Editor's choice: Time to set sail for 2015

PRWeek US editor-in-chief Steve Barrett predicts the big issues that will dominate the PR and communications agenda next year - with absolutely no mention of "PR gaffes" and "spin."

As another year draws to a close and the prospect of 2015 looms large, it’s time to take a measured look into the crystal ball and get a sense of what’s in store for PR pros and communications marketers over the next 12 months.

Here you will find no mention of wearables, the internet of things, big data/small data/medium data, and PR gaffes. I’ll look forward rather than back and I’ll leave the latter tendency to The New York Times and other national media outlets.

I did actually mention this last year, but it has now risen right to the top of the agenda for every company, government, and organization. The extraordinary saga around the hacking of Sony at the end of 2014 that led to its controversial film about North Korean president Kim Jong-un - The Interview - being pulled truly was the zenith of a year when hacking was omnipresent.

Sony had great tranches of its internal correspondence brought into the public domain (with more potentially to follow). Elsewhere, celebrities had their private photos and videos exposed and more retailers, including Staples and Home Depot, suffered breaches in their payment data systems. There also 61,000 cyber attacks and security breaches across the federal government last year, according to a recent report.

If the Sony debacle taught us anything, it was a reminder of the old adage about never writing anything in an email that you wouldn’t be embarrassed by if its contents were seen by the subject of the email or a wider audience. That’s something Sony executive Amy Pascal will no doubt reflect upon to her dying day.

Despite tens of millions of card users being affected and the clear-up operation costing tens of millions of dollars, Home Depot seems to have emerged relatively unscathed from the hack, especially compared to Target’s experience.

Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel fell on his sword after a massive data breach that derailed the retailer’s holiday sales in 2013 and was seen as a final straw for his troubled tenure in the top spot. The narrative around the beleaguered retailer only started improving when CMO Jeff Jones published a confessional and mea culpa piece on the LinkedIn influencer platform called The Truth Hurts that was authentic and transparent.

Conversely, Home Depot communicated much better and more directly with its customers from the start and the breach turned out to be a distraction rather than a disaster, with stakeholders believing more in the brand’s overall strategy and strength.

For its part, Sony can hardly say it wasn’t warned: its PlayStation network has been repeatedly hacked over the last three years. Clearly it didn’t learn any lessons.

The bottom line is that more and more hacks, data breaches, and security crises are going to happen – and every single company, brand, and organization must have a disaster plan in place and a clear strategy for communicating around it.

The Brits are coming
On a totally separate note, watch out for the increasing influence of the British contingent on the PR agency sector in 2015. The advertising, media, and digital agency communities in the US have long been infested with Brits, but PR has largely remained unscathed – until now.

Longstanding US-based English PR and comms exec Paul Newman took over as North America president at MSLGroup at the end of March. He is soon to be joined in the US by Stuart Smith, who took over as global CEO of Ogilvy PR in September. Smith is leaving London and crossing the Atlantic in January to base himself out of the US.

The third Brit to make an impending arrival in the US is Golin’s international president Matt Neale, who was promoted in October to take up joint management of the Interpublic firm’s New York office and lands in the Big Apple in January.

Another Brit, APCO’s Brad Staples, was recently promoted to CEO of the Margery Kraus-founded agency. He will remain based in London but will spend a lot of time in the US.

Add this to the Dutch presence of Karen van Bergen at the helm of Omnicom’s Porter Novelli, and rarely can there have been more of a European influence on the US PR agency sector. The non-US theme continues at Hill + Knowlton Strategies, where 30-year agency veteran Mike Coates moved down from Canada this year to become president and CEO of the Americas region for the WPP shop.

I’m not sure what it all means, but I will certainly be interested to see how my fellow Brits fare in their high-profile new senior roles.

The Chinese are also coming
Also in agency-land, Oscar Zhao’s rapidly growing BlueFocus operation is really starting to move beyond its home territory of China and flex its global muscles, most recently with the impending acquisition of Citizen Relations parent Vision7.

The Daryl McCullough-helmed Citizen Relations is best known for its work with Procter & Gamble brands, and its increased presence in Asia is unlikely to harm its prospects of expanding that business.

BlueFocus has already acquired innovative digital firm We Are Social and taken a near-20% stake in Grayling owner Huntsworth. It is clearly on an aggressive global growth path, and expect more deals to be forthcoming in 2015, not least the possibility of it expanding its stake in Huntsworth.

Japanese holding company giant Dentsu has been pretty quiet since it made its US PR play last year by acquiring Mitchell Communications. It will be interesting to see how it responds to the growing presence of its Asian counterpart BlueFocus.

Agency consolidation
The biggest deal in agency history may have fallen apart when Omnicom and Publicis finally conceded defeat in its attempts to merge, but BlueFocus wasn’t the only agency to be busy in the US on the acquisition front.

Other high-profile deals in 2014 included ICF International acquiring integrated firm Olson, including its PR arm Olson Engage; MDC Partners re-entered the fray by buying Hunter Public Relations; MSLGroup beefed up its DC presence by annexing Qorvis; and Next Fifteen Communications Group bought content shop Story Worldwide and research firm Morar Consulting.

I see no signs of this rush of consolidation diminishing in 2015, despite Richard Edelman saying his eponymous firm was "at capacity" in the US. I’ll be looking particularly closely at what happens to Jim Weiss’s W2O Group and even previously resolutely independent shops such as Coyne PR.

Another trend in 2015 will be the beginning of the race to the White House 2016, with candidates making their intentions known. The Hillary Clinton announcement will be one of the most-scrutinized in history. This will certainly have an impact on public affairs spends and agencies that specialize in political advertising, such as FleishmanHillard and Weber Shandwick, will start to see these billings rolling back in.

Merging of marketing and communications
The trend for communications functions to be folded into or under the marketing department is one we have talked about consistently over the past two years.

The latest company to restructure in this way is Prudential Financial, with the impending retirement of comms veteran Bob DeFillippo prompting the financial services giant to reorganize its comms function under Colin McConnell, current head of advertising who takes on the new role of chief brand officer.

McConnell will oversee global brand identity, PR, domestic brand marketing and advertising, employee communications, and executive event planning.

Somewhat ironically, DeFillippo, whose 20-year career as CCO at the Pru spanned momentous occurrences such as the company going public, the financial crisis, and entry into China, was a vocal detractor of the trend toward merging communications and marketing functions, telling PRWeek only last year: "It sets up a situation where important opportunities will be missed that can only be obtained through earned media and objective reporting – not through marketing, sponsored, or branded content."

Time will tell whether global communications will retain its important role under McConnell’s stewardship. Another company to make this shift in 2014 was IT specialist CSC, where Gary Stockman took over as global chief marketing and communications officer in June, reporting directly to CEO Mike Lawrie. The difference there was that Stockman has a solid comms background on the agency side, as former CEO of Porter Novelli.

Again, expect more of this trend in 2015.

Oil prices are plummeting and the US is becoming more energy self-sufficient. These two facts pertaining to the biggest industry in the world have the potential to shift the tectonic plates of much more than the global business community, but they will certainly provide copious opportunities for those entrusted with defining the narratives of companies, regions, industries, and governments invested in the issues.

PRWeek will pick up on this topic with its inaugural Global Energy Roundtable, taking place in New York City in April.

Every year produces lightning rod companies that define a particular time and place – and no business better represented this trend in 2014 than car service Uber.

The controversial app-based ride service faced numerous reputational and communications challenges this year, ranging from license to operate in certain cites, to rider safety, to accusations of arrogance and mistreatment of drivers, to an unfortunate own goal when Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith reported on ill-advised comments about privacy made by an Uber exec at a dinner in NYC.

Throughout all this the company’s value continued to skyrocket and its confidence remained seemingly unaffected. We will see whether this continues in 2015 and whether the ride service heeds suggestions that it should learn some humility in its dealings with the outside world. I somehow doubt whether it will.

The New York Times
As I write this, I believe it is the last day in post for The Times’ longstanding and veteran advertising industry columnist Stuart Elliott. Elliott took a buyout, along with about 80 of his colleagues at the paper of record, including TV reporter Bill Carter and media reporter Christine Haughney.

Elliott was never the greatest of friends to the PR industry, and one of his last missives on the subject was a takedown of the Council of PR Firms’ rebranding as The PR Council, which he characterized as "spin specialists… hoping to do some spinning on their own behalf."

The Times is apparently doing away with Elliott’s advertising column. It remains to be seen whether this is a pure cost-cutting measure and that coverage of marketing and communications in the world’s leading newspaper brand will reduce considerably, or whether it will come back with a more nuanced and forward-looking way of covering the sector that isn’t totally predicated on the preeminence of paid media and advertising.

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