The future of PR

The way people consume information is changing. PRWeek and Waggener Edstrom gathered a panel of experts to discuss how this is set to affect PR. Alex Black reports

Photo: Phil Rudge
Photo: Phil Rudge

What is making you scratch your head in 2008? Is it the impact of user-generated content on your brand? Or are you trying to work out how the fallout from the credit crunch will affect your budgets?

And what of the more distant future? What issues will be driving corporate reputations in three, six or 12 years’ time?

In a bid to gauge what people in the industry thought about the longer-term future of PR, Waggener Edstrom and PRWeek brought together a panel of senior PROs and posed the question: ‘What will corporate communications look like in 2020?’

The panel (see box, right) focused on four main topics: CSR; the development of news distribution; the consumption of information; and ways the communicator’s role will evolve. Here are the questions and solutions that emerged:

What will newspapers look like in 2020?

A tricky one. Sony’s e-reader for books has just been launched, fuelling a debate on the merits of traditional paper versus an electronic form. Could a similar device be developed for the newspaper industry?

Orange’s Mat Sears says his firm’s research and development division has been working on exactly that: an ‘e-newspaper’. This, essentially, is a tablet with a ‘material feel’ to it, but whereas the e-reader requires the user to download books, the ‘e-newspaper’ would automatically update itself.

By 2020, Sears reckons this could be the direction in which newspapers are heading. ‘The idea is that you subscribe to newspaper titles,’ explains Sears, ‘and the stories change three or four times a day, with journalists adding more information such as video.’

As well as new stories, those already on the tablet could be updated as more information came to light – something that presents both a threat and an opportunity to PROs. The role of the PRO in an e-newspaper world therefore would be to try to keep this information flow under control.

Interestingly, only one of the panel, the Energy Retail Association (ERA)’s Peter Jenkins, thought traditional newspapers would cease to exist by 2020.

Jenkins predicted ‘rolled up devices’ would be the norm in the future, but the rest of the panel were not so sure.

The Docklands Light Railway (DLR)’s David Sanders has a more pessimistic vision of what the future might hold for newspapers. ‘My fear is that one day newspapers will simply be a tool for marketers,’ he says. ‘I hope that doesn’t happen.’

Misys Banking’s Edward Taylor reckons newspapers will have to adapt to survive and may have to become a leisure product, focusing on editorial and in-depth commentary. Very much like the Sunday newspapers now, in fact.

How will the editorial agenda change in newsrooms?

BT’s Zoe Arden reckons local news will become more of a priority for news editors as people will always need information that is relevant to them. ‘More people read a regional than a national,’ explains Arden, ‘and issues that make the national press often start off in the regional press’.

But consumer interaction is going to be the key factor that changes the way news is reported. Waggener Edstrom’s Caroline Randle points to the fact people now have both the inclination and ability to influence the development of news stories by commentating via email or text.

Jenkins says his chief executive recently went on a television news programme and was asked questions sent in by viewers that morning. ‘We used to be able to sit down with the producer and get an idea of what we would be asked,’ explains Jenkins. ‘But increasingly the questions will come from a live audience, which makes it harder for the PRO to brief the interviewee.’

User-generated content will increase as the world becomes more digital. How will this change consumption of information over the next 12 years?

The ERA’s Jenkins has a theory that the rise of citizen journalism means consumers will eventually revert back to trusted news sources.

‘The consumer will become increasingly sceptical, and will look to specialist publications rather than blogs to get information,’ he explains.

This theory is backed up by Sony Ericsson’s Mattias Holm, who says he spends large chunks of his time responding to rumours about new products from bloggers. ‘Journalists will read these rumours and come to us for a response,’ he says, ‘but the more bloggers spread rumours, the more those rumours are likely to be wrong. In the end journalists will pay less attention, which works in our favour.’

Journalists taking less notice of rumours on blogs can only be a good thing for in-house PROs, but Arden is certain no matter how big the blogosphere gets, information provided by a professional journalist will always be ‘more credible than that from a citizen journalist’.

How is the role of a public relations officer set to change?

The role of the PRO is increasingly 24/7 and the industry needs to understand this and ensure it is prepared. News editors need spokespeople, and 24-hour news means they could be called on in the evening, first thing in the morning or on the weekend.

Sears says he can see a scenario where the standard hours of nine to five do not apply to the PR industry any more. Instead, PROs at organisations that have a high profile or an international reach would work in shifts to cover a press function on a 24-hour basis.

Arden believes the industry needs to become ‘more holistic and less compartmentalised’ as message dissemination increases and Taylor feels the PRO’s job will become less about ‘spin’ and more about fact: ‘Consumer knowledge is on the increase, and people are starting to have a greater amount of facts at their disposal.’

It will be the job of the PRO to sate this thirst for information before anyone else can.

What is the future of CSR?

CSR expert Arden claims social responsibility schemes will cease to be held up as a differentiator in future.

‘By 2020 an organisation’s social responsibility should be so ingrained it will just be a hygiene issue,’ she explains. ‘It’s just going to part of what companies do.’

Misys Banking’s Taylor agrees, saying CSR is already filtering through to all areas of his firm. ‘Our chief technology officer no longer just makes the technology work,’ he explains. ‘Now he looks at how it fits into the company as a whole and how it affects the company’s impact on the environment in which we operate.’

Conclusion

These debates and many others will continue as the media landscape evolves, but it is clear the way people get their information is going to change, and that will have a crucial impact on the way PR professionals operate.

As we move into the new millennium’s second decade, technology will continue to develop exponentially. The reach and speed of corporate messaging will only increase with it. The 21st century communicator will be handed a chance to control the spread of information like never before, but if they are too slow to react to changes, they may get left behind.


The Panellists

Zoe Arden director of comms and social responsibility at BT retail. Handles CSR, PR, internal comms, customer relations and stakeholder engagement. Has strong focus on sustainability programmes.

 

 

 

Mattias Holm global product PR manager for Sony Ericsson. Handles product and technology PR. Announcing and launching new products is key part of Holm’s remit.

 

 

 

Peter Jenkins head of comms and PR at the Energy Retail Association (ERA). The ERA represents the six big energy corporations in the UK. Joined early in 2008 and handles strategy and dealing with the media.

 

 

 

Caroline Randle London corporate practice VP, Waggener Edstrom. Specialises in the challenges faced by consumers’ increasing influence on corporate reputations and the ‘blurring of lines between corporates, consumers and government’.

 

 

David Sanders stakeholder and publicity manager at Docklands Light Railway (DLR). Describes his job as ‘working with a small team with a big influence’.

 

 

 

Mat Sears head of corporate and consumer comms at Orange. Describes the corporate side of his role as protecting Orange’s reputation in the media through issues and crisis management. Also handles digital campaigns and sponsorship activation.

 

 

Edward Taylor global head of PR, Misys Banking. Heads up PR and analyst relations. Describes his role as ‘influencing the influencers’ in the world of banking and financial institutions.

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