Future of public relations in an age of change, complexity and uncertainty

Stuart Bruce speaking on the future of public relations photograph

This is the text of a speech on the future of public relations that I delivered at Southampton Solent University (my alma mater) on Wednesday 6 February 2019.

We are in the eye of a maelstrom of change, complexity and uncertainty.
Technological, political, societal and economic. If you think change over the last five years has been rapid, then I promise you, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

As professional communicators we need to be at the forefront of helping businesses, organisations and governments to chart a safe and successful course through these stormy waters.

As you’re fortunate enough to be studying at Southampton Solent I wonder if our maritime colleagues have any advice.

I believe navigating this maelstrom starts with listening and understanding, then doing.

But as a public relations professional you’d expect me to say that. Or you should. Because that is the future of public relations.

What is public relations?

The CIPR defines public relations as being about reputation – the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you.

I broadly agree. But have two issues with this.

The first is that you and your organisation don’t just have one reputation. You have multiple reputations. The reputation with some stakeholders might be great, with others awful. Does it matter? Not necessarily, it depends on how important the relationship with that group of stakeholders is to the future success of the organisation. How do those stakeholders impact your permission to operate?

What’s Southampton Solent University’s reputation with students? With prospective students? With lecturers? With parents? With employers? With support staff? With alumni? With the public relations industry? With the publishing and broadcasting industries? With the maritime industries?
It’s not the same with them all? Some are better than others? But some matter more than others.

Digital and social media and our ability to search and find what we want to know means that we can’t precisely control who sees which message. Messages designed to placate and please one stakeholder group, may alienate another.

Public relations is what you do

My second issue with the CIPR definition is that too often too many public relations practitioners focus on the second two elements – the what you say and what others say about you. That’s why we often use public relations and communications interchangeably. But the most important part of that definition is – what you do.

When I was a student in this fine institution, I was taught… and forgive my language… you can’t polish a turd. Digital and social media mean that’s truer than ever as people will see through your veneer and spin.
The real role of public relations is as a strategic management function. We need to be counselling the CEO before decisions are made, not simply communicating them afterwards.

I’m not suggesting we should steer the ship. I am saying that just as no CEO would make a big decision without consulting the chief financial officer on the financial implication or the chief legal officer on the legal implications, no CEO should make that decision without consulting the public relations professional on the reputational and relationship implications of the decision. It’s the CEO and board’s role to weigh up the professional advice and make their decisions accordingly.

That’s what the future of public relations and PR strategy is really about.

But how do we do this in today’s maelstrom of change, complexity and uncertainty

I’m here to talk to you about the future. That means predictions. I thought of illustrating my talk with a picture of an ass because predictions are hard and I don’t want to make an ass of myself by getting them wrong. But here’s a bonus tip for you. If you’re in a public place like a train, don’t ever search for a picture of an ass… trust me you don’t find pictures of animals that look like donkeys.

A thread running through much of this change, complexity and uncertainty is digital technology and how it impacts the future of public relations.

I’m always uncomfortable talking about digital PR as today all public relations is digital and has been for some time. Not exclusively so, because just as video didn’t kill the radio age, neither has the virtual digital world killed the real world.

Social purpose

Last year’s CIPR national conference was about purpose. What’s your purpose? If you don’t know and your organisation doesn’t know then you’d better figure it out fast. You’ll be hearing a lot more about it in 2019.
Companies like Unilever, Nike, Starbucks and Iceland are asking and answering this question. At the start of last year Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, an investment company that is the world’s largest asset management company, called on companies to account for their social impact.

Society is starting to demand that companies take responsibility for their impact. To succeed in generating profits businesses must look beyond the bottom line to what helps create those revenues. How do they benefit all their stakeholders? How do they benefit shareholders, employees, customers and the communities (in its widest sense) in which they operate?
Public relations is about helping organisations gain and maintain their permission to operate.

Media relations

Next I want to tackle the myth that public relations equates with media relations. It doesn’t. It never has. Jog on.

Public relations became corrupted, especially in the post WWII years with the rapid growth of mass media. PR practitioners used media coverage as a quick and easy fix. It shouldn’t be like that. What’s wonderful about digital and social media is it takes public relations back to the future and once again become a channel neutral discipline that can use any medium.

Do you know media means? It means – means. Yes, quite literally media is a means for conveying ideas or messages.

Public relations can’t be about mainstream media. It’s value – our value – is in our ability to change beliefs and behaviour.

Think about this. If the number of journalists is falling. And it is. Why is the number of PR people increasing?

Influencers

If I hear one more ill-informed opinion about influencers I might very well scream. They are rarely talking about real influencers. A real influencer isn’t about raw numbers. It’s not the number of Instagram followers or YouTube subscribers. You’ve only been influenced if you think or act differently as a result of the influencer. Everything else is just broadcast noise.

Fake news

We hear a lot about fake news. And it’s one of the challenges we face in the maelstrom.

But if you think that’s bad. What about deep fakes?

When I work with crisis communications clients I’m often a big advocate of using video. It shows authenticity, the raw human emotion of the CEO or other employee.

But in the future can we trust video? A deep fake is generated by machine learning and is a computer-generated replication of a person saying or doing whatever the controller wants them to say or do. Simply airbrushing a celebrity to make them thinner on the cover of a magazine is kindergarten technology. Deep fakes are Photoshop on steroids.

Artificial intelligence

How can I talk about the future of communications in our digital age without talking about AI? Artificial intelligence.

Actually I can as if we were to plot the different new communications channels and technologies on the Gartner Hype Cycle I’d place AI right at the top of the peak of inflated expectations.

Make no mistake AI is and will make a fundamental difference to many aspects of public relations, but we aren’t quite there yet. Much of what is talked about as AI is actually just machine learning and automation. Valuable yes, AI not so much.

However, if any of you fancy yourselves making a career in writing then you might want to have a think. Companies like Automated Insight are showing that computers can write. And write well. You can subscribe to its WordSmith service today and use it to generate well-written articles based on a data set such as election results or sports results. Robot writing is already used by the NHS, the BBC and thanks to a grant from Google by the Press Association. Many of you will have read PA stories in regional papers – maybe even in the Southampton Echo – that have been written by robot.

The CIPR’s AI in PR panel has done some excellent work on mapping how AI will impact on different aspects of public relations practice.

Many of the entry level tasks will disappear as automation takes over. This raises important questions about how we will nurture the practitioners of the future. When I left this fine institution 30 years ago I honed my knowledge and skills by compiling and analysing press cuttings – a job that has largely been automated by the likes of Cision. I researched carefully targeted media lists of journalists from paper directories and phoning up to request sample copies of magazines. A job that has largely been automated by the likes of Response Source.

Beyond automation and AI how else is digital impacting public relations?

Measurement and evaluation

Just a couple of years after leaving this august institution I appeared in PR Week to talk about a sophisticated media evaluation system I’d developed for the small consultancy that I worked for. It set us apart. We measured volume, reach, key messages, prominence, quality and other factors and used a formula to create a quantitive/qualitative score so we could track media coverage across multiple countries and multiple industry sectors. It was infinitely better than the crude advertising value equivalents used by many of our competitors.

But it was also fundamentally flawed. Flawed because it simply measured outputs. That’s all media coverage is. What we should be measuring is outtakes – have people seen it and been affected by it. And outcomes – did they think or act differently. Above all what was its impact? Did it improve recruitment, increase sales, maintain the share price? It’s the impact on the organisation that we need to know.

Digital can play a huge role as we gather more and more data points to analyse and understand how the work we do impacts on the results we achieve.

Crisis communications

Digital and social media are also having a massive impact on crisis communications. I no longer talk about the golden hour for a response, or even the 24 hour news cycle, but the 24 second news cycle. That’s how long it takes for a tweet or Instagram video to travel around the world… perhaps to expose the charlatan standing before you trying to predict the future of public relations. Remember I’ll only be a public relations influencer if I’ve provoked you into thinking or acting differently.

Many see the rise of citizen journalism and user generated content as a risk. Millions of people able to scrutinise your every move and to publish it instantly.

But I see it as an opportunity. An opportunity to become more ethical. As public relations professionals we’ve always know the importance of ethics, both in our conduct, but importantly in how our organisation conducts itself. But the grim reality is that not everyone abided by that ethos. Some people and companies indulged in dodgy behaviour because they could get away with it. Not anymore. Not with millions of people scrutinising you and exposing your wrong doing.

But if your scrutineers can publish in an instant so can you. Owned media is incredibly powerful. We can tell our side of the story directly to stakeholders. We don’t have to rely solely on media gatekeepers.

But digital’s impact isn’t just on media and channels. It can improve our decision making. Sophisticated monitoring systems give us more information on which to base our decisions. Social media provides a window into what customers, politicians, stakeholders and even journalists are thinking.

Platforms like Newswhip collate and analyse a plethora of social media and digital data in almost real time. It tracks how people interact with a story and how quickly it happens. By combining historical data with predictive machine learning it can indicate if and how fast a crisis story is likely to spread.

It’s because of the importance of digital that a lot of my PR consultancy work today is on crisis communications and measurement and evaluation.
If we’re talking about the future of public relations and communications there is so much more we could say.

Equality and diversity

One of the most important is equality and diversity. If we can’t put our own house in order how can help organisations and companies to have social purpose and put their houses in order?

We need to see a profession that isn’t just led by middle aged, middle class white men. Hopefully, I’m not doing myself out of a job as I might by middle aged and white, but I’m proud of my working class roots and every day wait for someone to tap me on the shoulder and say ‘hey mate, you shouldn’t be here’. Because diversity also means where we come from. The schools we went to.

We need a profession that looks more like the stakeholders we are helping to manage relationships with.

So if public relations professionals can help organisations navigate the maelstrom of change, complexity and uncertainty how do we personally do it?

Continuous professional development (CPD)

The good news is that by being here today you’re already doing it.

We’ve got to become better than we’ve ever been.

We’ve got to embrace learning. It doesn’t stop when you graduate. It’s a life of continuous professional development. I try to learn something new every day.

That’s why I’m one of only a handful of professionals who are fellows of AMEC – the international Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communications. Because I want to learn and spread best practice.
It’s why I’m a chartered public relations professional. Because I’m committed to learning and spreading best practice on strategy, ethics and leadership.

If we don’t become better at our jobs. If we don’t become more professional. Then make no mistake there are others waiting to eat our lunch. It’s not just the obvious threat from advertising and creative agencies. It’s from the management consultants, accountants and lawyers who understand how important relationships and reputations are in this digital age.

To conclude I want you all to ask yourselves why does all this matter? Because reputation, or should I say reputations, matter.

Professor Anne Gregory often reminds us that 84% of a company’s value is in its intangible assets including its people and its reputation.

Public relations is about relationships – that’s people – and reputation.
In the maelstrom of change, complexity and uncertainty we can help increase the value of those intangible assets and ultimately increase the overall value of the company.

Thank you for listening.

Stuart Bruce at future of public relations event photo

After the talk I spent sometime talking to students, who are graduating later this year, to offer advice on PR, communications and marketing career options.

I gave the speech without reference to my notes, so this content will only partially (although it mainly does) the delivery.

Thank you to Sally Holland (Senior Lecturer and Course Leader Public Relations and Communications) for the invitation to speak and thank you to Richard Berry (Programme Group Leader Marketing, Advertising and Communications) for the photographs.