In recent years public relations has become somewhat of a “trendy” profession, as an influx of undergrads and twenty-somethings pursue majors and careers in the communications industry. Despite its sudden increase in popularity, the practice of PR actually dates back to ancient times. In 50 B.C., the legendary Julius Caesar published an account of his military successes to convince the public that he would be a noble leader for the Roman Empire. Revolutionary-era activist Thomas Paine wrote a pamphlet entitled “The Crisis,” which persuaded thousands of George Washington’s soldiers to uphold their military duties during a hellish winter. “Modern” PR was born in 1914 when Ivy Lee began advising the Rockefeller family regarding publicity strategies for their infamous Standard Oil Company. Lee later championed for accuracy and transparency in PR, a sharp break from his predecessors’ notoriously unscrupulous tactics.
The enduring nature of PR throughout history affirms its importance as a method of disseminating messages from clients and corporations to the public. However, new developments in trends and technology will continue to change the nature of PR in the years to come. Below are a few predictions for the future of PR as innovations in reaching targeted publics emerge.
1. Data revolution
The words “data analytics” might elicit nightmares in the minds of creatives and communications professionals. Their currency has always been words and ideas, not numbers and statistics. But the new generation of PR practitioners would do well to immerse themselves in the language of data and fully embrace its potential to drive well-researched campaigns. With the power of data-gathering programs such as Radian6, Google Analytics, and SimplyMeasured, precise metrics can provide hard evidence to inform strategic campaign planning.
Of course, quantitative information is only part of a well-rounded approach to public relations. Human-powered creativity and strong written and verbal communication will remain the powerhouse behind any successful campaign. As Paul Holmes writes in his popular media blog The Holmes Report, “Great data alone will not ensure great PR programming. But better data will lead to better insights. And insights will lead to more creative public relations ideas.”
2. Top influencers drive dialogue
Social media is old hat by now. Most companies—large and small—have established some sort of presence on Twitter and Facebook. However, too many brands get caught up in the race to accrue the most followers or “likes,” when instead they should focus on the quality of connections and content. A key tactic for brands and PR reps in the pursuit of gaining online traction is identifying top “influencers” in their industries—followers with exceptional expertise, authority, or popularity who therefore have considerable power to sway the opinions of people in their own networks. These influencers can drive more “organic” dialogue about companies they interact with.
Online tools including Traackr and mPact were developed specifically to help brands search for influencers. But to fully leverage influencers on social media, brands must also build relationships with those generating the most buzz. Interacting with influencers on social media and regularly sharing influencers’ relevant content demonstrates genuine interest and facilitates lasting connections.
3. ‘Holistic engagement’
As new technologies and a constant stream of content drive 24/7 buzz, the lines between different media platforms are beginning to blur. A perfect example: Facebook’s innovative use of advertising. The company integrated its marketing and social offerings, allowing brands to post updates and promotions on the timelines of users who have “liked” their pages. Users can then share and comment on these “social ads,” which then appear on their friends’ timelines.
Fred Cook, President and CEO of Golin Harris, explains PR’s predicted trajectory: “I think we’re going to move from public relations to something called ‘holistic engagement’”—in essence, integration that involves connecting PR, advertising, social media, and journalism professionals to develop a multi-pronged messaging and outreach approach.
Although it is impossible to fully predict the impact of new technology and trends within communications, a broad view of current developments hints at the limitless potential of harnessing data, engaging influencers, and integrating media platforms. And despite the fast-paced culture of the industry, PR professionals must always bear in mind those best-practice principles—transparency, originality, and outreach — that have proven most effective throughout the decades. Technology and data are nothing without a foundation of creative and intelligent people working to merge information with innovation.