought Charli D’Amelio would hit 100 million TikTok followers by November? Actually, anyone following influencer culture probably should have. The pace of social influencer growth had accelerated even before the pandemic; on YouTube it took 14 years for a single channel to reach 100 million subscribers. Yet social media usage rose even more sharply during the lockdown periods after COVID-19. It’s a sure bet that trend will continue, and that by this time next year, fresh names will hit new milestones. Brands that catch rising stars as new audiences emerge will benefit.

Innovation still rules

It never went away, of course. But big ideas that drive media attention, bridge the virtual and physical, engage customers and employees, and extend marketing budgets will be more important than ever in a fractured and fragmented attention economy.

What are LinkedIn Stories and How Can PR Pros Use Them?

Since LinkedIn launched its Stories feature last month, it has won mixed reviews. But PR professionals shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it!

Of course, with over 706 million global users, LinkedIn is the go-to social platform for B2B professionals, and it’s probably still the best way to build a network with colleagues, classmates and industry professionals. It’s also a great place to have conversations around hot topics in tech, leadership and current events. 

LinkedIn Stories is similar to Instagram or Facebook stories, allowing users to post an update that will stay live for 24 hours. The story feature makes sense for Instagram and Facebook where you can share real-time updates, but why did LinkedIn feel they needed this feature? 

According to LinkedIn, “LinkedIn Stories enable members and organizations to share images and short videos of their everyday professional moments.” In a pre-COVID world, this feature would have been great to use during industry conferences and events. While the timing of launch may be odd, this is definitely a feature PR pros should convince executives to include in their social strategy. Here are five ways to incorporate LinkedIn stories into yours.

Share professional tips

Instagram and Facebook stories are a great place to share real time pictures, videos and updates, so why not try this out on LinkedIn Stories? Create a social schedule of quotable tips from executives that can be shared a few times a week. The goal here is to share comments or quotes that are short but impactful. You want to grab your audience’s attention very quickly. Make sure content is easy to digest and you’re not cramming everything into one story. If you want to share five tips, create five slides and space out the updates to make a bigger impact.

Highlight ‘events’ in real time

One of the big trends of 2020 was a shift to virtual events, primarily on Zoom. In PR, we believe that securing speaking events for executives is a strong way to promote thought leadership and position clients as industry leaders. Share clips from virtual conferences with short soundbites of high-impact statements from business leaders. When the event is over, if you have access to a full recording, you can tease it in stories as well encouraging connections to watch the full talk if they missed it. 

Host a Q&A

A fun feature on stories is opening a question on your story and asking for followers and connections to weigh in. Consider hosting a weekly or monthly Q&A around current events in a given industry, — maybe on new tech launches or reactive comments around breaking news. Create a two-way conversation between business leaders and their connections. If you’re looking for a way to spread out content, ask connections to submit questions in advance and answer them a few days later. 

Preview company announcements and launches

One of the benefits of LinkedIn Stories is that when users log on, the stories will be featured at the top of the page before they start scrolling. Sometimes user posts can be lost in endless scrolling, but if you have a story, you have a better chance of higher engagement. Did your company just acquire funding or are launching a new tech offering? Tease this announcement in your story. Perhaps preview the headline of a press release to gauge attention and direct users to your company’s page or your own – wherever the press release link is live. Continue this momentum by posting any coverage you generate from the announcement.   

Highlight personal and company achievements

LinkedIn is the perfect place to share job promotions and personal achievements. Use LinkedIn Stories to highlight these wins. On an executive’s LinkedIn Stories, you can also share personnel changes and moves highlighting achievements and accolades. Connections will see how proud a business leader is of their staff, for example, and positive encouragement motivates and inspires any team to exceed expectations. 

How will you use LinkedIn stories? Let me know on Twitter @colleeno_pr.   

10 Tech Buzzwords PR Folk Should Avoid In 2021

Unique, disruptive, innovative. From Silicon Valley to New York’s own “Silicon Alley,” PR people tend to use these tech buzzwords in press releases and marketing materials. They wind up in pitch decks, tech journalists’ inboxes, and in business meetings. We’ve all used them at one point or another — but shame on us. 

Tech culture is well-known for its overuse of buzzwords. And, although buzzwords can serve as convenient shorthand for complex thoughts, it’s not long before these terms become tired and worn out. They can even become obnoxious. 

Here are 10 of the most eye roll- inducing tech buzzwords and marketing speak that PR folk should try to avoid in 2021.

Disruptive – In a technology PR context, disruption is not only overused, but misused. The problem? Few of these technologies or products are actually disruptive. And, the truth is, a company can be extremely successful without being disruptive. The word is used to imply success, but that implication is often incorrect.

Big Data –  Big Data is overused because it’s so often used to describe any kind of data. Technically it refers to a set of data so large that traditional technology is unable to analyze it. Data about shoppers’ click actions on a large retailer’s website (think Amazon or Alibaba) would be a good example. The abuse of this term in business meetings, pitches, and press releases has turned it into nothing more than a cliche. As the words are coming out of one’s mouth, the receiver has already begun to daydream that they’re somewhere more interesting. 

Artificial Intelligence – The term Artificial Intelligence (AI) is thrown around quite a bit. It’s important to note that AI is a broad term that refers to the simulation of human intelligence in machines programmed to think like humans and mimic their actions. The word may also apply to any machine that exhibits traits associated with a human mind such as learning and problem-solving. With that said, however, AI has suffered from being overextended and overmarketed. It should be used only when AI is truly a key feature of a product or service, not to refer to a little automation. 

Groundbreaking – Much like “disruptive,” the word is tired and often inaccurate. Very few products or technologies are truly groundbreaking. And, that’s because not many actually create a new market where none existed. Some of the technologies that have earned the right to be considered groundbreaking include the telephone, personal computers, electric cars, and… you get the picture. 

World’s leading – Straight up hogwash. This is a buzz phrase that tries to imply something but actually says nothing. It’s as puffy a term as one can get.

Innovative – Innovative is one of the most overused terms in PR, marketing and business. Its overexposure has probably caught more attention than actual innovative technologies themselves. Plus, as a negative result of our overuse of the term, there’s been a loss of understanding when we say that more innovation is needed in a particular field or industry. Actions have consequences, people. 

Ecosystem – The word “ecosystem” actually has a pretty rich meaning. It is a community of living organisms in conjunction with the nonliving components of their environment, interacting as a system. These biotic and abiotic components are linked through nutrient cycles and energy flows. However, thanks to its constant use as a buzzword in tech marketing, PR and business, it has lost all meaning. 

Next-generation – This phrase is used to describe a product that has been developed using the latest technology and will probably replace an existing product due to its technological leap forward. Yet, again, overuse has made it confusing. Most of us are now unsure when something is actually next-generation, or if it’s just the current generation trying to be cool. 

Actionable Insights – This is often thrown out in discussions about Big Data, but it doesn’t add much clarity. It refers to data that a company can then use to take concrete action, usually to identify causes of problems and their solutions. Yet there must be a better way to communicate what a company is doing with data and analytics. These words imply that lots of data is useless, and considering that businesses pour millions of dollars into data collection and analysis, it seems a poor choice of words at the very least. 

Leverage – Did you know that the term leverage actually has technical definitions in science as well as finance? You can use it in everyday speech and people will understand that you’re not actually referring to mechanical advantage, of course. But, the word is now becoming so common as a synonym for “use” that it has lost its true meaning. Let’s breathe life back into the word before we totally kill it off with our overuse and misuse. It can be your good deed for 2021. Instead, opt for a simpler word or phrase, like “use,” “learn from,” or “take advantage of.” 

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Buzzwords appear in all work sectors, but there’s something about tech PR and marketing that seems to make them more common. Let’s work together to come up with fresher, more powerful and more precise language that will actually be more meaningful when communicating about our clients.

PR Tips For A Deep Media Spokesperson Bench

In B2B public relations, there are few assets more valuable than a terrific media spokesperson. PR teams depend on a company or brand representative who can deliver a quick, incisive comment about a breaking news story or deep insights about a company move. For some organizations, the CEO or founder is the best spokesperson due to broad-based knowledge and presumed clout with media. Yet CEOs aren’t always available for interviews, and depending on a company’s size, they are most appropriate only for specific opportunities

Given that each story angle is different and every organization has its own internal structure, most can benefit from a deep media spokesperson bench that extends beyond the C-suite. Unfortunately, with overlapping areas of expertise and internal politics — not to mention those pesky scheduling conflicts — identifying the best spokesperson for each story or opportunity can be a challenge.

With that in mind, here are some ways for PR pros and their clients build out an extended “bench” of company spokespeople.

Start with key topics, then expand

It’s rare for a company to be limited to only one type of story. For example, an ad tech startup may be suited for topics from native advertising to GDPR, while a professional services firm can fit stories about anything from compliance to forensic accounting. This can make things complicated, but it presents a great opportunity to diversify spokespersons and convey an organization’s collective expertise. By establishing a spokesperson matrix that includes a go-to expert for each topic, you can “spread the love” and give more execs a chance in the spotlight. A disciplined approach also offers spokespersons peace of mind because they know exactly what kind of topics they will be offered to speak about.

Identify the most prepared speakers

Building a spokespeople bench — especially at large professional services companies — can be overwhelming. But even the most brilliant expert may flounder if they are not prepared. PR teams can narrow the field by determining which execs have been recently trained and who understands the media process. If no one has been formally coached, don’t worry. Look for team members who have previous media experience or who are comfortable in external speaking situations like conference presentations or sales calls; these people often make great spokespersons and might not even know it. The PR team may need to coach sales or marketing people to tone down commercial messaging in favor of thoughtful insights that offer news value, but that can often be done with message-point preparation.

Consider double-teaming experts

Sometimes there isn’t one specific individual that fits perfectly for a given story…and that’s okay. Most media briefings are between one client contact and one journalist, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes, multiple spokespersons can cover the different aspects of a story more fully than any one executive, and a group call or meeting can be a time-efficient solution for the journalist. This type of situation is relatively common in professional services companies or law firms, where there are deep and overlapping vertical specialists who cover many areas. For example, a new government regulation in financial services may impact banks, investment firms, or credit unions differently. Therefore, it may make sense to have an expert in each type of financial institution on a call to fill in the gaps.

Start small 

Many client-side team members are happy to help out by speaking with media. Some are eager to do so even if they’re not very experienced. That’s why it’s important to start small. Like an out-of-town tryout before a show opens on Broadway, a series of trade media interviews could be a fine first step for a new brand spokesperson. This is particularly true for broadcast media opportunities; it helps to build a “reel” of small but respectable digital video interviews before tackling the larger networks like Bloomberg or Fox Business. 

PR teams should also point out when someone is not the best fit for an opportunity. We speak up if another team member is better suited to discuss a topic or should join a media call. This ensures that the journalist gets what they need and that the company’s POV and expertise is highlighted, and helps spread  out any spokesperson anxiety.

Encourage honest feedback

We make it a practice to staff every client media interview, and we often record them for information purposes. That’s helpful in offering immediate and constructive feedback to company spokespersons. Detailed feedback is very important for all media spokespersons, especially those who are less experienced. So don’t hold back – make it positive, thorough, and actionable, and you will build the spokesperson bench as time goes on. 

Will Jones Day Weather The PR Storm?

Elite international law firm Jones Day faces a reputation crisis as a result of its work supporting legal challenges to the results of the election. Controversy isn’t new to Jones Day, but this situation is a bit more fraught. Here’s why.

As any professional services company knows, the stakes grow if your clients are involved in a negative-PR situation. And on Tuesday the Lincoln Project, that snarky band of never-Trump Republicans who spent $42 in scathing ads and mean tweets to defeat the president, announced a TV, digital and social media campaign accusing Jones Day of undermining democracy. Now, the Lincoln Project intends to draw the firm’s clients into the fray.

No stranger to controversy

Jones Day has weathered plenty of criticism in the past. It was hit with an employee gender-bias lawsuit in 2019, and just last month Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway sued the firm for fraud over a transaction that went bad.

But the stakes rose Monday when a prominent New York Times story hit that amplified the situation.  “Growing Discomfort at Law Firms Representing Trump in Election Lawsuits” describes concerns among lawyers at Jones Day and Porter Wright, a less well-known firm that has represented the Trump campaign for legal challenges in Pennsylvania.

Jones Day has worked with the president since 2016, when partner Don McGahn began to advise the Trump campaign. The work grew after McGahn became White House counsel and has continued after his return to the firm. It drew scrutiny then, but now it much more polarizing because the Trump team’s legal actions are widely seen as frivolous but dangerous. The objective, it seems, is not to overturn the results of the election, but to sow doubt and erode confidence in the system itself. That is a tougher position to defend.

Lincoln Project set to raise the game

The Lincoln Project campaign isn’t large – it’s described as half a million in spending – but the group is good at raising attention on social media platforms and generating earned media through cable TV interviews. (These are the guys who made hay with a Times Square billboard featuring ads about Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, who promptly threatened to sue them.) Invoking some of the law firm’s large clients, Lincoln Project partner Rick Wilson told The Washington Post, “I’d like to know how General Motors justifies working with a company that’s aggressively seeking to undermine the validity of a free and fair democratic election.”

Does GM consider this a problem? Probably not. Even if so, will public pressure change anything? We see concern about such situations more often at PR agencies, as when Edelman backed down after employees protested its work for ICE detention company GEO Group. A giant law firm like Jones Day is more insulated from reputation issues than a PR company who advises about reputation for a living. And it may not want to bend principles about sticking by clients by bowing to public criticism on Twitter.

The drip-drip can have an impact

Yet employees are clearly upset about the work; some complained (on background) about “heckling” and one lawyer at Porter Wright has resigned. Most importantly, Jones Day hasn’t made any kind of statement defending its work. It had no response to questions by New York Times reporters, which is baffling. The silence gives the impression that it’s ambivalent about the work, or maybe unconcerned about its reputation among its own partners and the community at large.

Then there are the clients. It seems to me that the controversy is more likely to deter new clients than to pressure existing ones to drop their legal counsel. Why invite scrutiny if there’s another law firm to handle your business? If I were Jones Day, I’d be looking for a quick and quiet resolution to the legal challenges that by all accounts have no chance of succeeding.

If things drag on for weeks, the drip-drip-drip may actually have an impact. Jones Day earned $4 million for its Trump work this year — an insignificant sum for a firm its size. Most prominent clients come with bragging rights, but the upside here isn’t clear. Are the fees and the high-level contacts worth what may be coming?

*Late Tuesday Jones Day posted a statement on its site in response to the controversy. The statement asserts that the firm represents neither President Trump nor any affiliated party and that its work does not seek to contest election results. It goes on to define the work very narrowly as “representing the Pennsylvania GOP in pending litigation brought by private parties in April 2020” around the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s order to extend the deadline for return of mail-in ballots. It asks for media to correct “numerous false reports” about its work.

Can Sponsored Content Work For PR?

For anyone who works in public relations, content still reigns supreme. An effective content marketing calendar will complement a PR campaign to help differentiate a brand and generate business growth. How? Both PR and content share the same goal: to reinforce positive visibility, engage specific target audiences, and in some cases, issue a call to action.

Different types of content in the form of press releases, bylined articles, white papers, and social media, among others, can help deliver key messages, amplify thought leadership and boost SEO for a particular brand. 

Earned media, although quite labor intensive and hard to scale, still beats native and paid ads as a component of a PR program that’s heavy on earned coverage. It’s considered the most credible and influential source for storytelling. But can we say that for sponsored content? Does it have the same impact as earned media? 

What is sponsored content?

Sponsored content is content that an organization or brand pays to place and promote. It typically reads or views like editorial content and less like an ad. Think sponsored tweets, boosted Facebook posts, sponsored pins and much more. 

Phrases such as ‘sponsored by, ‘partnered with’, ‘promoted’ and ‘presented by’ are indicators of sponsored content. As audiences grow more accepting of sponsored content, brands are using it to shake up the marketing mix. A great example is Cocaine Economics, a stunning interactive website created through a partnership between Netflix and WSJ to promote the television show “Narcos.” It serves both to promote the show and to capitalize on interest in it, but it’s clearly a product of good journalism. Similarly, in the B2B sector, this guest piece by our client Verizon Media is a perfect example of what good sponsored content should look like. 

Sponsored content is often confused with native advertising, but it’s actually a subset of it. Native advertising is essentially advertising embedded in or adjacent to editorial that matches the form, feel and function of the content in the environment where it appears, BUT it isn’t editorial and it is labeled so that the reader recognized the distinction. The key difference is that native advertising looks more like a traditional ad and sponsored content is more like editorial.

Just to make things more confusing, there’s also branded content, a close cousin to sponsored content. Though the terms can be used interchangeably, they refer to different things. Branded content is typically produced by an organization to appear on a brand-owned platform like its website. Sponsored content, on the other hand, is integrated into a publisher’s site, and it’s created in collaboration with a publisher’s editorial staff. That’s why it offers a degree of credibility that some native advertising can lack. 

Here’s how Contently’s Joe Lasauskas portrays the relation between native advertising and sponsored content (with a little dig at the now-outdated term “brand journalism.”)

The pros and cons of sponsored content in PR

It may seem confusing, but the world of paid content opens up lots of opportunities for PR practitioners. Here are the chief ones. 

Pros:

You call the shots

Because you have extra budget to spend on sponsored content, you have all the control. You have the freedom to choose your messaging, shape the narrative, and decide when and where it can appear. For earned media coverage, we carefully construct our pitches to follow the client’s intended narrative and the strategy that we think will resonate, but sometimes media take a different approach in a story. In such scenarios, PR teams do not have perfect control over the content nor can fully guarantee the exact required coverage. But, sponsored content eliminates that uncertainty because you basically get what you pay for and clients are happy with the outcome. So for a program like a public service campaign with a goal to educate or change behavior (like wearing masks or eating more vegetables), a mix of earned media and sponsored content is ideal.

Greater reach 

The great benefit of sponsored content is its reach. Reach can be hard to guarantee through organic content placement alone, especially for a B2B program that typically targets trade and business channels that are strategic but not always particularly huge. Sponsored content can bridge that gap and help expand the audience footprint to those who wouldn’t have discovered the content otherwise. Siemens’ campaign with Economist in 2018 exemplifies this reach. Each partner teamed to create this graphically gorgeous explanation of the relationship between data and football. The campaign used fans’ voices in a stadium and generated digital soundwaves to create a visible correlation between fan enthusiasm and team performance. Per Pressboard, this campaign is a work of sponsored content that’s driven by curiosity and a desire to better understand the world around us. 

Sponsored content is just another part of the larger cycle of a strategic PR program and can yield results, especially if complemented with the credibility and news value of earned media. But what are its drawbacks?

Cons:

Short lifespan

Sponsored content is dependent on budget, naturally, so its impact is finite. When the budget runs out, the impact wanes. The long-term SEO value of a sponsored article can be questionable, depending on the domain, the piece’s length, and its keywords.

Expensive process

The process for creating sponsored content is expensive. You need to plan ahead, keep the dollars aside and carefully research the most credible media partner. Beyond that, a sponsored piece requires multiple steps, cross-teams collaboration, and rounds of review — making the entire process long and arduous. 

Authenticity

Reviews have transformed the way consumers make purchase decisions. An unbiased third-party endorsement or a positive review gives your product or brand an edge that always can’t be bought. When such reviews get noticed and you receive media inbounds for further coverage and amplification, they are not only considered to be big wins but also authentic pieces of coverage. The biggest drawback of sponsored content is that it has the least impact on consumer purchasing behavior. It’s no secret that in the digital age, more and more companies are embracing paid amplification in the hope of earning new consumers. But, a discerning reader or viewer can easily spot the difference between paid and unpaid (editorial) content. Because of this, sponsored content can be perceived as overly commercial and less credible than other forms of content. 

In recent years, sponsored content has become an increasingly profitable revenue stream for digital publishers, bloggers and influencers, as it has started taking many forms across TV, films, streaming platforms, and social media. Earlier, there were distinct lines between paid and earned media, but lately, the two have been merging within PR programs in an integrated strategy. In a study by USC Center for Public Relations 64% of PR professionals predict that by 2023, the average consumer will not be able to distinguish between news articles and sponsored content. Additionally, 59% believe the average person won’t care if the two are indistinguishable.

That means that quality, strategy and partnership are the key criteria for PRs looking to add sponsored content to their programming. We have found that, when done well, the blending of earned and paid content supports the lead sales funnel for B2B marketers. The balance between the two ultimately depends on individual budget and goals, but when they work, it can be a 1+1=3 impact.