Ten predictions for PR in the new millennium: Public relations is destined to be a major force in the new millennium, but it won’t be the same industry we know today. Steve Lilienthal takes a look at the future of PR

PR’s future is so bright it has to wear shades. But that doesn’t mean it won’t face many challenges in the new century - and millennium.

PR’s future is so bright it has to wear shades. But that doesn’t mean it won’t face many challenges in the new century - and millennium.

PR’s future is so bright it has to wear shades. But that doesn’t

mean it won’t face many challenges in the new century - and


Some of those challenges may come precisely because PR pros are so busy

today that they are ignoring what’s on the horizon. The profession will

change in ways that - a hundred years hence - will make today’s

practices unrecognizable to future pros.

PR’s immediate outlook is more than favorable. Strong annual growth in

the billings of PR firms (24% between 1997 and 1998) backs up that


So do the changes our society is experiencing because of the information

age. The tumult of the industrial age and the development of the mass

culture helped give rise to PR at the turn of the century. Now PR is

confronting the tensions developing as our society becomes what Larry

Weber, CEO and chairman of Weber Public Relations Worldwide, calls the

’communications economy.’

’Public relations was born in the last half of the 20th century and will

come of age in the new millennium,’ explains Ketchum CEO Dave


’What started out as a publicity function is an important business

discipline as we move into the new century.’

But change brings potential peril, too. Could other disciplines -

advertising, perhaps - grow at PR’s expense in this new era? This

remains a threat but seems unlikely. ’I’m bullish on PR,’ says Marian

Salzman, worldwide director of the Brand Futures Group for Young &

Rubicam, which owns Cohn & Wolfe and Burson-Marsteller. Advertising,

Salzman admits, is valuable at building recognition for products. But,

she adds, ’over time, what matters is building trust and rapport and

sustaining presence in the consumer’s mind. That’s PR.’

No wonder that PR agencies have been registering dynamic growth.

Corporate communicators, according to former AT&T VP for public

relations and employee information Ed Block, may have been diminished in

terms of downsizing, but certainly not in importance. ’Counseling will

remain influential with respect to policy making and core functions.’

And Bonnie Quintanilla, MD of MS&L Global Technology (Westlake Village,

CA), thinks that PR’s stature will only increase in the 21st century -

so much so that ’CEOs may very well come from a communications


But PR’s competitors - law, advertising and management-consulting

counsel - are also fighting for the CEO’s ear. These professionals will

be thinking about how to reposition their services to meet the

challenges of the communications society - and in the process change the

way PR pros go about their work.

’If public relations was difficult to define in the 20th century, it’ll

be damn near impossible in the next,’ says Robert Feldman, president and

CEO of GCI Group. ’The diffusion and explosion of information has such

an enormous impact on our business that the lines that distinguish what

we do versus many other professionals will continue to blur. That is why

so many people say that our future competition will come from other

disciplines, such as management consulting. That may be true, but this

is also why public relations has such a bright and growth-oriented

future ahead of it.’

Then there are the usual challenges. Naturally, maintaining high-quality

standards in personnel and service is one. Another is that the movement

toward integrated marketing could lead to PR becoming ’watered down’ as

it mixes with other disciplines. Could the boom in practice specialties

lead PR to splinter into multiple professions? And how will PR fare when

the economic indicators start trending downward?

’This is the time, when demand is high, to prove our worth,’ says Tara

Murray, a young PR pro with Boston-based Castle Group. PR has been

trying to do just that, but if its prestige is to continue to grow, bold

leadership will be needed. PR itself has the power to determine whether

its importance continues to increase in the new century at the same rate

it has been.

’We’re entering the golden age of public relations. The question is: Is

the profession ready to enter it?’ asks PRSA president and COO Ray


Well, ready or not, the future is arriving faster than instant


Here, we gaze into our crystal ball. Smart PR practitioners - in

agencies, corporations, nonprofits and government - must be prepared to

understand and act upon the 10 trends below that will define PR’s role

in this century.

1. Growth - The PR boom will continue

Demand for PR by both nonprofits and for-profits is increasing, and most

agency executives think there’s no stopping its explosive growth.

In terms of practices, growth areas will be in hi-tech, healthcare,

internal communications, investor relations, professional services and

public affairs (especially in state capitals). And growth will affect

the industry in another sense: merger mania will continue, if only

because the PR of the future will require more resources.

One of the most important reasons the industry will grow in the coming

century is the impending 24/7 news cycle. Thanks to the Internet, news

moves in seconds. A late afternoon story in Europe can send stock prices

plummeting in New York. Effective PR requires ceaseless monitoring of

chatrooms, stories on cable TV, even computer analyses of word patterns

in newspaper stories. ’Messages must be strategically planned and

consistently delivered across cultures and time zones,’ says Ketchum’s


This development will affect the staffing of PR agencies and corporate

communications departments. Clarke Caywood, chairman of Northwestern

University’s Department of Integrated Marketing Communications, says PR

will be ’problem solving from any time zone,’ with longer hours required

of professionals.

Even a second shift in agencies may take hold. Already, president and

CEO of Hill & Knowlton USA Tom Hoog says, flextime is not done just to

attract employees, but because PR must be ’attentive and vigilant’ in

protecting the interests of its clients and companies.

But growth will bring challenges, particularly as new technologies

reshuffle the communications environment. Jack Bergen, president of the

Council of Public Relations Firms, worries that PR might concentrate so

much on servicing its immediate demand that it may lose sight of the

future. Others worry that rapidly multiplying business opportunities

will be corrosive to the cultures and standards that permitted many PR

firms to flourish in the first place.

But even if an economic downturn occurs, veteran PR executive Dan

Edelman, chairman of Edelman Public Relations Worldwide, insists that PR

will keep doing well. ’PR starts from a much stronger base,’ he says.

’We’re way beyond where we’ve ever been.’

2. Globalism - As the world shrinks, PR’s importance will loom


Anders Gronstedt, author of the just-published book The Customer

Century, notes that, worldwide, ’consumer preferences are converging’

while media companies seek to expand their coverage globally and the

Internet creates worldwide communities.

’A global mind-set is fast becoming a prerequisite for public relations

professionals,’ says Ketchum CEO Dave Drobis. ’There are no longer

American companies, German companies, Japanese companies. Public

relations will keep pace with global organizations as we move towards a

world without communication borders.’

PR will also become more important in countries with developing markets,

such as Africa and China, where gaining trust and credibility will be

imperative. But a shrinking world can bring new problems in developing

countries as cultures and expectations between citizens and foreigners


In the US, PR needs to make sure its own practitioners shed their

provincialism and become more knowledgeable about the languages and

cultures of countries considered important by their clients and

companies. Culturally fluent staffing will be important, says Margery

Kraus, president and CEO of APCO in Washington, DC.

So will shaping effective, consistent messages and policies. MS&L’s

Quintanilla insists that from the outset messages have to be developed

with the world in mind, even if you are not global yet. ’Otherwise,’ she

says, ’you may establish barriers that will eventually have to be


3. Research - Research will improve - or PR will suffer the


Research used in PR must become more sophisticated if the profession is

to command greater importance in the decision-making process. PR has

largely confined research to marketing uses, but - as Ron Culp, SVP for

PR and governmental affairs at Sears, Roebuck & Co., stresses - it will

need to put increasing emphasis on uses for corporate needs. ’Five years

from now, we will probably need a research and measurement rationale

behind every major PR program,’ he predicts.

Also paramount is when the research gets done. Right now, there is a

demand for more evaluative measurements that prove PR’s value. That’s

good, says Steve Lombardo of New York-based StrategyOne. Nonetheless, he

sees an even greater need to do more front-end quantitative and

qualitative research on campaigns. ’PR professionals have good gut

instincts, but should be willing to test more’ in the manner of

political campaigns when they evaluate their communications strategies


The more that research gets done up front, the more PR can assert its

ability to shape an effective strategy for a company or client.

Increasingly, the Internet will be used for surveys, but its potential

has yet to be recognized.

4. Education - The importance of PR education will finally be


Preparation will improve as PR education strives to give aspiring

practitioners sharper strategic skills. Look for more emphasis on

combining PR studies with liberal arts, which is considered invaluable

at enhancing critical thinking skills. And thanks to globalization,

professionals who are skilled in foreign languages will be highly sought


Tomorrow’s PR practitioners will need to be better versed in business,

says Northwestern’s Caywood. ’What managers learned in college a decade

ago will now be in fast-track training programs, and what is taught in

the graduate programs will be taught to undergraduates. Graduates will

be learning topics and practicing strategies at the doctoral and

advanced practice and policy level.’ The PR students of the future, he

adds, will need to better understand ’qualitative and quantitative

business knowledge.’

Ketchum’s John Paluszek, who co-chaired the Commission on Public

Relations Education, predicts that ’there will be a university-based

school of public relations, maybe several,’ as academic institutions

start recognizing the increasing importance of PR.

5. Recruitment - PR pros will increasingly come from other


Demand will grow for PR professionals who are knowledgeable about the

businesses of their clients. As greater emphasis is being placed on

specialized knowledge, PR execs see more talent coming from places other

than the PR classroom and the newsroom. This kind of knowledge will

continue to be important.

One agency exec in the technology sector asserts that the learning curve

is steeper for a communications professional to learn technology than

for an engineer to learn communications. Agencies are bringing on board

nurses, lawyers, academics versed in the social sciences, even


MBAs from top schools are highly prized, but demand a high price.

Yet, the Council’s Jack Bergen thinks the trend needs an even greater

push. So the group is working on a test that agencies can give to

mid-career professionals in non-traditional areas to see how well they

can adapt to PR. As the trend accelerates, expect more online and

tailored training courses to be used by companies and agencies to train

mid-career switchers.

As for retention. the profession that helps other industries adjust to

changes will undergo its own metamorphosis in terms of corporate


Rank and title will mean less. Younger professionals more conversant

with the Internet will continue to quickly climb the agency ladders.

High turnover will be a problem, but may be alleviated through ’job

sculpting’ - permitting employees to create jobs according to their


Ethnic diversity will also be a big factor, if only because minorities

in the US will become a majority in the next century. And, because women

have flooded the profession in the past couple of decades, they will

move increasingly into leadership positions. ’The glass ceiling is

shattering and the hinges of the doors to the executive suite are coming

off,’ says Betty Keepin, principal of Keepin Touch Marketing

Communications and president of Women Executives in Public Relations,

both based in New York.

These trends will become pronounced as agencies and companies finally

give more than lip service to the notion that their talent is their

greatest asset.

6. Technology - PR will embrace technology to transform itself

PR will need to bolster its offering of creative services and develop

innovative ways to reach constituencies empowered by the mouse. Visual

annual reports, interactive corporate newsletters, in-house Web channels

and virtual reality tours are all coming attractions. If PR doesn’t move

decisively to bolster its creativity, then advertising and other

industries are waiting in the wings.

The Internet, of course, will be the most important technological


The Internet delivers customized communications, vesting users with

great power. PR will continue to communicate through third parties, but,

the Council’s Bergen predicts, PR will place a larger premium on

creative products such as Web pages and ’move into traditional areas

thought of as advertising and direct marketing.’

What will set PR apart from those disciplines? Simply put, the Internet

allows for direct challenges to ’controlled’ messages, and PR

understands the need to establish credibility through dialog. ’PR should

benefit from its reputation for establishing trust and credibility,’

asserts Bergen.

Also, the Internet communicates to many different audiences, something

that PR does now, in contrast to advertising, whose prowess relies upon

mass audiences.

’Just as network TV built the advertising business, the Internet

technology has the capacity to dramatically build the PR business,’ says

PRSA prexy Ray Gaulke.

7. Tactics - Tactics will be used to target narrower audiences

PR tactics will become more sophisticated, placing more emphasis on

exerting leverage. PR’s playbook is moving beyond the standard press

release. MS&L’s Quintanilla foresees the day of the ’paperless

campaign.’ More targeting of information will be directed to relevant

constituencies through e-mails and Web pages. But the changes will be

deeper because, as PR counselor Pat Jackson of Jackson, Jackson & Wagner

in Exeter, NH points out, ’Information does not drive behavior. Peer

groups do.’

More emphasis will be placed on reaching small, selective key publics

that can influence larger audiences. Such thinking leads Anders

Gronstedt, author of The Customer Century, to assert that the

’counterintuitive’ result of the hi-tech revolution will be the

development of ’high-touch communication’ that depends more on

establishing personal relationships with key constituencies.

Viral marketing through e-mail is a coming trend.

8. Strategic Counsel - PR’s strategic counsel will become more important

to the corporation

PR will have more of a role in decision-making - if it earns it.

The strategic component will continue to be more important provided that

PR makes the necessary effort to ensure that its executives become

better versed in management. The real question, says ex-AT&T executive

Block, is which and how many tables PR should have a seat at.

CEOs are, of course, still very important to the overall image of the

corporation. But more decisions are made in the individual business

units, requiring a detailed knowledge of specific businesses. ’You need

competent, aggressive PR executives all over the place, not just outside

the CEO’s door,’ Block says. All too often, the corporate legal counsel

ends up filling the counseling role that should be the PR pro’s


Many corporate PR executives see themselves more as ’communicators’ or

tacticians who react instinctively to situations.

The real challenge will be to gain the stronger understanding of the

company and its objectives, research methodologies and markets. All are

make-or-break factors in determining whether or not PR’s efforts


9. Ethics - Many will call for stringent codes - but others will


PR must pay more than lip service to ethics, if only because an aroused,

technologically savvy and globalized activist community will be blowing

the whistle on its activities. Frank Vogl of Vogl Communications in

Washington, DC, says global companies will find stronger attention to

ethics is not only right but can help distinguish them in the

marketplace. Scandals can send a company’s stock price and employee

morale into free-fall, not to mention damage its reputation.

Corporate PR heads, says Vogl, should realize they need to take it upon

themselves to become chief ethics officers. Too many seem comfortable in

the niche of corporate communicator, meaning ’spinner.’ Also, talk - but

only that - is still heard about licensing PR practitioners. Investor

relations itself may become one area that faces demands for stricter

accountability by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Some see the need for stronger stands within the industry itself. ’In

the next century, public relations will become so important that some

kind of periodic credentialing will be necessary,’ Ketchum’s Paluszek

predicts. ’That’s where the leverage for enforcement of an ethical code

will reside.’

But many PR practitioners say no strict regulation is desired, arguing

that the marketplace polices itself best and worrying that licensing or

excessive regulation will only curb creativity.

10. The Reputation of PR - Top corporate CEOs will continue to recognize

PR’s value

Reputation matters, and CEOs are learning that PR is all about


Every CEO of companies with dollars 1 billion or more in revenue who

responded to a recent PRWeek/Burson-Marsteller CEO survey agreed PR

would become even more important during the next five years. Indeed, the

survey showed that the larger the company, the more likely the CEO will

depend on the PR counselor when that company’s reputation is


Now, consider how advertising fared in a recent poll sponsored by the

American Advertising Federation (AAF). Only 43% of top executives

believed advertising would become more important in a ’rapidly changing’


The AAF also learned that top execs rank PR ahead of advertising when it

comes to assigning strategic importance in meeting both sales and

marketing goals.

’PR is driving the e-commerce boom and will continue to be perceived as

a critical component to creating buzz and differentiating a company,’

says Steve Cody, managing partner at PepperCom. ’CEOs are increasingly

seeing PR as a more credible, cost-effective approach than traditional


Adds Ketchum’s Drobis: ’Communications is becoming a major asset that

will become part of a company’s intellectual capital and in the 21st

century will be valued as a financial asset. This will give more value

to the profession.’

But Sears PR exec Culp cautions that PR cannot will itself to the front

seat in a boardroom - it can only earn it. More attention must be given

to enhancing the skills of promising PR execs.

And the profession will only gain that respect if it learns to do what

it does for others: promote itself. ’PR people have to learn how to

promote themselves better - to talk aggressively and positively about

what they do,’ says the PRSA’s Gaulke. ’Advertising people oversell

their business. PR people by nature undersell.’

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