Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Future of Public Relations

This week I was asked about the future of public relations and what were the issues we face.

I think that the evidence now accumulating in Neuroscience is going to be critical to the future of all relationship, social value, reputation and communications disciplines. The ability to 'look into' the brain to see its responses to personal, social and other stimuli is advancing so fast that we can test theory really quickly.

This has implications on Public Relations practice too. Over the years I have heard many wacky theories about how and why PR should work this way or that and how and why marketing or media or politics or lobbying or all sorts of things is the practice and only legitimate practice of Public Relations. Enter neuropsychology and we can see quite clearly the isms, fashions, the silly concepts and we can test claims of practitioners and academics alike.

This is going to be hard for many practitioners and not a few academics and researchers.

The first future issue is that our clients now have the tools to see through ill conceived theory, programmes and ideas in practice. This is evaluation of a new kind and it is red in tooth and claw.

The second big issue is the evolution of social media. This time I do not mean blogs, wiki's, 'New Media' as seen today but the truly interactive channels that will emerge for the population brought up with Xbox and Playstation. This generation is practised at interactivity using a wider range of communications such as visual and physical interactions as well as words and sounds. It expects rich media and the Internet is now getting faster and available as is the mobile media as well. These two convergent developments mean that multi-touch, multi-sensory communication (including the use of gaming technology to provide a 'physical' presence for the disabled) is upon us and will be part of the communications mix to be used by our students as practitioners in the next decade (or less).

Ethics, once a soft subject now has a hard edge. We can see exactly how a lack of ethical practice can be commercially damaging in real time and at a personal level. We are now also beginning to understand the relationship between wealthreputation.

The link between PR and Marketing is broken and now there is some doubt about the future of marketing itself. Nearly all its basic tenets are under pressure. Even the tenuous attempts to to see marketing with a supply chain rolefalling off the edge the old world.

The nature of the practice of public relations has to be based on a firmer footing. I believe that we have to invest in understanding the practice of relationship management. The CIPR research into size of the industry was a classic of how not to see PR. A large part of practice evidenced in their research showed that events management is a big part of the industry's activity but they just did not take the thinking to its logical end. Much of the practice of PR is well beyond the narrow thinking and narrow mindedness of a practice that has had its day (mostly press relations). If the rump of 'old PR' continues to be taught and practised as it is today, there will be no PR in ten years time. The world will have moved on and the PR institutions will continue to be 'old boys clubs'.

The critical issue is the time-scale for these developments to become mainstream for PR practitioners and the speed at which the traditional practices are usurped which requires changes in teaching as well as practice.

Lets take traditional press relations as an example and explain why I think press relations as taught and, for many, practised is now dramatically changed. The many pressures that drive the news agenda can now be mapped. Google News is no longer the only means by which media stories are disintermediated by computers. The outputs can be summarised, the story can be re-purposed and the content can be 'mashed' with other content and all of this is done by machine. This means that original content is very valuable and thereafter its application can go in many directions. We no longer write for the 'press' we write for the mashed media, a multi 'stakeholder' environment. So, we have to think of the press release as an original document that can (and probably will) be used in many ways, by many people and machines and that instead of writing for the press, we are writing for 'the media'. Press relations as we know it is dead. I guess this happened without us really knowing it in the last three years! LeedsMet, where I have my affiliations, as with other Universities has to grasp what has happened. The change is no longer in the future.

And then there is the notion that an organisation is not the 'nexus of contracts' (Coarse) or 'nexus of conversations' (Sonsino) but is the nexus of relationshipsless hard bounded than we tend to teach our business studies students and MBA's. I do not see the Business Schools going down this route. Too many vested interests are involved not least the notion of Stakeholder Relations which is not well understood. But I do see management practice evolving because of these changes. In a cultural economy where globalisation is no longer a wide eyed surprise, a lot has to change.

Things like PR evaluation have to grow up. Media relations can only be valued in terms of the number of communications domains reached (see social media above) and so is now not about counting clips or the reach/readership of a newspaper because the reach of the media is now dictated by the extent that it is 'pulled' by readers and referenced by commentators across a vast array of, mostly electronic, media (I thought that there was an exception in consumer media and now discover it is going the same way as B2B publishing). In other evaluation areas, I am not sure that ROI (return on discounted cash flow) has a role in PR especially as we now can see the effects of our actions at the level of a neuron in the minds of our co-conversationalists in a practice evolving round relationships.
and (disintermediated manurfacture, disintermediated distribution, dissintermedated markets) is under pressure as we move from a information to a networked and progressively to a cultural economy. Advertising as we have known it for the last generations seems to be and is much

PR has to change and the clock is ticking faster than most believe.

Picture: Virtual space for learning and collaboration