Current world affairs show us that the turbulent times started by COVID-19 and accelerated by the war in Ukraine are not over. And everything that happens in the world affects public relations. For better or worse, the field of communication is unavoidably linked to world events and social trends, and it changes as society changes. So, let’s take a look at 10 trends that will shape PR for years to come.
In my book The Art of Leadership Through Public Relations I say that “Contemporary public relations combines science, art, and society into one interconnected industry that aims to deliver value – not only to organisations, but also to the public and other stakeholders, including our planet.” I think this sentence nicely sums up the interdisciplinarity and complexity of our field, which brings together craft and science with various currents (and counter-currents) in society.
For this reason, staying on top of trends is important for the future of our industry. After all, it is the only way we can respond to societal demand and communicate the desired messages to the target audience in a truly effective, competent, and precise manner. Let’s take a look together at the 10 trends, based on my book, in PR that are turning out to be dominant in the coming ten to fifteen years and which, among other things, were repeatedly mentioned by me and other speakers at the ICCO Global Summit and Brand&Content Conference.
1. Corporate Reputation
Corporate reputation is one of the key areas for future growth as organisations and CEOs around the world are paying increasing attention to it, a trend that has skyrocketed in the COVID era. Research by WE Communications also showed that the public and decision-makers have a higher expectation for brands to promote stability, be bold, and express themselves in ways they had not previously considered. Heightened anticipation means that any corporate actions will have an immediate impact on corporate reputation.
As a result, leaders will need PR professionals more than ever to help them achieve their goals and to advise them on how to communicate messages, plans, and products in a way that stakeholders not only understand but, more importantly, trust. In the future, strong bonds, quality relations, and trust will be the foundation of a good reputation – which then leads to leadership.
2. Purpose-Driven Communication
All trends show that if organisations and their communication campaigns are purpose-driven, they will gain a significant advantage in leadership. Related to this is the fact that a clear and stated purpose of organisations – i.e., the ultimate goal of a company, the fundamental reason it exists, and how it contributes to the common good – will be extremely important AND will be expected by all stakeholders. As Crispin Manners states in my book: “In the age of ultra-transparency having a phoney purpose will be a source of failure.” Our industry can lead brands to turn well-intentioned words into reality and help solve societal challenges that matter to people by delivering authentic, relevant, and long-term purpose-driven campaigns.
3. Corporate Activism
A USC study shows that 73% of PR professionals expect to be more engaged on social issues in the next year. Three times more are working with activist groups than three years ago. Corporate activism is undoubtedly on the rise, and this brings immense potential to PR. Communications professionals can become advocates for social engagement, which is hugely important for the future of the whole industry. Well-executed brand activism can improve reputation and positively impact a company’s performance. But there are also threats, such as the increasing polarisation of society. The future challenge for professional communicators will be to satisfy stakeholders’ desire for activism while avoiding the pitfalls it brings.
4. Leveraging Technology to Manage Communication and Teams
“If your people can’t do digital, then train them in it or fire them. Because otherwise, you won’t have a business left to run,” Peter Chadlington declared a decade ago. I agree and add: If our industry’s great strength is the speed with which it adapts to change, then adapting to technological advances should be our superpower. PR professionals must wholeheartedly embrace AI, apps, behavioural design, and whatever new tools, now unthought of, become available. Technology does not threaten our industry, as it might seem, but it helps us to be faster, more efficient, and better plan, execute, and evaluate campaigns. The days when we managed everything with Excel spreadsheets will be a mere nostalgic memory in the future.
5. Ethics and Misinformation
Current data shows that one out of three PR professionals doesn’t consider the PR industry to be ethical. A striking number, isn’t it? Ethics of public relations is further complicated by the fact that there are wide disparities in ethical expectations and enforcement worldwide. That’s why ICCO created several initiatives, e.g., the 2003 Stockholm Charter and the 2017 Helsinki Declaration, that set out the principles of ethical PR and every PR professional should know them.
In the area of ethics, PR will also have to combat misinformation and the changing media landscape. In the fight for survival, the media will be forced to raise their prices and abandon the open-access model, which means that not everyone will be able to afford quality journalism. This situation will lead to a deepening divide between those who are rich and informed and those who are economically weaker and therefore potential recipients of misinformation. Public relations will thus have to cope with increasing demands on ethics, actively prevent the spread of misinformation, and ultimately understand the needs of people on both sides of the social gap.
6. Establishment of Operational Standards in PR
If we are being completely honest, as an industry we are not investing enough in the professional development of PR practitioners. Part of this is probably due to the old-fashioned view that in an industry with no real barriers to entry, skills can be picked up on the job. However, if PR aspires to become a proper profession, this must change: providing purposeful education for aspiring professionals is an absolute must for the future.
Over the coming years, we need to develop and implement appropriate frameworks of quality management for organisations and individuals alike. Consultancy Management Standard (CMS) developed by ICCO is a great example as it addresses all aspects of the organisation, from leadership to people management, to help us manage our PR firms properly and deliver better campaigns.
7. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
“If you don’t have a DEI policy, you’re missing a checklist of 7 out of 10 potential talents,” writes Imma Folch-Lázaro, an experienced DEI communicator, in her contribution to my book. Meanwhile, diversity, equity, and inclusion are perhaps the most neglected areas of public relations. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the ethnic profile of PR managers in the U.S. looks like this: more than 89% are white, 7.2% are Hispanic, 4.4% are Asian and 3.5% are African American. And PR also lags in other areas of diversity, such as gender.
These shortcomings need to be corrected because they affect both the very appeal of the public relations industry to talent and our ability to execute effective campaigns. Going forward, it is not possible to have only middle-aged white men designing campaigns for an increasingly diverse society – at best there is a risk of misunderstanding the target audience, at worst there is a risk of backlash and subsequent crisis communications. However, if we adopt DEI ourselves, we can better explain it both within organisations and in external communications and become invaluable to leaders in this regard.
Sustainability is one of the global megatrends and therefore has (and will have) a strong impact on the PR industry. Under the influence of the increasingly visible impacts of climate change, employees, customers, investors, and other stakeholders see sustainability as one of the most important assets an organisation can have. However, public relations is currently not making much use of the growing importance of ESG, despite playing to all our strengths and insights.
When we are delivering value in areas such as purpose-driven campaigns, diversity, equity, and inclusion, or corporate activism, we are one step away from capitalizing on all these activities within ESG. Public relations can help organisations striving for leadership to kick-start the ESG process, create sustainability reporting, communicate it to stakeholders and ultimately evaluate ESG communication activities so that they are effective and make a real impact.
9. Delivering Value Through Communications
To secure the future of public relations and move our industry up the professional services food chain, we must leverage increasingly sophisticated proof of our value. We have already made progress by dropping AVEs and embracing AMEC tools, but future clients will demand more diverse and detailed methods of measurement. Public relations must therefore invest in data-driven insight, leverage apps, and base its professional advice on rock-solid knowledge. The tools to meet this goal exist now and grow more accomplished every year. Then we will be able to deliver the value our clients are looking for. Because if we don’t do this, then others will.
10. Value-Based Pricing
Once we can demonstrate to clients the value that public relations brings to them, it opens the way to better financial evaluation of PR work. Related to this is perhaps the hottest topic among PR professionals – value-based pricing. This means that measuring the value that PR brings to organisations will in the future become a way of pricing it. When applied to the right type of campaign, a value-based pricing model – the clearly defined impact of a campaign on an organization – will encourage clients and PR agencies to create more effective campaigns that will, in turn, deliver higher and more attractive rewards for both parties.