2010 was the year of the iPad, the general election, the World Cup and the age of austerity. But without any major sporting events or a general election on the cards for 2011, one must look a little deeper to work out what will be setting the agenda for the PR industry this year.
PRWeek set out to pinpoint the five key trends that will define 2011. We began by canvassing senior PR professionals, asking them their views on what would be the defining events, technology, media happenings and other trends this year.
Around 40 predictions were generated. These ranged from the obvious, such as: 'The Royal Wedding will dominate the media in 2011,' to the frankly bizarre: '2011 will see the first self-cleaning baby that sleeps through the night.'
The PRWeek editorial team then debated the predictions and narrowed them down to five general issues (see overleaf).
Finally, we invited an expert panel to discuss the issues and their implications for the PR industry in a special PRWeek podcast.
On the panel
Drew Benvie, MD, 33 Digital
Jonathan Hargreaves, European MD, Edelman
Tony Langham, Co-founder and CEO, Lansons
Kevin Read, MD, Bell Pottinger Business & Brand
1. London and the Olympics
The start of 2012 is still a year away, but 'Olympic thinking will dominate a lot of PR this year - for good and bad', says Keith Gabriel, senior account manager at Citigate Dewe Rogerson.
Scott Bowers, group director of comms at The Jockey Club, agrees: 'Brands, organisations and causes will try to "own" London in 2011, placing a stake in the ground before London 2012, especially competitors of Olympic sponsors.'
The challenge for brands that are not official sponsors is to negotiate the restrictions surrounding their involvement in the event. While non-sponsors cannot claim to be associated with the Olympics, there is nothing to stop them taking 'ownership' of London as a city.
33 Digital's Drew Benvie says the smart brands will be looking to start conversations about the issues affecting London: 'Forward planning is really important. If you are searching online for London and a particular service, brands want to be those that come up top. We are going to see a lot of websites changing the way they structure their content, and we are going to see social networks focusing on London as a community.'
As the event itself draws closer, Bell Pottinger's Kevin Read predicts: 'There will be opportunities particularly for brands that might be associated with bringing people to the capital for an experience, such as airlines and the hospitality industry. They will be furiously working at giving London a new coat of paint.'
But as Lansons' Tony Langham warns, the challenge for brands and for London as a whole is to make sure the Olympic fever does not peak too early and begin to generate cynicism.
The Times, the News of the World and the FT all now have content behind a paywall, although the latter does make some content freely available.
Lansons' Langham says The Times paywall is not working out 'fantastically' but concedes that 'whoever went first was never going to be a success.'
He adds: 'I wonder whether The Times paywall is a loss-leader as part of the long-term strategy to reduce the power of the BBC site. Commercial organisations can say "we can't have a business because of the state-funded website" and it gives them extra power in the long term to change that.'
Until paywalls in their entirety are viable, 2011 could see media firms experimenting with different levels of paid-for content, such as the FT's model.
Apps will also be key. Alan Edwards, founder of The Outside Organisation, says: 'Some iPad apps, especially newspapers such as The Sun and Times, make it a really superb reading experience. In an ideal world this will drive people to start paying for content.'
33 Digital's Benvie adds: 'We are starting to see media organisations experiment with the way they present the news. People might want to pay for an app and get the news for free, or they may want the app for free and then pay incrementally for the news.'
Bell Pottinger's Read says readers may feel better about paying for content if other readers do the same.
If The Observer or The Guardian started charging, he says: 'We would not find that unwelcome. It makes the idea of me as the only person paying for The Sunday Times feel more comfortable that other readers on the left (of the political spectrum) might do the same.'
This year will see the type of mobile phone people own fade in importance compared with what is actually on that phone, in the form of apps and other innovations. Operating system Android could have its time in the sun thanks to this trend.
'Android is going to be a big hit, as it enables innovation and allows people to do things with a speed and agility you can't achieve with a more proprietary system such as Apple or Microsoft,' argues Edelman's Jonathan Hargreaves.
Bell Pottinger's Read agrees, noting that new operating systems are helping to make technology more accessible to everyone: 'The great thing about Android is it is democratising the apps movement. It won't sit on Apple kit, but it can sit on lots of other pieces of kit. I believe Android is going to push us harder into an app-driven world, where barriers between work and home break down.'
This new openness may also put pressure on brands, such as Apple, that have historically not allowed other operating systems to sit on their devices. Hargreaves notes: 'The integration between Android and other platforms will be crucial. How open are other platforms to working with the whole ecosystem of apps? At the moment, Apple is pretty proprietary.'
Apple and Microsoft are, however, able to create new functionality and features, as they have huge investment behind them.
33 Digital's Benvie says apps are now what make people want a certain type of phone, as opposed to design such as in the early days of the iPhone: 'People want to know if specific apps are on the phone they are getting next - apps are becoming so innovative and use the technology on the phone to its full advantage. That's what people are talking about and becoming wedded to.'
4. Location-based social networking
Foursquare, Facebook Places and other location-based social networking services will come to the forefront in 2011. Rob Blackie, head of digital at Blue Rubicon, says: 'People will start to use location services to find their nearby friends on the spur of the moment. This will be a great opportunity for savvy brands to give people discounts for turning up in groups with friends.'
Location-based social media are already used - Foursquare has about five million users - but fears over privacy and security have made some people cautious. But Facebook Places, which launched in 2010, is tipped to help location-based social networking, already very popular in the US, come of age.
33 Digital's Benvie says: 'The movement is gathering pace. We are going to see Facebook enabling people to offer deals to those who check into their shops or environment. Moving into "social commerce", generating the word of mouth that actually sells stuff, is an important trend. When you say 600 million people have the opportunity to do this on Facebook, not just five million, that is a really big trend.'
Web analytics will help develop accuracy in targeted messaging, sometimes to an almost creepy degree. Edelman's Hargreaves notes: 'From a brand reputation point of view, we need to work out the rules.'
The second challenge for brands is to overcome people's reluctance to reveal their locations. Lansons' Langham says: 'The reason it will take off is vouchers, which have been the big story of the past two years.'
But he adds that, as with other social media, trends will be driven by users and brands will respond, not the other way around: 'Glastonbury 2011 will be a great coming of age for location-based social networking.'
5. Cloud computing
Cloud computing, where information is stored on remote servers rather than local PCs, is set to come into its own in 2011. 'The enhancement we have seen recently is the processing power,' says 33 Digital's Benvie. 'They are as big as the biggest computer in the world. We're going to be able to search through all the work saved on the cloud with a keyword and it will be as quick as a web search.'
This power means PR professionals will be able to work anywhere from their laptops or mobiles. 'It's going to free everyone up,' predicts Benvie. This new freedom also means working hubs, such as TechHub, based in Old Street, will flourish.
'These hubs have the kind of facilities you don't have in your house and are for the type of workers who can access their cloud but want to work in a hub environment,' says Benvie.
There are implications for international working, with cloud-based technology allowing efficient ways of working across the globe. And Lansons' Langham points out that, with this kind of technology, new exciting companies would be able to emerge more quickly than ever. 'It is fascinating for the fragmentation of markets,' he notes. 'Looking back to paywalls, this is arguably where newspapers are most threatened. If they retreat behind paywalls, it's going to be easier for bloggers to turn their businesses into commercial ventures.'
Bell Pottinger's Read adds that larger companies will also reap the benefits: 'For an organisation with 20-30,000 people working globally cloud computing is fantastic, as you don't need expensive hardware and software, and an IT department of 1,000. The implication for employee comms, where the employer facilitates that with kit and freedom, and new ways of working, is just around the corner and is an amazing change.'