The annual Reginald Watts Prize for Insight saw PR and communications practitioners aged 25 and under enter essays of up to 1,000 words, responding to the following brief: ‘How is today the best or worst of times for public relations and communications?’ Below is one of the shortlisted essays:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…
Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities opens with the above lines – which are probably some of the most famous of the entire English literary canon. Dickens’ use of anaphora sets up the central conceit of his novel: that good and evil, wisdom and folly, lightness and darkness, hope and despair, are all equally present. In much the same way, it is both the best of times and the worst of times for public relations.
There can be no denying the serious challenges facing the industry at present: the CIPR’s 2019 ‘State of the Profession’ report listed the following challenges as most serious (ranked from most – least):
1. Changing social and digital landscape
2. Under-representation of public relations practitioners at board level
3. Not being seen as a professional discipline
4. An expanding skill set required of professionals
5. Convergence with other disciplines
6. Unethical public relations practice
7. Emergence of fake news
8. Lack of analytical skills
9. Lack of diversity amongst PR professionals
10. A lack of collective self-belief and confidence
11. Automation/Artificial Intelligence
It is also worth considering the likes of news bots, heightened consumer intelligence and autonomy (i.e. consumers fact-check, have high requirements from brands), etc. A plethora of challenges await any public relations or communications professional – whether new or experienced, in-house, agency, or freelancer. This might well be the worst of times for public relations and communications.
But, as H.G. Wells wrote in his science fiction novella The Time Machine, are we not ‘kept keen on the grindstone of pain and necessity’? The multitude of present challenges has forced the public relations and communication industry to develop and innovate to accommodate and overcome them.
That first concern – the changing social and digital landscape – is no doubt the greatest challenge the industry faces. The dawn of mass use of digital avenues has meant a sea change in public relations and communications, totally overhauling the way public relations works. The rise in digital media has even disrupted the traditional idea of ‘coverage’ – which means public relations and communications has had, and continues, to adapt.
Direct contact with the consumer is now available to brands, and vice versa – social media channels allow consumers to “@” brands on a whim, making and breaking reputations with the click of a button. But this has meant a brave new world for public relations and communications, and some of the most successful campaigns ever have resulted – see McDonald’s ‘People’s Launch’ of their All-Day Breakfast, which in 2015 used Twitter to directly reply to tweets as far back as 2007 that had asked the chain to extend their breakfast offering past the normal 10.30am cut-off time. McDonald’s stock raised 25% that quarter – a remarkably quantitative result for the usually qualitative public relations profession.
The consumer is also far more inquisitive than ever before – a 2017 Edelman earned brand study found that 57% of consumers specifically buy or boycott brands based on social or political stance, and it would seem sensible to assume that as of 2019, that figure is even higher. Skepticism is high, so public relations must work harder to impart a genuine message. It might be the worst of times for poor public relations (see, for example, the catastrophic fallout from Kendall Jenner’s poorly judged Pepsi campaign, which lasted months and which remains front-of-mind for many – the collective public consciousness never forgets) – but for good public relations, it might very well be the best.
The danger of fake news cannot be understated. But this new phenomenon (and a phenomenon it certainly is - a BuzzFeed study found that the top 20 ‘fake news’ articles on the 2016 U.S. presidential election received more engagement on Facebook than the top 20 election stories from 19 major media outlets) in fact makes the role of public relations and communications more important than ever. True public relations professionals have a duty to the public to help identify what is and what is not true fact. That ‘alternative facts’ often make for murky water makes the role of the industry more crucial than ever.
Moreover, some of those other challenges listed in the CIPR report, whilst undoubtedly still challenges, are challenges that are being faced from within the industry. Note for example, that the very same CIPR report notes that PR’s gender pay gap is shrinking: “women working full-time earn £5,202 less per year than men, which is lower than the £6,725 difference reported in 2018”.
The very existence of the likes of the CIPR and PRCA is evidence itself that the public relations and communications industry strives for better: self-regulation and proper accreditation are more important than ever. Industry standards are rising across the board – from the mundane filing arrangements within company servers to behaviour at executive level.
In conclusion, then, whilst it might be easily to cynically label this the very worst of times for public relations, thanks to hyper-scrutiny, fake news, and more, a more positive (and accurate) read would see this as the very best of times for the public relations and communications industry. Myriad challenges have meant public relations firms and professionals have to work harder than ever, and therefore produce better work than ever. Through self-improvement and concerted effort, the public relations and communications industry is better than ever – and it is surely the best of times to be working in such an invigorated industry.