Like any other business discipline, public relations has changed in recent years. The Global Communications Report, a comprehensive worldwide survey of more than 1,000 senior PR executives worldwide, reveals that the worldwide PR industry is predicted to grow from its current estimated size of $14 billion to $19.3 billion over the next five years.
According to The Holmes Report, only 27% of agency leaders responding to the survey think the term “public relations” will adequately describe the work they do by the year 2020. Says Paul Holmes, ““The pace of change in public relations has never been faster than it is today, but at the same time, it will likely never be this slow again.”
It’s true that a PR agency staffer starting out in 2017 will be undertaking research, creating programs, and shaping stories in ways very different from just a few years ago, in large part due to the dominance of digital technology and the blurring of lines between paid, owned, and earned media outcomes that agencies are often charged with generating.
Here are the top new trends that are accelerating change in the practice of public relations and challenging old-timers as we move into 2017.
The PR Industry Evolves Beyond Its Roots
PR is about generating influence.
True influence is precious at a time when “fake news” is itself making headlines. As communicators, we will be increasingly asked not only to generate coverage for brands and organizations, but to build the kind of relationships that actually influence behavior, and do so in a transparent way. Many have written about the changing nature of influencer relations in PR, and its move from celebrities and social media ambassadors to so-called “micro-influencers” – those that may not have a huge reach but that are trusted within social, demographic, or values-driven networks.
But PR itself is gaining influence, and rapidly.
Though it’s an evolution and not a revolution, that’s the real change for our industry. According to a 2015 Chief Communications Officer survey by Korn Ferry, CCOs in the U.S. are taking on more influential roles within their organizations. The takeaway for PRs? The study’s participants named leadership attributes like “courage, innovation, managing through ambiguity, developing talent, and contributing to strategy” as critical to their positions, which are wielding greater clout among C-level executives within the organization. These are among our new critical skills.
Content will move to new (and old) channels.
Today’s PR programs are less about selling and more about telling….stories that engage prospects or customers, and visual storytelling is hotter than ever. Earned media isn’t going away any time soon, but in recent years, social platforms have dominated. That may be changing in the near future, particularly as content marketing has reached a saturation point.The Content Marketing Institute’s Joe Pulizzi predicts a resurgence of print content led by brands and points to Airbnb, which recently launched a print magazine with Hearst.
An even hotter trend is content personalization, or using customer data or behavioral insights to create not just offers and promotions, but branded customized content for distribution through social or email channels. These may skirt the edges of a typical public relations person’s scope of responsibility, but, like the video explosion, it means that PRs will develop content marketing production and distribution skills and bring to their programs a sensibility that transcends the traditional earned media role.
PR and SEO are joined.
If PR is all about content, it stands to reason that PR and SEO must work together, and that PR professionals should have more than a passing familiarity with SEO and web analytics. When it comes to content, quality and relevance have replaced sheer quantity as a key metric. It all goes back to Google’s now-famous Penguin algorithm update, which as Bruce Kennedy puts it, led to “the shotgun wedding between PR and SEO.” Penguin penalized shady backlinks, keyword stuffing, and other black-hat SEO strategies in favor of quality content. To be shareable, content must be optimized, so fluency in SEO basics is a necessary skill.
But there’s a new development on the horizon known as “implied links.” Implied links are simply brand mentions that appear in earned or shared media. They’re undoubtedly good for visibility, but in the absence of a true link, they’re impossible to track. Google quietly filed a patent in 2014 that many in the search business feel presages an actual formula for tracking implied links. If true, it bodes very well for PR, which excels in generating powerful but maddeningly hard-to-measure mentions.
Thought leadership is more important than ever.
The lines keep blurring.
One of our most important tasks is content creation, but with the explosion of digital content, distribution is more vital than ever if anyone is going to actually see and engage with the material. (See Mark Schaefer’s “content shock.”) But it’s tough to achieve scale without paid tools and tactics. The PRs of 2017 and beyond must therefore be fluent in techniques for finding content niches, new social communities and influencers, paid and unpaid distribution tactics, and emerging Google trends that will impact content sharing.
The rise of data-driven marketing has been a difficult transition for some PRs because few of us are data engineers and the old guard is unlikely to be trained in analytics. Consequently there’s been no industry standard for evaluation of earned media outcomes. But even without a universal formula for measuring brand mentions, PR is catching up to marketing. A coalition of professional groups has created guidelines for benchmarking and measuring PR programs, and while there’s no one-size-fits-all formula, there’s plenty of practical advice on how to use those principles.