5 issues that will shape the PR industry in 2016

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Many of the hottest companies and industries today, especially those in the sharing economy such as Airbnb and Uber, did not even exist 10 years ago, but are now challenging the survival of many traditional industries.

Will the century-old public relations (PR) industry face similar challenges and survive the changing market, media and digital landscape? Let’s look at five issues that will shape the PR industry in 2016 and beyond.

Issue 1: Blurring of boundaries between Marketing, Advertising and PR

We are already seeing the PR function being rapidly encroached upon by the Marketing, Social Media and Digital departments in organisations. Some people are going as far to predict that PR agencies will cease to exist 10 years from now.

This is both a threat and an opportunity. While Marketing, Advertising and PR can all claim to drive the strategies for paid, owned and earned media, not every discipline has the experience and ability to navigate through the earned space.

With the wide variety of traditional and social media platforms now available to influence opinion, PR professionals can help organisations stay vigilant to ride on the “new” news cycle, which has become a 24-hour continuous cycle where everyone can capture and make news, and be central to the discussions that impact the overall reputation of a brand, an organisation or industry. In fact, PR is ever more irreplaceable in driving the public affairs, financial and advocacy agenda of an organisation. PR practitioners can now engage their ultimate audiences and make them part of the “new” news cycle versus relying on traditional media as middle-men.

Organisations that in the past treated PR as a “fortress” to insulate them from attacks or as a publicity machine to promote products through traditional media, need to re-appraise the role of PR.

Issue 2: Earn, not buy influence

2015 saw the confession of many online bloggers that what they had been posting were paid-for, not authentic sharing. This has resulted in the disillusionment of many of their followers.

This revelation is particularly timely as it is becoming increasingly hard to distinguish between authentic and fake in the complex online world. As skepticism grows, what this means is that brands need to engage influencers with caution. With the tendency of “paid influencers” biting the hand that feeds them, organisations and brands that have been buying their way would need to start engaging influencers in an authentic way. This goes back to the basics of public relations where relationships are nurtured, trust is built and influence is earned, not bought.

Issue 3: Content with “value”, not just any content

The saying “Content is King” is nothing new, but how much of the content we create or chance upon everyday is viewed and shared or helps brands achieve their business objectives?

Mastering content is a top priority for PR to stay relevant. The new modus operandi is content with “value”. Content with value is something that is practical, surprising or topical that our audience can easily engage and act upon immediately. Practical content is something that provides useful tips or guides and people want to share because we feel our friends can benefit from the piece of information.

Surprising content that is less known or has a twist to the norm, usually wins lots of shares because of its “unexpected” value. People like to share surprising content to inform or impress.

Topical content that relates to current news can be a powerful source to connect with one’s audience. This puts the brand’s presence in the news limelight, but it must be timely and be created shortly after the news broke to stay relevant.

When developing content, we need to always keep in mind if we are producing content with value or content that goes into landfills today.

Issue 4 – From storytelling to creating a shareable experience

We all know that social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and instant messaging apps have transformed the relationship between organisations/brands and their audiences.

PR has always been about great storytelling. The future of PR is to take this a step further into the realm of creating a shareable experience, whether on- or off-line. Take Air New Zealand as an example. How can a brand make the most out of the standard in-flight safety video? More than you think! Air New Zealand not only made people pay attention to the universally ignored in-flight safety video but also made it shareable outside the four walls of the plane. From featuring characters from The Hobbit to players in the country’s All Blacks rugby team, to picturesque beaches with the world’s most renowned surfers, the brand has outdone itself as well as other airlines each and every time. The message is the same (i.e. safety instructions), but the brand continues to find new ways to tell the story that not only captivates in-flight passengers’ attention, but also online audiences that may not ever board one of the flights – yet gives them a reason to consider and appreciate the brand.

Issue 5: From conversation to conversion

PR Professionals have been central in driving conversations in the market, shaping what’s hot in the media, among the public and stakeholders. However, conversation alone is not enough to justify the existence of the PR function in today’s converged world. PR professionals need to distinguish buzz from what drives behavioral change. Conversion into purchase decisions and actions are key to the next phase of the PR industry’s development.
According to a Nielsen-inPowered study conducted in the U.S. in December 2013 to January 2014, expert content, often driven by PR, is more effective than branded content at all stages of the purchase decision because of its third-party, perceived impartial characteristics, and the built-in credibility.
Influence is no longer confined to celebrities, doctors, analysts or industry experts though. Brands could get great results by getting something shared on LinkedIn, Weibo or Facebook, or having it retweeted.

2016 could be a pivotal year for the industry if we can shift from being buzz-makers to deal-makers, and from being conversation creators, to behavioral scientists. Whatever we do needs to result in behavioral changes – be it a purchase, a vote, or simply influencing people to share something. PR must therefore have a clear call to action so the public can make a tangible move, such as signing up for a trial product, making a purchase on a web-shop, or signing a petition for a cause.

Ultimately, PR is always about shaping opinion and influencing behaviors. As we operate in a highly interesting, always-on, and multi-screen world today, how we do that is evolving every day. Only PR practitioners who are constantly challenging themselves and their clients will keep the industry moving.

Clara Shek

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