Public relations has always been a fluid field, one that has shifted to encompass the relevant technologies, media platforms and social conventions of each historical era. In this context, it is no surprise that PR has been continually redefined. Do our current definitions and concepts accurately capture what PR teams actually do?
Defining PR in 2017
In 2011, the Public Relations Society of America issued its current definition of PR, which is intentionally simple and nonspecific enough to leave room for the many techniques that routinely enter and exit practice over time: “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”
Previous and alternative definitions have been more specific by emphasizing press agentry (which rose to prominence in the 20th century) and ideas such as “engagement” and “return on investment,” concepts borrowed from the spheres of social media and modern finance, respectively. PR practices have of course evolved since the PRSA last updated its stance, and some PR professionals have made the argument that the official definition has become outdated. But if this is the case, what would a more accurate description look like?
To get an answer, we not only have to factor in recent changes, but also future-proof any replacement definition by accounting for what the next few years of PR practice might look like. There is truth to the jokey adage “Predictions are hard, especially about the future,” but with PR there are clear trends pointing the way forward, based on employment statistics as well as job descriptions and surveys of PR professionals:
1. PR will be a more prominent, go-to source of content
The ratio of PR specialists to journalists has fluctuated dramatically since the early 2000s, when newspapers and magazines first felt the squeeze from internet-based media. In 2004, there were 3.2 PR professionals for each journalist, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; by 2013, the ratio was 4.6 to 1 (down slightly from a peak of more than 5 to 1 in 2009). While there was an absolute decline in journalism employment, the PR sector added 36,000 jobs over that time span.
One of the causes of this widening gap is the growing number of PR workers who now perform tasks once reserved for journalists. For example, content marketing and other editorial functions sit right at the intersection of PR, journalism and communications. Even with a traditional journalistic title such as “editor-in-chief,” an executive might oversee PR campaigns – publishing thought leadership pieces or sponsored blog posts on third-party websites.
PR executives are also increasingly expected to have skills in content creation. In the 2017 Global Communications Report survey of PR professionals, “written communications” and “multimedia content development” were two of the top five most mentioned skills for future growth, with both being cited by over 80 percent of respondents. They ranked ahead of analytics, media relations and primary research.
Content creation has always been an important component of PR, as evinced by the industry’s close association with specific forms such as the press release and the pitch email. However, it will probably have a bigger role in the years ahead: The top trends that the Global Communications Report respondents identified as “impacting the future of public relations” were “digital storytelling” and “branded content” at 88 percent and 61 percent, respectively, of all PR professionals.
2. There will be an increased role for multimedia content and new platforms
Current and future PR professionals are expected to be competent writers and speakers, who are also aware of the unique opportunities afforded by channels as different from each other as Twitter, email and even altered/virtual reality. The latter is an area to watch in the years ahead as PR media becomes even more diversified.
Virtual reality is an immersive platform that could be particularly useful for PR campaigns in a vertical such as home improvement. Prospective buyers and media influencers could be treated to a simulated experience of what a home might look like with a newly remodeled kitchen or other modifications. Retailers such as Lowe’s have already taken this route with their Holoroom and Lowe’s Vision services, which allow users to add furniture, fixtures and paints to a virtual version of their own homes, and then “walk” around the simulation in accurate dimensions.
The expansion of PR to such realms will not happen overnight, since there will be a learning curve like there was during the early days of social media. It is easy to forget now, but Facebook was once a quirky network for college students, while Twitter was predominantly the domain of tech enthusiasts and journalists. AR and VR are currently at a similar stage of exclusivity. As of 2017, many of their best known applications are in video gaming, but like other platforms that began with a narrow set of use cases and a relatively small user base, they could transform into potent PR tools, and may already be undergoing this process.
In terms of other technical tools that could reshape PR, artificial intelligence and data analytics are two candidates to watch. AI could open the door to innovations such as:
- Conversational interfaces, such as Apple Siri and Microsoft Cortana, could become common modes for interacting with brands, along the lines of social media feeds today.
- Personalization of these interactions, similar to how services such as Spotify and Apple Music offer custom playlists based on listeners’ habits.
- Automation of labor-intensive tasks; bots have already been used to write earning reports for the Associated Press, and could be extended to forms such as press releases.
Meanwhile, analytics would enable PR workers to more easily aggregate data, notice trends, and adjust their techniques accordingly. Seventy percent of PR professionals responding to the Global Communications Report mentioned “big data” as an important influence on the future of the field, and 43 percent did the same for AI. VR garnered 35 percent of responses.
3. PR agencies will branch out beyond PR
The term “public relations” may become less prominent in the near future. Even if the actual practices of PR firms continue to pursue the same goals as in the past, using many of the same strategies and tactics, nearly 90 percent of the survey-takers took the position that “public relations” would not describe the work they would do in five years.
Why do many in the PR world think that new terminology is needed? One reason may be their sense that agencies now do much more than simply help with media outreach. Since PR personnel now regularly assist with everything from content creation (not just press releases, but also podcasts, articles, infographics, webinars, etc.) and messaging to crisis management and corporate branding, they are in, effect, strategic advisers whose recommendations affect the entire scope of their clients’ operations.
The evolution of what PR agencies do can be seen in some of the expected changes to their revenue mixes. The PESO (paid, earned, social, and owned) model of PR spending is most commonly distributed so that the largest chunk of money is available in the “earned” category, which covers relations with bloggers, influencers, investors, and the media – i.e., the traditional constituencies of PR. Half of agency revenue in the Holmes Report survey came from the “E” category of PESO, while 34 percent of in-house budgets are marked for earned media.
But five years from now, those numbers are likely to shift significantly. Earned media is expected to decline to 36 percent of agency revenue, largely at the expense of shared (e.g., social presence, partnerships, and co-brandings) and owned (brand journalism, customer stories, reviews, user-created content, etc.) media. In-house budgets are expected to undergo a similar transition, with the “shared” category making the biggest 5-year leap while “earned” drops 7 percent.
Redefining PR for the rest of the decade
With all these prospective changes in the PR field in mind, we could perhaps revise the PRSA definition to emphasize developments such as the more active role PR professionals will play in content creation. The 2011 definition could be seen as too focused on earned media, through its language about “relationships” that have long been established through channels such as press relations. As we have discussed here, this category seems to be losing its centrality to both agency revenue and in-house budgeting.
Another possible point of revision might be to allude to the intersection of PR with communications and marketing. In 2014, one PR executive told Fast Company that “the communications world is now blended and demands the best of all three disciplines,” making the case that PR, even at that time, was no longer a standalone field.
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