Public relations is often considered an art and a science. It requires an understanding of human behavior, and the ways in which PR evolves over time in order to effectively insert and represent yourself, your brand or your client in today’s world.
The way we communicate and rely on technology has especially changed, affecting how PR professionals pitch the media, as well as how the public consumes news. In order to prepare for PR in the new decade, it’s important to understand PR’s history, how it has reached where it is today and where it’s headed in 2020 and beyond.
1990s through the early 2000s
The late 1990s and early 2000s marked a revolution in communications with the tech boom. At the time, newspapers, magazines, radio and television were primary news sources, with journalists as the main gatekeepers to news. Press releases took a lot longer to go live, considering many faxed or snail mailed physical copies to editors.
Public attention was captivated by tech innovation, the excess of dot-coms and the first websites, including news sites and blogs, which all began to emerge. Individual use of the internet became widespread by the year 2000, and companies rushed to create their own online presence. The tech boom also ushered in new and quicker forms of communication, with electronic mail becoming a popular method of correspondence.
Cable news and 24/7 access wasn’t an entirely new concept in the 1990s – CNN, the first 24-hour cable news operation, was launched in 1980. The success of CNN inspired many other 24-hour cable news stations, with FOX News and MSNBC launching in 1996 to compete.
Cable news grew even more in the new millennium, with an increasing trend in cable networks becoming more opinion driven. The beginning of the 21st century also called for vast improvements in crisis communication following 9/11. Previously, PR professionals and agencies took longer periods of time to respond to a PR crisis due to limited and less timely communication channels. The 9/11 attacks heavily impacted the way crises were handled, with an increasing demand for speed and accuracy in news reporting.
The first recognizable social media site, Six Degrees, was created in 1997. 2003 marked the launch of LinkedIn, and 2004 onward led to the creation of additional social sites that are still heavily used today, including Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. By 2008, social media would be used extensively and effectively within politics. The public relations profession took a leadership role in social media’s use and development as a two-way communication tool between brands and consumers, as well as between professionals, such as PR pros and the media.
Just as social media was starting to gain traction, 2008 marked a complete crisis for newsrooms and journalists. In the wake of the economic crisis, there were nearly 8,000 job cuts in the media industry during the first five months of 2009. These layoffs would set the stage for continued employment decline in the news industry over the next ten years.
2010s to now
The start of the new decade created a major shift in the media landscape, with blogs, social media, podcasts, digital outlets and online review sites building up major influence in the 24/7 instant news cycle. As a result of the increasing number of bloggers and social media influencers, journalists were no longer the only gatekeepers of the media.
Today, PR professionals outnumber journalists 6 to 1, creating heavy implications for agencies trying to break through the clutter. In order to effectively reach journalists, it’s essential for PR professionals to hyper-customize pitches, spending more time than ever doing prep work.
Unsurprisingly, crisis management is also more important than ever. With the lightening speed of information online and through social media, word travels fast, so a quick response is vital. Organizations must have meaningful responses and thorough crisis plans that are regularly updated, enabling the appropriate individuals to address the public as quickly as possible and collect accurate details. Trust is essential, so don’t underestimate the power of a sincere apology. Recognize your wrongdoings, outline a clear plan of action and ensure you can – and will – follow through on those promises.
PR for the future
Everything connects. In the new decade, PR professionals should prepare for a world where androids and virtual assistants act as the new gateways or barriers in attempts to connect with people.
Primary survey data from Business Insider Intelligence indicates that as many as half of U.S. respondents reported living in a home with a voice-enabled AI device. In fact, 63 million American homes will qualify as “smart” by 2022! Smart homes can have the ability to learn about their owners, knowing and anticipating their needs. This allows them to provide recommendations on where to go, what to buy, who to vote for – the list goes on. It will be necessary to learn how data will be collected through new technologies and how this can be tapped to inform PR strategies.
User-generated content (blogs, videos, social media posts, podcasts, etc.) will continue to grow into a source for news and information. Everyone has access to their own broadcast outlet online, and the number of online users is only going up. Statista reports that there were 0.97 billion social network users worldwide in 2010. In 2018, an estimated 2.65 billion people were using social media worldwide – that number is projected to increase to nearly 3.1 billion in 2021.
Influencers and other online content creators are affecting more traditional news outlets and journalists. In 2019, nearly 8,000 people lost their jobs in the media industry, the highest rate since the 2008 recession. As the number of professional journalists shrinks, the number of online influencers – and the demand for their service – becomes larger. Google searches for “influencer marketing” grew 1500% in the last three years.
As we’ve come to discover in recent years, it will be more difficult to pitch stories to media outlets with massive audiences. While bloggers and social media influencers create more outlets, they will likely seek paid opportunities and sponsorships in return. It will continue to be necessary for PR professionals to build solid relationships with credible, respected journalists in the new decade, as well as influencers who attract wider or more appropriate followings.
As far as crisis management goes, it will need to evolve with technology. In the past, crisis management came down to experience and judgment of professionals – little data was available in fast-moving and uncertain situations. Today, predictive search analysis and other tools are allowing for anticipatory crisis prep, informed message development and real-time response measurement. Technology and AI-based solutions can help those responsible by assessing risk, developing training programs, monitoring the development of crises online and continuously improving upon strategies.
It’s no question that PR is always evolving. The new decade will bring an abundance of opportunities to inform strategies by leveraging the changing media landscape and advancements in technology. It will be more important than ever to keep up with these trends and ensure you’re using the right messaging and platforms to connect with your audiences.