2014 News Drives PR Trends In 2015

Memes about memes, “breaking” the Internet, scandalous leaks… 2014 has been a turbulent year for PR agencies and other communications professionals. We’ve heard plenty about the mobile explosion and big data this year in PR and ad tech, but it’s not over. Here are the developments that get my votes for top trends likely to impact the new year.

Data and more data

Online ads are more relevant, earned and owned content more targeted, and overall communications are more data-driven than ever before. Yet data-focused marketing continues to bring heightened concerns about user privacy. And when it comes to data security, I’m reminded of an industry maxim repeated by a marketing technology client who was hacked back in 2010. “There are two kinds of companies: those who know they’ve been hacked, and those who haven’t yet realized it.” The Sony crisis raises the stakes for data security and reminds us that when it comes to a breach, it’s not a question of if, but a matter of when.

Higher standards for transparent communications

Earlier this year, the UK Guardian published a list of top global PR firms who have pledged not to represent companies who oppose or deny climate change. The piece signaled the growing clout of the global PR community, as well as the greater scrutiny it will draw in the coming months. Media, NGOs and political watchdogs on both sides of the aisle will press harder than ever for transparent and ethical business practices, and our industry must be ready.

A new generation of influencers come of age

Had you heard of Bethany Mota a year ago? What about 8-year-old EvanTubeHD? An emerging generation of influencers has opened up a whole new world of social influence. These rising SMEs (subject matter experts) have amassed huge followings on Instagram or YouTube. In 2015, PR professionals will be looking to identify or even create the future Michelle Phan, to name just one.

The rise of the visual web

Humans process images much faster than we decipher text, and the rapid pace of mobile content consumption on smartphones and tablets has driven an explosive shift from word-based to to image-based communications.  In 2015, look for more brands to join Starbucks, West Elm, and National Geographic in a commitment to more image-based content creation.

Podcasts rule

Communications isn’t just visual. Audio is enjoying a resurgence – even though it never left. Podcasts and even audiobooks will climb higher on the list of PR tools and tactics, partly due to huge rates of mobile adoption, but also because of the astounding success of “Serial.” The podcast was such a cultural phenomenon in 2014 that it’s driven big audiences for other podcasts dedicated to reviewing and dissecting each episode, like Slate’s popular weekly discussion. There’s even a holiday-themed parody of “Serial” on SNL. That’s a high bar for season two but a boost for the medium.

Blurred lines getting blurrier

With brand reputation profoundly affected by public opinion, social sharing, and earned media coverage, responsibilities within PR, SEO/content, and social media keep blurring. Optimal brand communications means closer alignment among previously siloed business functions. That means large PR agencies will continue to add new skills and practices, and specialist agencies will dig deep to master the many ways that earned media coverage can be used to drive sales and support  business goals.

What PR People Can Learn From "Serial"

PR agency professionals like to talk about storytelling, and we’re good at identifying and shaping a narrative. But, let’s face it, much of the content about brand storytelling doesn’t always make for a great story.

Enter “Serial,” the podcast. If you’re one of its five million listeners, or even among those tired of hearing about it from obsessed friends, you know what I mean. Within a few weeks of its debut, “Serial” shattered the iTunes record for fastest podcast and it’s still going strong.

What makes “Serial” so compelling? It starts with the narrative itself. It’s based on a 15-year-old murder of a high-school student which may have been improperly investigated and prosecuted, and which in many ways remains a mystery, so there’s a natural fascination. There’s also the Rashomon-like appeal of multiple points of view. But its success is also due to its structure, its serialized nature (a little more than bite-sized, but still leaving us wanting more), and perhaps most importantly, the skill and voice of narrator Sarah Koenig.

Here are the storytelling takeaways from “Serial” that I find most relevant to professional communicators.

It’s messy. Because it’s based on real events, and the re-investigation of the murder is happening in something close to real time, “Serial” lacks the neat packaging of branded content or the structure of actual reporting. It’s full of blind alleys, minor digressions, and details that don’t necessarily advance the story. But that rawness is what makes a story both fascinating and real.

It’s authentic. Koenig breaks the wall between listener and journalist and actually lets you in, without losing her journalist cred. She admits mistakes, makes dryly humorous references to her own reporting, and is utterly transparent. It’s a refreshing change from traditional journalism, but without the typical POV of a blogger or journalist advocate. In many ways, Koenig is as torn, confused, and malleable in her point of view as we are.

It’s personal. Few forms of media are as intimate as the spoken word. Listening to Koenig’s narration makes me feel like I could be sitting at a cafe with her, completely looped in and sharing her every frustration or triumph. Yes, podcasts have been around for over a decade, but audio is still an underutilized medium. The success of “Serial,” and the way it leverages the medium to draw out the story, will definitely influence a new generation of podcasters. As communicators, even if we don’t opt for a podcast, we can strive for the tone, narrative style, and personality that convey immediacy and intimacy.

It respects the audience. At times, “Serial” is work. There’s a very strong main narrative thread, but it’s nearly impossible to keep track of the many secondary characters and their relationships to one another, and we can’t begin to absorb the reams of documentation that Koenig has accessed. A marketing narrative with this amount of detail would be very risky, but it’s a lesson in not underestimating the intelligence of the audience. The story actually asks for a commitment from us, and we’re happy to give it.

It has stories within the story. Part of the addictive quality of “Serial” comes with the stories within the main narrative. Many detours and personalities are explored in such a way as to offer their own arc, much as a TV series brings in a guest character for a few episodes without losing the main dramatic thread. Each episode brings us not only fresh information, but a new point of view.

It’s multidimensional and multimedia. Want to find out more about how cell phone tower technology works? Interested in mapping the stops that figure into Jay’s testimony? The “Serial” website, with its maps, links, images, and other graphics, is ideally designed to add depth to the story and foster a community of listeners. The more it gives us, the more we want, and that’s part of what makes it an influential cultural phenomenon and such a terrific story.