As someone sitting squarely in the middle of the PR industry over the past two decades, first as a practitioner then on the software development side, my peers and I agree can on one thing: PR is no longer about sending out a press release. Now it's a core part of organizational growth and touches every part of the business.
The idea of "Growth PR" was first coined in 2017 by AirPR Software's CEO, Sharam Fouladgar-Mercer, as we sat around a conference table with the other company executives, industry influencers, and several board advisors to define PR's evolving role. While the concept has been brewing for years - as marketing, sales, advertising, and public relations have become more integrated and automated - we stand at an intersection where the industry either embraces all the potential technology has to offer or remains ousted from key business decision-making.
Technological innovation - combined with key consumer behavioral changes - has far-reaching implications for humanity, so it's good to take a giant step back and acknowledge how it affects our careers - good and bad. We must also focus on how new technology will play into the future, and as an industry how we can leverage macro shifts to drive growth for our companies and clients we represent.
Macro shift #1: Intelligence of things as the new normal
With so many connections between devices and machines, consumer behavior is shifting as fragmentation is alleviated by hyperconnectivity. This also affects privacy and safety as big brands gain access to more and more consumer data and behavior. But beyond just connectivity is the demand for machines to have "intelligence" about consumers, preferences for future purchases, and more.
While there is still some reluctance to share data with companies, a substantial proportion of consumers say they're willing to do so for more personalized service (which is exactly what smart machines provide). For example, a survey conducted by Deloitte in 2015 found that 22 percent of respondents would share some data for more personalization. And a 2016 report by Salesforce found even stronger evidence that consumers are receptive to data sharing: 61 percent of Millennials said they'd share data for a "personalized in-store or online shopping experience."
As the intelligence of things continues its inexorable rise, Deirdre Breakenridge, CEO of Pure Performance Communications, has an important reminder for PR professionals: "As a modern communicator, you have to understand the concerns, be empathetic and, at all times, guide your businesses to use AI responsibly and ethically." While smart products provide unprecedented opportunities to personalize service and acquire data, it's vital to be sensitive to concerns about the prevalence and use of this technology.
Macro shift #2: Customer experience as a core business principle
Customers are now at the center of everything - they need to be heard, served, and retained. In fact, according to research conducted by Esteban Kolsky, poor Customer Experience (CX) is the reason 66 percent of consumers switch brands.
Effective PR should be a seamless part of a company's CX. The director of PR at Qualtrics, Julia Giona, explains that PR is one of the most direct ways a brand engages with its customers: "It's a main avenue for brands to interact with customers, proving they are heard, valued, and indispensable to the company, and to build that brand trust."
The connection between CX and brand trust is clear. According to a 2011 study published in Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences, "Brand experience creates and develops a trust-based relationship platform between brand and customer." The study also notes that brand experience is determined by "a brand's design and identity, packaging, communications, and environments" - all concepts that are integral to a PR professional's job.
Macro shift #3: Digital integration as a core business strategy
Legacy businesses that have been mostly offline now have no choice but to upgrade technology, skill sets, and more. However, it's not about going fully digital or having 50 different technologies supporting your business. Rather, it's about how to integrate things for a streamlined experience for employees and customers.
Even if you own a brick and mortar business, you should treat the Internet like a precious resource instead of a foe. The digital world isn't some foreign land where all the rules are upside down and backward - many of the same principles that made PR strategies successful in the pre-digital age still apply. This is a point Giona stresses: "Brands shouldn't view this shift as monumental - customers still desire authentic, useful, and actionable information - just the delivery platform has changed."
But adaptation is still necessary. As consumers' priorities and networks become more diffuse, brands have to keep pace. For example, brands are no longer able to funnel information to consumers as exclusively as before - the messaging has become too decentralized. From consumer review websites to social media, brands' reputations have never been subject to a wider range of opinion.
Macro shift #4: Gender equality as a key focus for employers
Last year was a watershed moment as millions of women became disenchanted by our collective political choices only to respond in a dramatic way with the #MeToo movement. Now women are being heard differently and ultimately embracing the opportunity to create new experiences for future generations of women - and men.
In terms of the PR industry itself, although women predominate, there's a substantial gender gap in earnings at all levels of experience. Overall, PR Week's 2017 salary survey found that the median salary for women in the industry is $84,000 per year - a number that jumps to $120,000 for men. This gap persists for women with more than five years of experience: Their average salary is $95,000 per year compared to $135,000 for men.
Shonali Burke, president & CEO of Shonali Burke Consulting and a PR industry thought leader, explains that the move toward greater equality "has implications for corporate responsibility. I'm seeing a definite shift in how human resource leaders are approaching these, as well as other, key areas for employee engagement and retention."
For PR professionals, this means ensuring that clients and brands have solid, thoughtful responses to gender-related issues. It's no longer acceptable to say "no comment." Rather, this conversation should be a central part of any communications strategy.
Macro shift #5: Media content control as an antidote to fake news
The last 10 years have been about breaking down barriers and the democratization of publishing, but we're witnessing a swing in the other direction. Communications professionals, particularly PR specialists, need to be aware of just how toxic the environment can be online and how to execute strategies to defend against negative and sometimes artificial news.
Just ask Facebook: A USA Today/Suffolk University poll found that "Americans by nearly 2-to-1 say Facebook should have done more to identify and publicize the ads it sold last year to Russians."
But Breakenridge points out that it isn't just social media companies that need to combat fake news: "PR has to help in the fight to preserve the integrity of the news. Using visualization tools you can identify the bots and fake news in your own networks. It is up to communications professionals to be responsible and to know who is around you perpetuating the bot problem."
Fouladgar-Mercer cites a company's owned media strategy as a key component to PR: "Controlled content is the new king. No longer is it enough to just focus on earned coverage from top tier outlets. Figuring out how to drive the right message to the right audience on the right channel is more important now than ever. The key is finding the platforms leveraged by the appropriate influencers, combined with the ability to leverage a controlled channel - generally your own blog. When done correctly, you can navigate the waters with your own message, then amplify the most impactful message(s) to produce the narrative you want."
Giona adds: "More than ever, we must be responsible in our reporting and publishing. I think we'll see a resurgence of the importance of relationships and trust."
Not only will that be good for brands - it will be vital for the civic health of our country.