Ready for anything: After a volatile 2019, PR pros brace for 2020

The presidential election is only the tip of the iceberg.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

What will shock communications professionals in 2020? Burger King CMO Fernando Machado jokes that you don’t have to look far to come up with something, or rather someone: "A tweet from Mr. President. Actually, many of them," quips Machado.  

President Donald Trump’s shock-and-awe approach to communications is at least a known quantity, even if most people have no idea what he might tweet next. 

"Really?" says Kelly Williamson, APCO Worldwide North American president, when asked what might surprise the PR profession in 2020. "I feel like this past year has prepared us for the volatility that is certain to come our way." 

Joe Cohen, chief communications officer at Axis, predicts that "2020 will be the year of continued social, political, technological and economic disruption." 

"The impact on our profession should include increased investment in change management and transformation initiatives, crisis preparedness and issues management, and communication technology," he adds. 

How else to prepare? Experts say the industry should have a few things on its radar, such as increased government intervention into corporate governance. California passed a bill last year requiring all publicly traded companies to have at least one woman on their board of directors by the end of 2019 and three by 2021. The state’s senate also passed bills to promote gender, racial and ethnic diversity on boards. 

There have also been more calls for boards of directors to declare a "statement of purpose" for how their company is helping society and combining purpose and profits. 

"Given recent congressional and regulatory moves, it’s highly likely that through environmental, social and governance, reporting of social purpose may be statutory sooner rather than later," predicts Catherine Hernandez-Blades, SVP and chief ESG and communications officer at Aflac.

Closing the decade on data overkill
Over the past 10 years, there’s been a buzz in seemingly every industry about AI and big data. However, Hernandez-Blades is hoping for a departure from those terms. 

"We’ve been very counterintuitive in the digital space, leveraging AI to create ‘real’ human relationships. Next year, we need to leverage the digital world differently, thinking about distribution in the same way we think about content. Both need to be king," she says. "It won’t even necessarily be about the platforms any more. It will be about the bots and their ability to take positive content and through digital activation distribute it in ways that stakeholders and aggregators can be reached."

Others predict a role reversal, with a focus on building authentic person-to-person interactions first and data to support the use of the delivery mechanism. 

"Everyone talks about AI and being data-driven, but I think we’ll be surprised how effective good old human-to-human marketing will be in a year like this," says Julie Batliner, president of Carmichael Lynch Relate. "There’s an opportunity to double-down on customer experiences, emotional storytelling and recognize the blurred line between employees and advocates." 

Tom Piechura, president of the entertainment marketing division on the East Coast at 42West, agrees.

"In the aftermath of a data-and-detachment-driven decade, I foresee a return to the roots of personal communication," he says. "The most successful marketers and PR practitioners will limit the extent they cast messages into the digital void and instead focus on initiating conversations, establishing real-time connections and sharing stories to foster long-range client and consumers’ relationships." 

Election surprise watch
Campaign 2020 will undoubtedly be noisy, but how much will it affect brands?

Machado expects to see "brands getting even more political around the election."

Batliner counters that "some brands will hunker down" in the fatigue and volatility of political news, while others "will retreat to respite from the negative environment and lean into their purpose or more entertainment-type content." 

Given the surprise result in 2016, no one will be shocked on election night 2020. However, Zeno Group CEO Barby Siegel does expect a disturbing development linked to PR that many might not see coming, given how much the sector in question has already retracted. 

She says the biggest shock of 2020 will be the "continued demise of media and loss of journalism jobs as the instability of their business models intensifies."

This comes, Siegel adds, "at a time when the public needs truthful and objective news reporting." 

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