PR: Back to the Future, 23rd January 2018.

By Andrea Braeu.

What does the future hold for public relations?  The CIPR Marketing Communications Group asked this question at “PR: Back to the Future,” an event helping celebrate CIPR’s 70th anniversary.  A panel of five PR professionals talked about what PR might look like in 20 years’ time.

Dr. Heather Yaxley spoke about PR’s ‘herstory.’  She took us through 70 years of PR in the UK, highlighting the fact many of us have stumbled into the profession. Only the ‘right sort of chap’ was invited to join the IPR back in the day, but some women were able to build strong careers. Mrs. Gina Franklin, for example, ran an all-female agency in the 1950s and was chair of Association of Women in PR. Mrs. Franklin seems like someone we all should know more about. But her story, like so many, hasn’t been documented, even though women are now dominant in our industry. Heather showed us that PR’s come a long way. It’s gone from government propaganda machine to (increasingly) a strategic management function. We’re getting better at inclusivity.  There’ll be more opportunities in the future for self-employment and career flexibility – if we choose to take them.

Opportunity – in particular, technological opportunity – was a theme taken up by Stephen Waddington. Stephen explained how technology has given us the ability to learn more about our audiences. It can inform how we strategically communicate with them. It gives us tools to help get rid of grunt work (for example, I’ve used Grammarly and Hemingway in developing this piece). But Stephen worries that we’re not taking artificial intelligence seriously enough. That we’re being manipulated by fake news and made-up social media accounts. That we’re all affected by filter bubbles and (self-learning) algorithms. This has the real potential to erode trust. In the future as a profession, we’ll either be smarter and more sophisticated or we’ll be smaller. It’s therefore important that PRs discuss ethics and technology.

Trust and technology were taken a step further by Jenni Field.  She looked at these issues from an internal communications perspective. Jenni shared many of Stephen’s views on the impact of technology on PR. She sees a future where ‘Black Mirror’ is our reality. Authenticity is important as the lines between internal and external communication are getting blurry. We shouldn’t get caught up in technology and ‘shiny things’ instead of getting the basics right.  Jenni believes that verified information and strong governance help with building internal trust and reputation. She also sees it as a concrete way for combating fake news, which in her view is another name for the good ol’ rumour mill.

John Whyte-Venables picked up the technology from the point of MoJo – mobile journalism. John provided a great introduction to the basics of having a studio in your pocket (your smartphone). He spoke about the rise of DIY citizen journalism and video literacy. People are getting better at understanding video as a communications medium, and it’s a threat and an opportunity for PR.  John believes that broadcast media in its traditional form is too expensive – the future is cheaper, hyper-local engagement.

Getting the basics right was something Ronan Carey from Red Robot Ltd spoke passionately about. He believes that it’s not always about social and technology. Traditional tools still have a place in the future, as does relevant engagement with stakeholders. Like Jenni, Ronan believes PRs have an important role as gatekeepers of quality content. Quality also includes channels – we should never have content just for the sake of it. It’s also important to spread the risk and not put all of our content in one place.

Opportunity, trust, strategic management, technological change and basic skills. These will be important themes for the development of the PR profession over the next 20 years. Stephen Waddington summed up the session well when he said that PR is always growing and developing. At the heart of it, what we do is about human relationships. That’s true now and will be in the future.

Some of the resources mentioned by the panel:

Public Relations in Britain: A History of Professional Practice in the Twentieth Century by Jacquie L’Etang

Written content @Grammarly @HemingwayApp

Visual content @canva @piktochart

Video production @WeVideo

Listening @Talkwalker @Brandwatch

Alerts @mention @NewsWhip

Conversation analysis @Quid

Influencer mapping @traackr

Personas @crystalknowsme @IBMWatson

Dictation and translation @googledocs @Skype


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