Daney Parker, Editor, PRmoment.com
Another year, another set of challenges. Agency chiefs discuss the biggest threats to the PR industry in 2018 and offer advice if you want to thrive in the new year.
1. The spread of news bots
Matt Cross, managing director of communications firm Hotwire, asks “How do you pitch a news-bot?” He adds: “Dwindling editorial teams has certainly meant pitching has become even harder – there are fewer journalists to write stories and those that remain have less time to pick up the phone or read through the thousands of emails received every day. The next big challenge that communicators will face in 2018 could be the spread of news bots. From Buzzfeed’s open source Buzzbot to Reuter’s News Tracer, we’ve already seen large media organisations investigating how bots can help them deliver the data-rich, constant news coverage that consumers demand. So far, they are proving useful tools for editorial staff to not only scale to a wider audience, but also create content for a deeper niche, such as local audiences. The challenge for communicators therefore, is to truly understand how these platforms work, what the most useful data and story points are and how to make it easy for editors to cover our ideas/content/stories in an easy and effective manner for the right audience.
2. Silo thinking
Julia Ruane, head of PR and content at social media risk experts Crisp Thinking, says that if you’re not working closely with your digital marketing colleagues in 2018, then your job is going to get much, much harder.
“The lines between PR, social media, digital marketing and advertising are quickly disappearing making it strategically imperative to work closely together if you care about your brand’s reputation. What’s the point of launching a fabulous media campaign that gets slated by comments on social media? Why spend hours building Facebook engagement when your brand’s social media ads are carrying critical comments? 2018 needs to be the end of ‘not my job’ or ‘budget silo’ thinking.
3. The dark web
Ruane says that it is time to face up to the fact that not everyone in the world is good and wholesome. “There are in fact people and organisations who are deliberately out to damage your brand. Strategic PROs need to be proactive in addressing this.
“The dark web in particular needs to be on the PR radar in 2008 (disclaimer – no PRO should go onto the dark web! But they should work with an organisation that can). Why? The dark web is where the major PR crises start. Data breaches (think Equifax), financial information, counterfeit sales, copycat products (which enter the mainstream as ‘real’) – they all exist on the dark web. By being savvy, PROs can be alerted to major PR risks like these before they hit the headlines, and work closely with legal, IT and security teams to add major value to the organisation as a whole.”
4. Lack of commercial sense
“I think the main risks to the sector remain the ones we’ve seen for years: a failure to attribute the results of PR activity to an organisation’s top (or bottom) line, and a lack of scientists to balance the artists of the industry”, says Mark Pinsent, managing director, Europe at communications firm The Hoffman Agency. Pinsent continues: “Both factors (which are obviously related) combine to erode the value of PR in not only the eyes of senior stakeholders in client businesses, but also – and critically – in relation to other marketing and communications activity competing for budget. One answer to this challenge is the much closer integration of PR with an organisation’s broader marketing and communications activities, making it part of the mix of activities which more directly and measurably impact interest, enquiries, leads and sales. And that’s where the artists are still critical: the contextual storytellers that attract attention, and draw people into a journey towards a commercial outcome.“
Paul MacKenzie-Cummins, managing director of agency Clearly PR, says that one of the biggest challenges PROs need to overcome is the transition from being traditional media relations specialists, towards reskilling as true storytellers. “Whilst the days of press releases have certainly not been consigned to the history-books, their role as a primary communications tool is rapidly being overtaken by powerful, direct to audience, engagement. In many ways, GDPR is a catalyst for this.
“From May, changes to data protection mean the only way organisations can maintain an ongoing relationship with their publics will be through direct, ‘authorised’ engagement – via content that is both valuable and relevant. As opt-ins will become essential, the quality of this direct communication will increase comparably. At least in theory.
“For press activity, media distribution platforms currently require opt-ins from journalists included in the service, although this is not a legal requirement today – just best practice.
“For PR organisations still utilising journalist information saved to their desktops in Excel documents, this is a wake-up call. Press lists will need to be kept up to date, with no margin for error. GDPR will be one of the most defining moments of the PR industry - effectively dragging traditional agencies, still sending news from saved down contact details, into the digital age. For direct-to-publics activities, opt-in will soon need to be verified manually – meaning the quality and relevance of content will be essential.
“It’s safe to say that GDPR will provide the largest shake-up of processes in the history of PR.”
6. The rise of Millennials and Generation Z
Amie Pascoe, director at agency BLUE Communications, explains: “In 2018, we see communicating with younger millennials and Generation Z as a key challenge. Potential recruits in these cohorts are prioritising roles where they have a genuine sense of purpose and a chance to make a positive impact.
“As a leading strategic communications consultancy for the marine and energy sectors, the work we do affects how these industries are evolving in terms of technology adoption, sustainability and regulation. The challenge for us is to communicate this to potential recruits, and shed ‘Ab-Fab-style’ perceptions that the PR world deals exclusively in fluff. Specialist consultancies need to demonstrate how communications based on a deep understanding of an industry is far more than just media relations, it’s genuinely about business consultancy and building reputation from the brand up, leveraging all available communications channels to deliver tangible value – and make a real impact.”
7. Greater agency competition
Tom Lawless, director at communications firm Headland Consultancy, says: “As clients increasingly look to more closely integrate all their comms functions, it’s not uncommon for a PR agency to find itself competing against agencies traditionally specialised in advertising, content or social. That will and should become more common, and as budgets start to account for Brexit, someone will be getting squeezed out.
“All progressive agencies from any side of the fence are selling the ability to deliver across paid, earned, owned and shared media, but the idea of ‘content as king’ is losing its appeal. As a wave of problems break over Facebook and co, and big spenders like P&G massively cut paid budgets, there is a gap for earned-media to assert itself in 2018 as the rightful leader of the mix.
PR agencies have decades of experience on the rest in creating the newsworthy and the shareable. Our starting point means our creativity isn’t blind to a client’s wider operating context. To avoid becoming the losers in 2018, the industry needs to focus on showing clients the value in earning people’s attention rather than paying to interrupt it. When you take an earned-first mentality the delivery looks after itself.”
8. Recruitment, recruitment, recruitment
Clo Davey, associate director at communications agency Farrer Kane, says: “Although Brexit is high on the agenda for 2018, the more fundamental challenge is ensuring the right calibre team is in place to help withstand seismic shifts, such as Brexit.
“Our industry continues to suffer from an image problem which has a direct effect on recruitment. Over the years, PR has been parodied on our screens, most recently in the fluff spouted by W1A’s Siobhan Sharpe. While undoubtedly hilarious, these kinds of shows perpetuate the misconception of PR as intellectually lightweight.
“In my experience, the very best PR advisers are intellectually curious, as well as rigorous and relentless in their pursuit of excellence. They are creative too, so as to evoke the ethos of their clients in the most memorable fashion, but they always maintain a commercial mindset.
“Now, spotting individuals with these qualities or with this potential – therein lies the challenge! Once they are on board, the challenge then becomes nurturing these individuals with work that stretches and inspires them, and offering working practices that evolve with their lifestyles.
“Rather like pennies and pounds, find excellent people and look after them properly, and then the seemingly bigger challenges like Brexit won’t seem so insurmountable after all.”
Guy Walsingham, CEO at communications agency Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, agrees that the big challenge for the PR business is to find and attract good people.
“Currently much of the narrative about our industry concerns the use of data, automation and digital techniques, or impact of Brexit. All of these will have an impact in 2018. But to us at a growing B2B technology agency these are not barriers, but opportunities to diversify the services we offer and to train and develop a new wave of professionals.
“To succeed in this new world the industry needs bright, proactive, strategic thinkers. A widespread belief that the PR industry reflects the values of a Bell Pottinger, is a gross misunderstanding of what our PR world is about. If we don’t state our case clearly and confidently we won’t attract and inspire the motivated, skilled talent we need.”
9. Being inflexible
You have to embrace more flexible ways of working if you want your agency to thrive says Lucy Werner, founder of PR consultancy The Wern: “With the growing number of freelance PR staff, particularly at a senior level, managing a team remotely and flexible working will force new ways of working. Team brainstorms and work-in-progress meetings will need to be rethought as well as leadership and management techniques. Larger, less agile agencies should be concerned at the increasing appetite for fulfilment and flexibility at work, which freelance work can offer. As a working Mum, who is returning to work remotely at three months, followed by part-time at six months after my baby is born, I have seen and heard just how inflexible many agencies and in-house teams are with supporting senior parents looking for a more balanced way or working with a new child.”
Now you are forewarned and forearmed, next year could be one of your best. There is just one more piece of advice we at PRmoment would like to share: Remember, it’s not all about work, make sure you also have lots of fun in 2018!
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