What's in store for 2012?

As the UK gets ready to showcase itself to the world through the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and the Olympic Games, Kate Magee does some crystal ball-gazing to predict the key issues facing the PR industry.

Predictions for 2012: Image by Getty
Predictions for 2012: Image by Getty

While 2011 started brightly with hope of an economic recovery and a 'fairytale' royal wedding, by the year end, things had turned rather sour. Hackgate closed the UK's best-selling newspaper, disaffected youth erupted in August bringing fear to the streets, and eurozone unrest severely dented business confidence, with major UK marcoms groups Huntsworth and Chime reporting damaging client fee cancellations in Q4.

So it is understandable that the industry begins 2012 with a sense of trepidation. But while there are few signs that the economy is out of the woods, there are opportunities for the industry if it can prove to clients that professional reputation management can positively impact the bottom line.

Like 2011, this year will be one of change. Beleaguered media brands will face a crunch point. Suffering from a drop in ad revenues, shrinking resources and a major loss of public trust, they will need to salvage their own reputations amid the backdrop of potential legally binding regulation.

PR professionals will also need to keep up to date with new technological developments. While the tablet is not a new concept, 2012 may well be the year it becomes mainstream and is adopted for work, and not just leisure. Dual-screen viewing and the increasing adoption of mobile broadband will have a big effect on the social landscape.

Politics will provide major stories, from elections in the US and for the London Mayor to a potential statutory register for public affairs consultants. But none of this will happen without a dose of nationalist pride as Brits celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and, hopefully, a successful Olympics. Here we detail key predictions for 2012.


Copyright: PA

Image from PA

2011 was not a good year for the media industry. There was increased pressure on resources, with hundreds of journalists being made redundant including at The Guardian and the BBC, which could lead to more reliance on content provided by the PR industry. The phone-hacking allegations led to the closure of the News of the World and various investigations into journalistic practices including the high-profile Leveson Inquiry. During 2012, media brands will be focused on rebuilding public trust, as well as working on new ways to make money.

The London Stock Exchange's director of comms Victoria Brough says: 'A drive to restore trust and integrity will become apparent, and the need to provide value-added insight, rather than just immediate commentary, will be a differentiator.'

Sally Costerton, the former chair and CEO, EMEA, at Hill+Knowlton Strategies,believes the phone-hacking scandal will have far-reaching consequences. 'The mass revulsion of watching Millie Dowler's mother talk about believing her daughter was still alive will last long in the memory and do far more damage than worries over whether Hugh Grant or Steve Coogan's sex lives are public property,' she says. 'The main change will be a gradual slowing of the apparently voracious appetite for celebrity gossip magazines and columns.'

The Leveson Inquiry into press standards will play a major part in shaping the future of the media. Diageo's corporate relations director Ian Wright says: 'I expect a damning verdict on several national newspaper groups, which will have been shown to have hacked phones and computers. I would guess that will lead to calls for a privacy law and a legally enforceable code of conduct for journalists.'

Edelman's UK CEO and former BBC comms director Ed Williams agrees: 'It is manifestly the case that a proposed new regulatory framework will emerge from the Leveson Inquiry. What is important is that any changes do not impinge on the freedom of the press to investigate wrong-doing and hold powers to account.'


- Media brands will be focused on rebuilding public trust dented by the phone-hacking scandal and subsequent inquiries into press ethics

- Debate over media regulation will continue. Potential introduction of a legally enforceable code of conduct for journalists

- There may be calls for a new privacy law.


Olympics: Image by Rex

Image from Rex

National pride is likely to be a running theme this year, from the Queen's Diamond Jubilee to watching England in Euro 2012, to the main event, London 2012. The Olympics is the chance for London - and Britain as a whole - to host the world's media and showcase the capital.

'The Olympics will be the biggest broadcasting event of our generation and will be a major moment for the country,' says Edelman's Williams.

The opportunity for global exposure will mean a boost for consumer PR operators, as brands vie for position on the world's stage.

The current ambivalence of the UK population towards the Olympics will change. 'We will fall in love with the Olympics late in the day and stop moaning.

The Middletons will make a fortune as we all have Olympic parties, and there will be a big boost on the consumer client side,' says Costerton.

Weber Shandwick's head of public affairs Alex Deane agrees: 'The Mall will once again be packed with a million proud, patriotic people, there will be a huge outpouring of support. The left-wing commentariat, which have penned anti-monarchy pieces, will hide or express profound surprise and then go back to writing their little-read pro-Republican pieces within a month or two as if nothing had happened.'


- British pride to make repeat appearances this year with the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and London 2012

- London will receive global exposure as the world's media and elite sportspeople head to the capital for London 2012

- Major boost for consumer PR as brands jostle for Olympic attention.



Image credit: Jan Oel 

 As Europe continues to experience economic difficulties, power and influence are shifting from North to South and West to East, believes Costerton. Agencies and brands have been eyeing up opportunities in the emerging markets for many years, but 2012 will see a sharpened focus on these markets, which provide one of few opportunities for growth.

For example, in the healthcare sector, Red Door Communications MD Catherine Oliver says her clients are looking to the 'pharmerging' markets to replace the billions in revenue they are set to lose through public spending cuts in established markets and from older drugs losing their patents.

'For comms agencies, this means having partners in the key BRIC markets that understand local needs, culture and social considerations to ensure that global programmes can be effectively adapted for implementation,' she says.

Expect more acquisitions and partnerships in these markets. For example, in October, Edelman announced a partnership with one of the largest ad agencies in India - Rediffusion-Y&R. 'Both agencies and in-house teams will be looking at the availability of quality PR and public affairs services across much of Africa and in countries such as Brazil, China, Colombia, India, Indonesia and Mexico,' says Diageo's Wright.

The desire from clients for more united, integrated campaigns across countries and continents may lead to global agencies increasing in power as good small agencies and mid-sized agencies are excluded from pitches. Weber Shandwick's Deane believes this could mean more people joining the larger networked agencies from the smaller independent groups.

So far, the industry has been focused on growth in China and the complexity facing global brands that want to set up there. But Burson-Marsteller's UK CEO Matt Carter believes the reverse trend will become the dominant theme as Chinese brands compete to become household names in the US and Europe: 'Of the world's top 2,000 firms, 34 per cent are headquartered in Asia. How many can you name? By the end of 2012, I expect we will all know a few more.'


- Sharper focus on emerging markets as opportunity for growth

- More acquisitions and partnerships in these markets

- Increased client desire for integrated united global campaigns

- Chinese brands to compete to become household names in the US and Europe.



With presidential elections taking place in the US, France and Russia during 2012, in addition to the Mayoral election in London, this will be a mega year for politics and public affairs, says Edelman's Williams. For the PR industry, the question of a statutory register of public affairs consultants will continue to dominate.

'Statutory public affairs regulation is inevitable and we welcome it. Reputable, honest firms such as ours have nothing to fear from transparency and regulation - and it will clean up the reputation of our industry,' says Weber Shandwick's Deane.

Williams agrees: 'It's important that we engage openly on the question of a statutory register of public affairs consultants and that any changes are applied evenly across the entire industry.'

But any regulation needs to be properly considered to ensure it does not limit access for legitimate but smaller lobbying groups, such as street residents who do not want a pylon in their local community.

As Deane argues: 'It would be wrong for barriers to entry to spring up. A firm such as mine, with global reach and deep pockets, will jump through the hoops of compliance, regulation, training and registration without problems. But each or a combination of them may become so significant that they deter start-ups and entrepreneurs. A small group of young consultants, scrupulously honest and working in an uncontroversial field, might be deterred from starting their promising firm because of the burden of compliance. That would be an unintended and perverse consequence, which might obliquely favour the big firms such as mine, at which the register is aimed.'


- Major events include presidential elections in US, France and Russia

- London Mayoral elections to take place two months before the 2012 Olympics start. Will Boris Johnson get a second term?

- The question of a statutory register of public affairs consultants will continue to dominate.



This is predicted to be the year that the tablet moves from a toy to a work tool. Debenhams head of PR Ed Watson says: 'Tablets will become more and more widespread, with the population wanting and needing information and connectivity via various portals. This is a fantastic opportunity for PR professionals with a news-driven focus as more and more sites require high quality and informative content.'

Weber Shandwick's Deane, who is a councillor and former lawyer, says that some local councils are starting to move to tablets rather than papers for councillors, and prosecutors are getting their briefs on tablets instead of case bundles: 'When that level of buy-in happens, you are bound to see ever more uptake.'

For broadcasters, the key change will be to offer viewers a dual-screen experience. As Edelman's Williams says: 'How can you give your customer a more immersive experience in real-time as they toggle between scheduled television and related content delivered to handheld devices?

'For publishers, the tablet provides the best opportunity yet to innovate and evolve from traditional print to digital. The tablet could be the difference between the decline of the newspaper industry and its reinvention.'

Grayling's head of digital Victor Benady says 2012 will see the number of distribution channels for content increasing exponentially, but the opportunities to reach the critical mass audiences will dwindle.

'This demands smart new ways for brands to establish their presence through partnerships with entertainment providers, platform owners and media firms that have direct access to consumers, whether through games, mobile apps or linear entertainment streams,' he says.

Mobile technology will also be a game changer. Costerton believes the rapid rollout of mobile broadband has led to the 'democratisation of comms' and is a tool that allows public opinion to move from comment to action. This, she believes, will empower groups that are often overlooked by policy makers to make their voices heard.


- The tablet to move from niche to mainstream and from a leisure product to a work tool

- Dual-screen experience to be a key trend

- Greater accountability required from corporations as mobile broadband empowers groups that are often overlooked by policy makers.



Image by Rex

Caution will be the buzz word. The economy seemed brighter at the start of 2011, but by November, two of the UK's leading marcoms groups, Chime Communications and Huntsworth, had warned the market about their outlook as key clients cut multi-million-pound comms programmes.

The eurozone crisis and the possibility of a double-dip recession will leave clients and agencies cautious about hiring staff or handing out contracts.

'One of the biggest strategic issues for 2012 is how PR firms respond to the economic reality - do they cut costs and retrench, or do they diversify and innovate? For PR firms to remain relevant to their clients they need to focus on the latter, not the former,' says Edelman's Williams.

Diageo's Wright says businesses that operate primarily in the UK or mainland Europe will have a tough year.

Public sector comms will also see significant cuts as austerity programmes bite in most countries. 'Even if we don't experience a double-dip recession, times are tough and companies will be discerning about their spend,' he says.

On the bright side, this could also be a great opportunity for PR, if the industry can prove professional reputation management can improve the bottom line. 'There is continued growth in understanding of the need for professional reputation management,' says Wright. 'This will be driven by boards and by increasing evidence that reputation feeds through into business performance.'

Internal comms will also be a key part of companies' plans.

The London Stock Exchange's Brough says: 'Employee engagement will permeate 2012.'

The economy will also affect consumers and the wider context of comms campaigns.

Burson-Marsteller's Carter says that as the downturn comes back to bite everyone in 2012, the nation's healthy eating habits will decline.

'Sales will grow for brands that represent guilty pleasures, such as confectionery, alcohol and fast food, as we turn to comfort eating in these dark times. Conversely, premium products that have perceived health benefits will become non-essential items in the shopping basket - so areas such as organic food might be under threat,' he says.


- Proceed with caution. The possibility of a double-dip recession and the ongoing eurozone crisis will dent business confidence

- PROs will need to prove that professional reputation management can positively impact the bottom line

- The difficult times for public sector comms will continue.

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