Future of PR: Communication in the age of AI, automation and media noise
What does the future hold for the PR industry? We spoke to PR practitioners across the industry and asked how they see public relations changing and adapting in the future.
Blurring the lines between job roles and departments: Abs Hassanali, Senior Account Manager at Bright Bee PR:
By 2020, the lines between PR, marketing and advertising will have been etched off. A PR agency will be inept if they cannot blend roles – be it to organise a corporate roundtable, find advertising space or come up with branding.
Automation and machine learning: Peter Rogers, Account Director at Weber Shandwick:
Technology has already significantly changed our industry by making journalists easier to find, coverage simpler to compile, and networks more straightforward to manage. Collaboration and collective working at global agencies is more streamlined than ever before. We should expect this trend to accelerate, with automation and machine learning significantly speeding up more basic admin in particular and making tasks such as compiling the cuttings book a thing of the past. This will free up consultants to focus on their specialist areas and spend more time giving their clients high-quality counsel.
A focus on sustainability and ethics: Natalie Bishop, Senior Account Executive at BlueSky Education PR:
Working with international business schools and their entrepreneurial alumni, I have noticed that there has been a huge swing towards the importance of the sustainability, environmental impact and ethical responsibility of companies, as demanded by much more informed patrons. It is not just ‘Generation Y’ that are now embracing this relatively new conscious consumerism and, as it becomes more widespread, it is going to become more important for PRs to demonstrate how companies or why products are fulfilling these ethical requirements.
Adapting to the fragmentation of the media: Bill Shaw, PR Director at JJ:
The fragmentation of the media, with so many more specialist publications, TV/web channels, blogs and other online platforms, is a development which will continue to impact on daily PR activities. While this has opened up a wider range of options for generating coverage for clients, there’s effectively more media mouths to feed with many of these channels coming with specialist news appetites. This means that PR professionals need to better educate themselves of what relevant channels are out there and then work harder, communicating with more journalists across more media channels to generate a decent client ROI.
Greater use of data, technology and even more creativity: Tal Donahue, Senior Account Manager at Infinite Global:
The practice of public relations has stood the test of time – from ancient Egyptian pharaohs inscribing scarab trinkets with news bulletins, to Julius Caesar pioneering the use of the political pamphlet, and on through the early modern period and early years of print media to the development of brand and advertising in the 19th and 20th centuries.
We are now in the data and digital age of PR and the landscape is increasingly complex, requiring correspondingly sophisticated solutions.
In pure media relations terms, the sands really are shifting. Firstly, the rise of technology like adblocking demonstrates the fact that audiences have an ever diminishing desire to be fed ‘salesy’ content, while research suggests Gen Z or, Centennials, have both a high appreciation of authenticity and low attention span. PR and content aimed at this market, in particular, will need a highly creative approach which inspires, engages and adds value – and doesn’t try to kidnap audiences and their time.
Linked to this, the growing importance of subscription-based media, paid-for content and, indeed, the threat of fake news, are all adding to a heady mix.
Secondly, data gathering and analysis is helping PRs understand what content resonates, where and why, as well as tracking and measuring the success, or otherwise, of a campaign. The future of PR will be increasingly impacted by how the industry continues to use data and evolves and adapts in light of its insight it provides.
In addition, as digital platforms transform media consumers into media producers and influencers, we will likely see a greater convergence between public relations and other traditionally siloed disciplines. Engaging with and cultivating communities who are mobilised around a cause, idea or even a product will likely become even more central to many communications strategies. Indeed, PR itself is already converging and will increasingly become just part of an overall suite of interconnected and often mutually dependent reputation management services – inclusive of brand, stakeholder management, crisis, content marketing and CSR.
In essence, this means that communicators, both those in the future and the here-and-now, need to engage with audiences creatively, intellectually and emotionally.
You could argue that this is nothing new – and probably something Caesar himself would have nodded in agreement with! The common thread is of the PR as a perennial story-teller, information gatherer and trend setter – this isn’t going to change any time soon. Indeed, with the democratisation of information and influence, the industry’s future looks to be even more exciting than its past. PR has a very long history, certainly a history that reaches far beyond the modern notion of the press and media – which is heartening!
Data-driven, targetted and highly personalised campaigns: Andrea Hounsham, Co-founder and Director of Firework PR:
Already at the heart of story-telling, I believe PR will walk firmly into the centre of sales operations. This is because canny consumers and savvy business people want to be convinced by engaging and relevant ‘stories’ that resonate providing they are backed up by independent statistics and evidence driven content. They don’t want to be ‘sold to’ any more.
PR will transform the way organisations sell, with sales and marketing merging into data-driven communications delivered by PR. PR will become even more tailored to provide relevant twists of the same story to resonate with targeted individuals – these being the people that their client or – if in-house – their organisation wants to engage with more closely and ultimately, persuade to act – be it purchase, make a donation etc. Day to day PR will become acutely targeted – compelling content will remain key but each piece will be personalised to the needs of the particular journalist, industry body or blogger for example – that that PR will know influences the end consumer.
This ‘pincer-grip’ comms journey is already underway, placing PR at an incredibly strategic place in savvy organisations who are brave enough to change the norm.
Prized storytelling and unleashing the power of big data analytics: Lauren Richards, Director at Spark Communications:
Research suggests that people can’t tell the difference between a human or AI author, so it isn’t hard to imagine a day when press releases are written by machines and the corresponding news stories are also entirely automated. However, this will only ever work for news that is either so obviously ground-breaking that it doesn’t need human assessment or it is fodder for niche audiences. Journalists are valued for their opinion and their ability to evaluate a story so can’t be replaced by robots. Similarly, PR people need to draw out what is interesting from their clients – the psychology element of PR, understanding what makes humans tick, which can’t be replicated by a machine and this is where the future of public relations lies.
We actually might see a rise in in-house roles for PR professionals as a result. The amount of content produced by marketing is becoming overwhelming and audiences are increasingly turned off by straight up product promotion, companies will therefore recognise the added value of having someone who is able to pull out the interesting stories from within the company that will draw potential buyers into the sales funnel. This is something that generally speaking, marketing people don’t have the mindset to do as their role is more about sales enablement. The process of writing up those stories could be automated but someone needs to feed the machine with interesting stories – if you put garbage in you’ll get garbage out. At a senior level both within agencies and in-house, storytelling will become the most prized skill, if it isn’t already.
In junior and mid-level roles PR people will need to become a lot more tech savvy. Understanding how to use marketing automation tools and carrying out big data analytics will become a key part of their role. The technical capabilities to measure PR are all there, it just needs clients and agencies to work together to deliver the insights that will prove to the business the outcomes that PR is delivering. Whether it’s increased sales, changed brand perception, a boost in share price or even an acquisition.
Using more data and understanding algorithms: Claire Walker, Founder and CEO of Firefly Communications:
In the last few years we have seen projects exploring content marketing, marketing automation and influencer-led social campaigns, all of which are fast becoming part and parcel of a PR’s day-to-day job.
So what does the future hold? PRs will be much more than just great wordsmiths and communicators. They will be constantly working with numbers and data to understand algorithms and generate, interpret and use results data to tangibly demonstrate how PR is contributing to the business. Yet, the ability to produce great, quality communications will remain key – especially as Google gets smarter and the sheer volume of ‘content’ increases exponentially.
At its heart, our industry will always remain one that is driven by understanding people, communicating with them strongly and effectively, and working with organisations to change hearts and minds.
Using new media methods and data: Stephanie Staszko, Head of Outreach at I-COM:
Although many job roles are likely to become fully automated, I don’t see PR being one of those in the near future. A lot of day-to-day PR work is about relationships with journalists and providing them with the right content at the right time. Some aspects of automation will help to evolve the role of the PR, however. Online databases, such as ResponseSource, already help busy PRs to keep abreast of contacts and stay on top of the latest journalist moves and promotions.
The transition between print and online journalism is still happening, although I don’t think print will ever truly die out, PR takes many more different forms than written text these days and new media outlets and blogs are constantly popping up. A standard press release is often not enough to stand out from the noise of videos, imagery, functional online tools, GIFs, memes, etc. I think we will continue to see PR campaigns move away from traditional methods, and more companies in less tech-savvy industries will eventually participate.
PR will also continue to be more data driven. Analytical tools installed on e-commerce websites, for instance, are goldmines waiting to happen for PR staff. If you can get your head into the data and find some interesting trends, a journalist from industry press is likely to be interested. The skill of data analysis is becoming increasingly valuable for PR managers when hiring new staff.
More integration between online and offline: Ashley Williams, Head of SEO at META:
I think the primary change in the coming years will be more integration between online and offline PR. It may sound trivial and simple, but there is still a divide between getting online and offline coverage, whereas the aim should simply be both.
I work for an online marketing agency that works with businesses that have a traditional PR team but chose us to work alongside them as they were not necessarily getting online coverage. This is not a negative against traditional PR teams, as I believe it has been driven by publications. Many still operate separate teams for online and offline publishing, which causes the divide.
I think the above will become one unit in the near future, which will mean traditional and online PR professionals will have to adapt.
Embracing the term PR and industry-wide measurement metrics: Rebecca Oatley, Managing Director at Cherish PR:
The PR industry has gone through enormous change over the past decade, pretty much alongside the media landscape. What has amazed me most is that so many PR agencies have thrown away the term “PR” and replaced it with everything from influencer communications to social activists. It’s my opinion that we’ll see a return to using the term PR – helping brands and businesses relate to their publics. How we do that will change, of course, but too much emphasis has been put on the channels and not enough on the public. Clients are demanding results based on changes in their public’s behaviour and calling ourselves PRs is a good start.
Secondly, we need to crack some sort of standardised metrics for the industry as a whole, something that is adopted industry-wide. Of course how it is used is based on the client and brief but the reason why we’re still being asked by clients for AVE, even though we haven’t used it for over a decade is because it’s a simple and effective way to understand value. With all of these amazing monitoring, listening and analysis tools available, there must be an industry-wide acceptable metric that we’ll all be using in the future.
Some great thoughts across the industry and some topics we’ll definitely be exploring deeper in future posts.
How do you see the PR industry changing as it moves into a faster moving, constantly connected, extremely noisy communications landscape? Drop us a comment below.