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5 Trends That Will Shape the Future of PR 

June 2024

5 Trends That Will Shape the Future of PR 
Written by Randall Kirsch, Partner, Jackson Spalding & Andrew Cross, Co-CEO, Walker Sands

Your two co-authors had the pleasure of presenting together on this topic at the annual global meeting of PROI Worldwide, a partnership of 88 independent agencies in 65 countries around the world. Randall Kirsch moderated the panel, while Andrew Cross served as a panelist alongside our PROI colleagues Laura Minskere, CEO of Mediju Tilts in Latvia and Kristina Laco, co-founder of The Communications Office in Croatia.

Here are the key takeaways from the hour-long discussion on the future of PR, boiled down into three guiding principles for coping with each trend. 

Trend 1: A World Without Truth

How can brands earn trust if nobody can believe anything they read, hear or see? 

What’s Happening 

  • Rhetoric, especially the political kind, is intensifying and increasingly unrestrained by facts.  
  • Subject-matter expertise is not as trusted as it once was, and among growing numbers, especially on the political right, it is often mistrusted
  • Sophisticated and coordinated campaigns of misinformation and disinformation have become the norm – keeping us all guessing at what’s true even when facts from credible sources are readily available.  
  • The rise of AI is adding fuel, accelerating the production of credible-looking but inaccurate content and empowering almost anyone to drive false narratives and content at scale. Meanwhile, AI-powered deepfakes are getting so realistic that we must now question even what we see with our own eyes. 

3 Guiding Principles 

  1. Be Consistent – A simple key to trust-building: make sure your words and actions match over time. Every match is a small step toward trust. Every mismatch is a big step toward mistrust. 
  1. Be Transparent – In a world where distrust is the default and institutions are viewed with skepticism or even suspicion, the expectation is that you’ve got something to hide. Show them you don’t, every way you can. 
  1. Prepare for “Factfighting” – Should your organization ever become the subject of a disinformation campaign, your past trust-building investments will matter a lot. Here you turn up the transparency even further – be “boringly transparent.” Don’t try to persuade at first. Just be a fountain of facts. Until emotions cool down, the facts need to speak for themselves.

Trend 2: Polarized Politics

When nearly everything gets politicized, how can brands stay above the fray? 

What’s Happening 

  • Debate has shifted from the political to the personal. “Good idea vs. bad idea” policy debates have become “good people vs. bad people” identity politics, with fear-based rhetoric becoming more and more commonplace.
  • What you buy is who you are (politically). The right and left, and the political parties that represent them, have vast incentives to position everything, from the car you drive to the beer you drink, as a reflection of your political identity, always limited to a binary choice: “Are you with us or against us?” 
  • Brands – and sometimes entire categories – are becoming politicized, raising the question: will brands be forced to become “red brands” or “blue brands,” effectively cutting their addressable markets in half? 

3 Guiding Principles 

Some brands are more likely to become political footballs than others, but every organization is at risk and should be thinking ahead about two things: 1) how to avoid it altogether, and 2) how to navigate it if it happens. A simple framework emerged from the panel discussion: 

  1. Honor your principles – When deciding what stance to take, or whether to take a stance at all, start with your organization’s purpose, mission and values. If your core principles call on you to take a position, consider it. If not, don’t. But be warned: deviate from your core principles and your risk of inauthenticity and inconsistency skyrockets. 
  1. Honor the people you serve – Is the issue at hand something that directly impacts most of your customers or employees? If not, you should not feel compelled to speak up on a contentious issue. If so, you should at least consider communicating, at which point the decision is more about whether you communicate directly to these audiences or more publicly. 
  1. Honor the nuance of the issue – Politicization relies on oversimplification. Resist the urge to oversimplify the context, even as you seek to keep your message crisp. There’s a big difference between simple messaging and simple thinking. 

Trend 3: Labor vs. Capital

A shift is underway. Tensions are rising. What does it mean for corp comms? 

What’s Happening 

  • Tight labor markets have shifted the balance of power toward employees. As the labor market cools, this balance will shift back toward employers, but some of the expectations birthed by the “war for talent” aren’t going away. 
  • Organized labor is making a comeback. In 2023 there was a 280% rise in major labor strikes globally. The U.S. alone had 33 major labor strikes in 2023.  
  • Talent is demanding more from employers than ever before. From shorter workweeks to longer parental leaves to robust mental-health supports, employers have never been held more responsible for employee well-being inside and outside the workplace. 

3 Guiding Principles 

  1. Build your employer brand – Consumers and customers are no longer the only target for brand-building. In a tight talent market with rapidly changing employee expectations, your employer brand matters just as much. If you can’t answer the following two questions very clearly for every employee and prospective employee every day, you’ve got work to do.  
    • Why should I work for you? How does it help me, beyond just a paycheck? How does it help the world? 
    • Why should I work for you? What makes your organization different, and how does that translate into an experience I can’t get anywhere else? 
  1. Prioritize employee well-being – We’re not talking about lip service or performative acts of care, but thoughtful, strategic programs to address your workforce’s most important needs (grounded in qualitative and quantitative data) with clear recruitment and retention KPIs. 
  1. Make sustainable commitments – Remember that the best thing you can do for your people is to stay in business so they can keep their jobs. This means you must prioritize investments in your people that can be maintained over the long haul and communicate those priorities consistently.   

Trend 4: Infinite Media 

How do media fragmentation and shrinking audiences change how PR works? 

What’s Happening 

  • A profound shift away from traditional media, even for news, is well underway. 
  • Audiences are scattered across more channels as sources of news, entertainment and information multiply and specialize. 
  • Reaching large audiences through PR campaigns is harder without a much more diverse mix of earned and paid channels, which often requires different communications skillsets and yes, more resources.  

3 Guiding Principles 

  1. Differentiate between “prestige” placements and real reach – Many traditional media outlets have retained their prestige, even as their audience sizes have shrunk. Two implications here:
    • PR planners need to think more like media planners, considering a wide variety of target publishers, channels and media formats if they want to achieve the same total audience reach through earned media.
    • Never let a prestige placement be published only once. Be prepared to amplify and republish it through paid advertising, social and owned channels, all of which can generate significant additional reach, sometimes more than the original coverage. 
  1. Adopt the full PESO model of PR – The idea that “modern” PR needs to work across paid, earned, social and owned channels is more than a decade old at this point. Yet very few enterprises or corporate PR/communications functions are structured to support this model. It’s now essential, so your communications team needs to: 
    • Develop effective models of collaboration with your marketing counterparts (who typically own paid media and may control your company’s social presence, website and other owned channels, too).  
    • At a minimum, carve out clear swim lanes that allow your team to work across PESO channels without competing or conflicting with your marketing teams. 
  1. Don’t forget the search engine implications – The audience you reach with your outbound PR efforts isn’t the whole audience you can reach. The bigger the digital footprint created by your PESO PR efforts, the more likely it is that future audiences will find your company and content via search. 

Trend 5: Tech-Enabled PR

Technology is transforming the way PR work gets done. How to keep up? 

What’s Happening 

  • AI is changing the way PR campaigns are designed and executed by accelerating research, automating routine tasks, hyper-personalizing media communications, and much more. 
  • Costly technology subscriptions are becoming a requirement. On top of journalist databases, media-monitoring services and social-listening platforms, all of which are evolving fast, multi-channel analytics platforms are becoming a standard part of a PR shop’s analytics tech stack, while subscription AI tools proliferate and add even more costs to PR workflows. 

3 Guiding Principles 

  1. Establish an AI Leadership Team – Jackson Spalding calls theirs the “AI Council.” Some agencies dedicate senior roles exclusively to AI R&D and adoption. One watchout: in such a fast-changing space, don’t overcentralize your AI knowledge and curiosity. There is great benefit to widespread exploration and experimentation with new tools, so encourage everyone to experiment while leaving your core AI team in charge of AI policy, planning, investment decisions, trend-watching and thought leadership.  
  1. Create “rules of investment” – Like rules of engagement, agencies and corporate teams need to develop investment criteria to guide any specific technology decision (not just AI). Depending on the size of your agency or team, consider centralizing management of all PR technology tools and subscriptions. If you leave them siloed, costs can add up quietly and outstrip their value. 
  1. Distribute the knowledge burden carefully – PR pros are being asked to develop much wider domain expertise in general, so adding the knowledge burden of proficiency across multiple tech tools can be too much. There’s not a one-size-fits-all rule here, but generally, you’ll want to identify three classes of user for any technology in your arsenal to capitalize on the benefits while managing the risks: superusers (know it best, train others), heavy users (bring the tool’s advanced benefits to more workstreams and teams) and light users (often where the real value to the organization lies, simply because there are so many more of them). 

These are just five public relations trends shaping the communications landscape, and there are many more of course, but hopefully this article provides both philosophical and practical guidance you can use to develop effective PR strategies in a world that’s changing fast. 

Are you trying to navigate one or more of these trends? At Jackson Spalding, we are here to help guide you through each in a professional way. Contact us so we can discuss your needs.