Key trends will shape PR's future

In preparation for our 50th anniversary, GolinHarris has spent much of the past year exploring the future of communications to determine where the PR industry is headed. We have identified three emerging trends that directly impact PR agencies: consolidation, specialization, and integration.

In preparation for our 50th anniversary, GolinHarris has spent much of the past year exploring the future of communications to determine where the PR industry is headed. We have identified three emerging trends that directly impact PR agencies: consolidation, specialization, and integration.

In the coming decades, because of continued consolidation, consumers may all shop at one discount store, fly on two airlines, and deposit paychecks at one of three banks. While that may seem like a bit of an exaggeration, there will simply be fewer companies, which means fewer clients for agencies to represent and fewer agencies for clients to hire.

This contraction and the resulting competition will place a lot of pressure on client/agency relationships. As ownership and loyalties shift, both clients and agencies will have to work harder and invest more to build the long-term relationships that have been the hallmark of the industry.

So what will those clients demand? For certain, specialization. Not just general knowledge of how the media work or how brands work, but specifically, how their business works. To survive, PR agencies will become more specialized in the services they provide.

Even today, it's not enough to have healthcare expertise. Agencies must have proprietary knowledge of specific disease states. And the extent of that specialization will only increase.

As drugs become more targeted, agencies will be required to possess intimate knowledge of the patients they impact, as well as the physicians who treat those patients.

The same applies to the consumer market. It will simply not be enough to have a practice focused on marketing to women. That broad demographic must be broken down into smaller "tribes" that share specific ethnographic and psychographic traits, which will be receptive to personalized messages.

Someday, the idea of an "agency of record" may be replaced by a select group of advisers - each designated by key executives as their primary outside eyes and ears on a single issue. Their counsel could permeate all decisions. Instead of trying to be all things to all people, smart firms will invest heavily in specific areas of expertise that are critical to their clients' future.

In the past, key counselor roles often were filled by ad executives, who were once perceived as the possessors of all brand knowledge and, therefore, all marketing budgets.

In today's changing marketplace, traditional advertising by itself is increasingly irrelevant. Integration is king. The distinctions between agency disciplines have blurred, and clients no longer care where big ideas come from. They just know they want them.

The road is wide open for PR to play a much broader role in the marketing mix. But PR people must think and act more boldly if they want to command the driver's seat. And they must learn to collaborate seamlessly with the other passengers in the car, including advertising, promotions, direct response, and interactive, if they want to lead the way.

Fred Cook is president and CEO of GolinHarris.

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