PR 2020 vision – AI, professional development, measurement, purpose

As someone who now describes myself as a PR Futurist I’ve spoken at a lot at conferences on the future of public relations and it’s something I counsel clients on all the time. However, I don’t usually do one of those New Year PR 2020 vision posts. As this is the start of a new decade I’ve decided to give it a go.

The last Twenties were known as the Roaring Twenties, perhaps because of the cultural, societal and economic changes that accelerated after the end of the First World War. Will the new Twenties be able to match these changes or will the changes be even greater?

For public relations and communications professionals there are a number of changes I believe we should be watching for and responding to.

The rise of the machine

It’s inevitable that a post on PR 2020 vision starts with the impact of technology on public relations and communications. These changes aren’t confined to PR, but are reflective of changes in society and the economy. At the moment most of the noise is about AI or artificial intelligence. The reality is that a lot of this noise is just hype and much of what is touted as AI is nothing of the sort and is just glorified machine learning.

That’s not to say I don’t think AI is going to have huge implications for the future of the public relations and communication profession. It is. But we have to be realistic about how quickly this will happen and even more crucially how widely it will be adopted.

Historically there were very few barriers for entry to start a PR agency. You could quite literally start a PR agency on your kitchen table. Today technology has perversely made it both easier and harder. Easier because using a cheap laptop and the internet you can access a plethora of free tools to help you do the job and an almost infinite amount of free information. Harder because the best tools and information sources are becoming increasingly expensive.

It’s even possible to do crude social media and news monitoring using free or freemium (free entry, but pay for more advanced features) tools. However, the most advanced monitoring and analytics tools and services come at a considerable cost, which will be beyond the ability of many companies, organisations and PR agencies.

For example to help with crisis communications management you can use tools such as NewsWhip which tracks millions of news stories and uses AI and analytics to predict the impact and ‘virality’ of news stories.

We also have to be realistic about the ability of PR professionals to use AI and data. I still remember a quote from Microsoft’s Tom Murphy which wasn’t even uttered in the last decade, but in the one before that. Tom said that PR people can’t worry about ‘big data’ as they haven’t even mastered small data yet. Shockingly, this still holds true for some PR people today.

Today it’s not uncommon for PR and communication professionals to be still reliant on crude, manual processes using Excel, PowerPoint and Word rather than embracing CRMs and APIs.

Unfortunately PR is still too often thought of as simply a subset of marketing automation or martech so many aspects of our professional work are ignored or underdeveloped. According to research by WARC, BDO and the University of Bristol the worldwide marketing technology is worth US$121.5 billion.

The name that most PR and communication practitioners will be familiar with is Cision which has a market capitalisation of more than US$2 billion and started as a press cuttings agency (Svenska Telegrambyrån, Romeike & Curtice and Bacons). Today it includes media monitoring and listening, social media analytics, influencer identification and management, content planning, news and content distribution, and measurement. Cision appears to be on what seems a permanent acquisitions spree owning brands such as Vocus, Gorkana, PRWeb, HARO, PR Newswire, ProfNet, Trendkite and Falcon.

As we get excited about the possibilities of automation, AI and machine learning it’s important that PR professionals remember that relationships, even between organisations and companies, are fundamentally about people. This means there are lots of important ethical issues to consider, both for how we use AI and technology ourselves, but also for how we advise employers and clients on using it. Three people I’d recommend you follow on AI ethics are Professor Anne Gregory (former chair of Global Alliance and professor of corporate communication, University of Huddersfield) , Andrew Pakes (director of communications and research, Prospect trade union) and Shobana Iyer (commercial barrister, Swan Chambers).

Providing consultancy to help in-house PR and communication teams and PR agencies to identify, buy and implement PR and communication technology is a growing area of my business, which I expect to grow even more in 2020.

PR skills, knowledge, ethics and professionalism

Ironically. for an industry that is responsible for managing reputations and relationships, public relations has always struggled with its own reputations and relationships. For most of the decade I believe we were seeing improvements as the industry made great strides to improve.

In 2005 the Institute of Public Relations was finally awarded chartered status. In 2017 the Public Relations Communications Association (PRCA) followed the CIPR and set up its own CPD (continuous professional development) scheme.

In 2018 Global Alliance (the confederation of the world’s major PR and communication management associations and institutions) launched the Global Capabilities Framework for Public Relations and Communication Management based on research led by Professor Anne Gregory at the University of Huddersfield. The framework takes a high-level view of what practitioners can deliver in communication, organisational and professional capabilities.

The challenge for our PR 2020 vision and public relations for the Twenties is to build on these foundations and ensure more practitioners embrace the importance of professional training, qualifications and lifelong learning through continuous professional development. I say more, because realistically I don’t believe it will ever be all. There are no barriers to entry to public relations and communication so anyone can claim to do it. However, those practitioners that do embrace improving their expertise through training and development will reap the rewards by being much better able to meet the needs of their employers and clients.

Despite these improvements the decade ended on a low. Public relations very rarely makes the mainstream news. When it did, it wasn’t for positive reasons. The PRCA’s expulsion of Bell Pottinger, following its exploits in South Africa, and Bell Pottinger’s subsequent collapse, did make the mainstream news. PR made the mainstream news, but it was for an example of failed ethics and morals.

It is because there is a desire and need to continuously improve public relations and communication practice that the professional development part of my business continues to grow with more and more in-house training and development courses.

Measurement matters

“I believe that measurement is the most important communication discipline.”

Said Alex Aiken, head of the UK Government Communication Service (GCS), speaking at the AMEC Global Summit in Barcelona in 2018. Alex is one of the foremost advocates of improving communication measurement and evaluation. Under his leadership GCS has used measurement and planning to significantly improve the effectiveness of government communication campaigns.

The pioneering best practice work by GCS has been used as the basis to improve communication measurement and evaluation in both the private sector and other governments. I’ve worked on behalf of the UK Government Cabinet Office to introduce the GCS communication measurement framework and OASIS planning tools to be used by the Ukrainian Prime Minister’s and Cabinet Minister’s offices.

ICCO (International Communication Consultants Organisation) is the international umbrella body for PR industry trade associations and has members in 55 countries. According to the ICCO World PR Report 2020 the leading area for investment is measurement and analytics. From a personal perspective this is actually good news as the largest part of my business is providing consultancy and training on PR and communication measurement and evaluation. It shows that there is lots of opportunity for growth in 2020. From an industry perspective it is incredibly depressing as it shows how far the profession needs to go.

I started work in public relations in January 1989. I’d already started studying for a CAM Diploma in Public Relations. As a result I already knew that AVEs (Advertising Value Equivalents) were rubbish. In 1989 we knew AVEs had no value. In 2010 the International Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communication (AMEC) published the Barcelona Principles, number five of which stated “AVEs are not the value of public relations” updated in 2015 in the Barcelona Principles 2.0 to “AVEs are not the value of communications”. It was astounding that this even needed saying in 2010 and even more depressing that in 2020 it still needs saying.

In the UK and USA it’s looking promising as according to the ICCO World PR Report use of AVEs in the UK is down to 16% and down to 18% in the USA. Unfortunately AVEs are still widely used in the rest of Western Europe (58%), Eastern Europe (56%), Africa and the Middle East (70%), Latin America (74%) and Asia Pacific (56%) .

On a more positive note AMEC is continuing to do some interesting work and we are seeing increased use of its Integrated Evaluation Framework and Measurement Maturity Mapper. In November it announced the AMEC Primer: Planning Guide.

Our PR 2020 vision couldn’t be complete without stressing the importance of measurement and PR planning. Personally I’ve been doing lots of research and development around the PR and communication measurement and evaluation work I do so expect to see some exciting announcements soon.

Purpose, trust and reputation

If there was one big communication theme of the last two years of the decade it was purpose. At the start of 2018 the founder and CEO of one of the world’s largest asset management companies, BlackRock, published a letter on purpose. Larry Fink said:

“Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. Companies must benefit all their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers and the communities in which they operate.”

In 2018 it was the theme of the CIPR national conference where amongst lots of other great speakers we heard from Iceland CEO Richard Walker. Iceland is a smaller UK supermarket (grocer), but under Richard’s leadership, is the one that’s making an international impact for its impressive stance on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and purpose.

Purpose was also talked about endlessly at the Cannes Lion Festival of Creativity in 2019… not always in a good way.

In a hard hitting speech Unilever CEO Alan Jope hit out at brands cashing in on the culture wars with ‘woke-washing’ advertising that had nothing to do with taking real action that changed society.

He said:

“Purpose is one of the most exciting opportunities I’ve seen in my 35 years in industry”.

He put the shift we are seeing down to the increasing number of customers who prefer brands that “get it”.

So what is woke washing? It’s where a company says or does something that signals its support for a cause or belief, but continues to cause harm. Purpose isn’t about suddenly saying we care about racism and doing things to combat racism, while simultaneously doing little or nothing to combat gender inequality. It’s woke washing if you fix the harm that part of your business does, while allowing other parts of your business to cause different harm.

In November I did a keynote speech at the Ultimate Non-Executive Director conference at The Royal Institution in London where I spoke about purpose and the role that non-executive directors (NEDs) need to play in helping companies manage risk and put purpose at the heart of what they do.

PR 2020 vision and beyond

I’m optimistic about our PR 2020 vision and the future of the public relations profession in the Twenties. But only if it becomes better at adapting to change and willing to embrace new ways of working.

As always if you want to have a chat about how I can help you navigate the future of public relations and communication then please get in touch.