“Plus ça change…” I’ve grappled with the idea of whether the PR industry constantly changes or never changes. Decade by decade, do we just do the same thing, but under different layers of PR trends and technology? Or are our periodic ‘rebirths’ genuine changes to the order of things?
Honestly, I think there have been a lot of ‘plus ça change’ moments. But I believe we’re in different times, facing new trends in public relations.
Why? Is it just self-aggrandising waffle – that ‘this generation’ is doing what others did not. I hope not. In fact, I think something pretty punchy and powerful is happening.
Forgive me if I’m sounding a bit “what a time to be alive” (mind you, they did say this post-Covid era was going to be the ‘Roaring Twenties’ of our generation). But as you’ll see below, I think it’s important we acknowledge and build on what’s happening with new trends in public relations.
I see the PR trends changing in our industry articulating itself through two avenues:
- The discipline or PR in its technical sense
- The participants within the comms industry
This is creating a very different type of PR to the one I learned many moons ago, or indeed to the one that those who preceded me taught. Here’s why I think that’s the case:
PR finally meets its potential
I’ve worked in global and boutique agencies, across PR, AR, content and digital, have interviewed hundreds of PR pros at all levels and from numerous backgrounds, and swapped notes with tens of agency heads across PR specialisms. Despite all the amazing people and work I’ve encountered along the way, I’ve found that in many ways most are doing an approximation of the same thing.
At a simple level, I believe we’re finally experiencing the shockwave from the collision of content, social, digital, SEO, measurement, insights/data, influencer, and the reformulation of the media landscape.
YAWN. Old news. Some of this stuff has been around for a decade or more already. I know. But so much of this has existed in silos or as ‘bolt-ons’ that I don’t believe it’s been the reality of following PR trends in this industry. With the greatest respect, I think you only need to do awards judging to see how much ‘old school PR’ remains at the heart of the discipline.
I truly believe PR has struggled to disengage itself from the stereotype of being an aircover function. To be a part of marketing that thrives on the personal relationship – ironic given we’re meant to be ‘people people.’ But when we combine insights, digital, measurement, influencer and social – as a default and not as a value add – PR is really in the thick of it. This is where we need to be. A discipline that understands people and how to make them care.
And yet I think this kind of mindset is only just now becoming native. Only now is this genuinely the ‘expected standard’ instead of chasing PR trends. A great benchmark for this is what you see in the briefs of forward-thinking client brands. The pitch landscape is changing, finally.
It’s like looking at a sport like football or rugby before and after the professional era. The knowledge of nutrition, bio-mechanics, and psychology possessed by modern professionals renders them an altogether different beast, even though both generations may have felt as instinctive striking a ball. The change has led to a fundamentally different type of participant in many ways.
Which provides a good segue into the second of our pillars – the diversity of participants within the industry.
As with any complex shift, there’s never really a moment in time when you move from A to B. ‘The day it all started.’ The Black Lives Matter movement, legislation on pay equality, evolving maternity and paternity policy… I can’t say any one was the absolute trigger. However, it seems clear to me that rather than PR trends on social platforms, agencies and brands are looking at the demographic landscape differently.
From my lens sat in agency land, I have the sense that meaningful representation of BAME professionals is strengthening, pay inequality is becoming a genuine embarrassment rather than a well-kept secret, and leadership is diversifying. Recruitment is surfacing talent from different backgrounds and with different perspectives. And employers are recognising the value of these new trends in public relations.
Looking at brands, buyer personas are no longer just colourfully animated variations of educated, middle class, white males. The power of audience diversity is impacting all sectors, not just consumer niches or dated PR trends. And brands themselves are working differently internally, with employee stakeholder groups starting to drive real change toward positive PR trends.
Collectively this means new conceptualisations of what a great agency or brand looks like, how it operates and what it achieves.
What do with do now?
Let’s assume my analysis is somewhere close to accurate. What now?
If the pandemic has done anything positive, it’s surely to recognise that many preconceptions about workplace norms were bullshit.
Businesses have come to accept and even embrace a different cadence of working. We’ve been through resistance and resentment and moved on to accepting new trends in public relations.
But the key was to adapt our vision of a ‘great business’, to embrace the positives and use them as immutable stepping-stones for progress. We have to do the same with this seismic shift in PR trends. To not slip back to old ways of working, hiring, or leading when times get tough or business is more sparse than we’d like.
We have to codify the positives and help everyone benefit from them.
My take on this has been a programme we’ve developed within MWW London called Progressive Communications. It’s a structural refresh of the skills and training within the business, a doubling down on our commitment to more impactful PR strategies, and an investment in the work that has continued to celebrate diversity both within our own ranks and amongst our clients PR trends.
I’ll look forward to letting the team tell you more. But for now, if you’ve got this far, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Cheers, Tom.