The Most Important Trends Impacting the Future of Public Relations

Digital storytelling will be the most important communication trend affecting public relations in the next 5 years, according to those who probably should know best: public relations professionals. In its Global Communications Report 2017 [pdf], the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism also found that social listening is a key trend likely to impact the future of PR.

These were also cited as the most important communications trends by marketers responding to an accompanying survey. Indeed, storytelling has been dubbed one of marketers’ top priorities in recent years, while social listening is a critical tool for many marketers today.

There are some differences in opinions between PR and marketer respondents: the former tend to ascribe more future impact to big data and behavioral research, while the latter see more influence arising from real-time marketing and branded content.

Both tend to agree, interestingly enough, that emerging technologies such as AI and virtual reality are fairly low on the totem pole of important trends over the next 5 years. Curiously, fake news also appeared towards the bottom of the rankings, despite a fair amount of buzz. Perhaps respondents see this as being effectively tackled in the next 5 years?

Encouragingly, PR students also surveyed for the report largely have interest in these topics, with the largest proportions pointing to digital storytelling and branded content (72% each) as areas of interest. Social purpose (63%) is also a keen area of interest, as are influencer marketing (63%), behavioral research (57%) and social listening (57%).

But while preparedness to deal with fake news and Donald Trump generally matches interest in those topics, students feel woefully underprepared to take on AI and virtual reality, at least relative to their interest levels.

PR to Tackle Media Buying?

Although marketers felt more strongly about the importance of influencer marketing and branded content, they were also cited as influential trends by at least 6 in 10 PR professionals responding to the survey. As marketers evolve towards more paid channels – such as those – the survey’s authors feel that PR’s “opportunity is to move aggressively into paid content” which will “require PR professionals to master media buying.”

Indeed, agency respondents feel that a much smaller share of their revenues in 5 years will come from earned media than does today, instead being picked up by paid, shared and owned media. In-house professionals also feel that budget shares allocated towards earned media will decline over the next 5 years, with shared picking up the slack.

Does the Term “Public Relations” Have Much Meaning?

With that in mind, public relations students might end up calling their chosen professions something different by the time they graduate, per the results of the study. Indeed, 87% of public relations professionals believe that the term “Public Relations” will not describe the work they will do in 5 years’ time – mostly believing that it will need to be defined more broadly.

Notably, the public seems to have an understanding of PR. In a consumer survey conducted last year, The Harris Poll found that while few consumers have an understanding of marketing terms such as content marketing and native advertising, most are familiar with public relations.

The consumer of the future, according to a majority of PR professionals, won’t distinguish between paid and earned media. As the study notes, “the answer to that debate has profound ramifications for everyone.”

About the Data: The results of the study are based on three separate surveys. There were 875 public relations professionals surveyed (63% agency, 37% in-house), 101 marketers surveyed by the ANA, and 687 PR students surveyed (78% undergraduates, 22% graduates/post-graduates).