Five futures for public relations

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Artificial Intelligence, Future PR, Public Relations, Society, Trust

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The future is uncertain – it is a constant refrain. Uncertainty is the off-beat in our rhythm of change. But life is – and always has been – uncertain. It only takes a moment and we find ourselves on a different path. A split-second decision, an accidental discovery, an idea, a mishap – anything and everything can alter our course. Probability – that great driver of generative AI – is the only keen eye we can cast over the paths we might tread and, for the last twelve months, I’ve been rolling the dice looking at probable futures for public relations, the shape of practice to come and what we need to learn and understand if we are to keep our sector on the road.

Over the next five days I’ll be sharing some of the potential highs and lows we might find on those possible paths – with the last update scheduled to coincide with World PR Day, an initiative from BHMUK which you can find out more about here.

So what are the five futures? And what’s the likelihood of each? Today’s offering is something of a double – a speedy look at where we are now (always good to know where you’re coming from) plus the first possible future into which, like the others, some of us have at least dipped a toe. First up is a data-driven future. We’ll come back to that in a moment but, so you know what’s ahead (with some degree of certainty) here are the others: The second is an AI powered future. The third is a hyper-personalised future. The fourth is the immersive future. The fifth is an equitable future. There’s a bonus sixth which concerns our societal future – but that we will unwrap at the end, so I hope you’ll stay with me and share your thoughts on the shape of things to come.

At the crossroads

We have a muddle of models in public relations and communication management, all of which have emerged over decades, sparked by different perspectives, cultures and circumstance. Some countries still retain a focus on mainstream media relations while in others, the relationship is at the heart. Some organisations aim for information command and control, others seek to change behaviours. My focus has always been on the relationship because public relations builds and sustains the relationships we need to maintain our licence to operate. That licence can be social, political, economic, environmental or all four.​

My PR Atom – illustrated here – breaks it down for you, shows the connection between the relationship and its supporting elements of communication, behaviour and understanding. If you want a more detailed explanation, here’s a video but in terms of where we are now there are three commonly found approaches across the world.

First, strategic counsel that guides relationship, reputation and supports organisational purpose and outcomes. Second, short-focus task-based content creation and third, marketing communication designed to sell. The latter two are dominated by one-way communication – sending stuff out and, to paraphrase one of my favourite quotes, creating the illusion that communication has taken place.Organisational culture has an effect on practice as does place – for example, the approach you might find in a consultancy will differ from that in the public sector. For the most part, old methods and models still act as anchor points in organisations – but mainly those still operating on old-school 20th century business and strategic models that are unsuited to today’s world. One of New Zealand’s leading practitioners, Tim Marshall, often describes public relations as operating where issues collide and the many ‘collisions’ occurring in the world impact all of us in some way – either creating further uncertainty, forcing us to find solutions, creating division.

One of our great superpowers as practitioners is our ability to provide situational intelligence to those we advise but – like the cobbler’s children so often poorly shod – we fail time and again to develop and action the insights necessary to inform our own future practice. So is there a utopian future for our profession to be found in our dystopian times? Let’s take a look.

The First Future is Data Driven

The last decade has seen practice transform and in all that time, one future has been cruising along in front of us – data driven public relations. It is a strategic approach that utilises data to formulate, implement and assess public relations programmes. Simply put, data-driven PR harnesses internal and external data to inform, support, and evaluate our decisions. And there’s a lot of data to harness. It can be anything from audience demographics, online behaviours, issues and trends, to employee engagement, campaign results and relationship benchmarks. For many of us, data driven public relations is one of those ‘the future is now’ moments. Using data to inform strategies has been a core practice element for a number of years. If we’ve been using it, can it really be considered as a ‘future’? I think it can if only because practitioners have fought shy of incorporating data analysis into their work leaning towards the ‘PR is Art’ argument rather than ‘PR is Science’ (although the reality is that it is both).

Data plays a significant role in reputation guardianship – understanding the data that’s out there in the wild, how it is being used, or misused, in and around your organisation.Pros and cons of a data-driven futureData-driven public relations is powerful stuff. It fosters precision and encourages customisation. By leveraging data, practitioners can tailor programmes to specific communities of interest and stakeholders, improve outcomes and maintain (or build) relationships. It supports evidence-based decision-making rather than intuition or outdated models. Data-driven practice encourages decisions based on quantifiable facts. Most importantly, it give us the ‘measures’ in measurement and evaluation, providing clear indicators as to campaigns or programme progress – crucial for continuous evaluation, improvement and accountability.That said, a data-driven future comes with a down side.

One major challenge is the skills gap. Data analysis and interpretation require a specific skill set, often lacking in our sector. In 2012, the Skills Wheel I developed highlighted data as an area for professional development but I have to say the move towards acquiring the skills has been slow. Ethically, the lack of understanding also fuels the privacy concerns associated with the handling of personal data, the potential for algorithmic bias and errors further complicates a data-driven approach.As some of the tasks undertaken by practitioners are made redundant, data-driven practice will shape the nature, structure and operations of our profession. We’ve already seen new roles emerge – data analysts, data storytellers, and digital ethicists to name a few but as yet, few practitioners have moved into those roles. I launched my first data-driven storytelling course in 2010 – and guess what? Nobody signed up. Only in the last couple of years have I seen practitioner interest start to bubble – but not boil.

As organisations of all types increasingly rely on data to make decisions, issues around data privacy and security will become even more critical. They will need help to navigate the challenges and balance the potential benefits of data-driven operation against the ethical and legal obligations related to data management.This ‘first future’ is the first step to be taken at the crossroads. Data-driven public relations practice brings great opportunities and significant challenges. It is a future that inevitably brings further transformation and, as is so often the case, the first step forward begins the journey. Without stepping on the path marked data, the other futures are impenetrable – particularly our next exploration which is a second future driven by artificial intelligence.Hope to see you tomorrow.