The evolution of PR – operational complexity is here to stay

In 2005, the UK’s largest PR firm, Bell Pottinger, published an excellent whitepaper on The Future of Public Relations, based on interviews with CEOs and Communications Directors from some of the UK’s biggest organisations.

It is worth looking back to see how – if at all – the issues and concerns of five years ago have been addressed and whether those issues will continue to dominate the PR landscape of the future.

PR needs radars rather than loud-hailers

One of the key themes of the original report was that public relations has become much more difficult at an operational level.  Five years on, those operational issues have only intensified and in the future, organisations can expect more of the same. The key drivers of this situation are unlikely to change either – smaller teams of people who will be tasked with managing more information and relationships with fewer resources.

In 2005, the view of senior communications directors was that PR practitioners were particularly alive to the notion that they must use “radars rather than loud-hailers” to communicate – the emphasis shifting from talking and transmitting to listening and receiving.

In the intervening years, new tools have been developed to overcome the challenge of listening to huge volumes of brand conversations in the public domain and to speedily and appropriately respond to them.  For example, the plethora of sentiment analysis tools currently flooding the market is indicative of the demand from organisations to better understand what people feel towards them. However, the promise of this technology has largely not met customer expectation. More specifically, there is much skepticism about whether technology can truly automate the process of analysing large volumes of content to produce an accurate picture of sentiment. Nevertheless, the demand remains – and surely a technological breakthrough in this area can’t be long off.

Who said what from where

But sentiment analysis is not the only area that will have a large part to play in the future of PR. As the original Bell Pottinger report pointed out: “New technology, the fragmentation of delivery through complex digital media channels, the problems of knowing who is saying what – and where they are getting it from – and the increased reputational risks created by speed and ease of access to public audiences, make it extremely difficult for Communications Directors to keep on top of what is “out there”.”

The biggest change from five years ago has been the incredible growth in social networks and the volume of content that organisations now need to monitor. What has clearly changed from five years ago is the increasing development of “digital listening posts” to help organisations deal with this. But even though specific tools and services have emerged to address individual aspects of the communications lifecycle (digital press release distribution, etc), the challenge today and over the next few years will be meeting the demand from organisations to smoothly integrate these currently disjointed activities.

Consistency of brand messaging

Another key challenge facing organisations then – and now – is how to achieve consistency of messaging across so many channels. As senior communications directors opined at the time “There is no longer the option of targeting one audience in isolation – the internet has put stakeholders in touch with each other and we face a much better networked set of stakeholders than ever before. Communications planning simply has to take this into account. At the same time, ‘shot-gun messaging’ is not an option; we face a growing need for ‘segmentation’ and tailoring of messaging if we want to achieve cut-through in the information age.”

And yet, if “shot-gun messaging” is not an option, why do so many organisations still employ this tactic?  This is surprising given that the technology to allow for the “narrowcasting” of information has definitely improved in the last five years.  In terms of the press specifically, the online pressroom technology of today is vastly superior to that of a decade ago. The ability to deliver quickly and cost effectively a wide variety of multimedia content in a targeted manner is available now. Whereas in the past this might have seemed a “nice to have” feature, this will surely become an essential part of any successful communications department in the future.

Technology has a key role to play

Finally, the view of senior communications directors in 2005 was that “Intelligence, intuition and research must be the key to tracking the chaotic and fragmented world of communications. This requires investment. Is this happening on any meaningful scale? Our view is that it is not.”

Anecdotally, things have improved in this area since 2005 – although whether they have reached a “meaningful scale” is a moot point.  The future of PR almost certainly involves greater investment in technology to help organisations gain greater insight into the feelings and behaviours of key stakeholder groups – as well as being able to respond to this intelligence with highly targeted and engaging content.

If anything has changed in five years, it is that a greater array of tools have become available to help PR and communications teams “read the world” and to help them more effectively communicate to all relevant stakeholders. Even if investment still hasn’t reached the “meaningful scale” referred to previously, the indications are – at least in this area – that things are moving in the right direction. Nevertheless, operational complexity is here to stay – those communications directors who will sleep easiest at night are those that are preparing to deal with those future scenarios today.


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