Human history has been marked by revolutions: the Iron Age, the Industrial Age, the American Revolution. Some have been bloody while others have been peaceful, but all of them — whether political, cultural or technological — have been transformative.
The methods of spreading information have also undergone numerous revolutions, and we are living through one now. If we seize on its promise, then it has the potential to usher in the Golden Age of Public Relations.
This revolution’s major player is the Internet, which has changed virtually every facet of our lives. At the click of a mouse, we can conduct business and obtain information at any time of day. We’re now realizing the promise of the Internet through the rise of social media.
Social media is all about content and conversation — areas that play to our profession’s strong suit. In fact, we trump every other marketing discipline when it comes to content and conversation. Our skill in engagement and relationship-building makes us uniquely qualified to moderate the great global conversation that the Internet enables. If we can make use of our unique abilities and tools, then I believe that the Golden Age of Public Relations is within reach. Here are seven reasons why:
One world, multiple opportunities
The “global village” first described by media guru Marshall McLuhan in the mid-1960s is no longer a pipe dream. Local, or even national, stories don’t exist anymore. With the reach of the Internet, all information is now global and carries unforeseen consequences.
The recent protests in the Middle East, for example, benefited from social media in ways that people could not have anticipated. As one Cairo activist reported, “We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate and YouTube to tell the world.”
Given the tremendous potential for growth in global Internet usage, I believe that this trend will only accelerate. While more than 77 percent of North Americans use the Internet, others aren’t as connected. Only one out of every five people in Asia and one-third of those in South America and the Caribbean are currently connected to the Internet.
Truthiness and the decline of trust
Stephen Colbert, host of The Colbert Report, a satirical news show on Comedy Central, coined the word “truthiness” to describe something that someone believes without analysis, logic or evidence to support it.
Truthiness is based on sloppy thinking. Prompted by online “news” outlets, people self-select the media that reinforce what they already believe. Let’s be frank: Wikipedia is not the same as The New York Times, and as a result, there are fewer beacons of trust. A recent survey found that U.S. trust in business plummeted by eight percentage points last year (from 54 percent to 46 percent), leaving the world’s largest economic power only five percentage points ahead of last-place Russia.
Trust is essential to a company’s bottom line. Rebuilding trust — a skill set that defines public relations — will increase the demand for our services in the coming years.
Need for message warriors
In the information revolution, message warriors are the foot soldiers in the campaign to capture hearts and minds.
Social media has irrevocably altered the reputation landscape. Institutions used to control their own reputation. Now the stakeholders do. It’s not what you say about yourself that matters as much as what your constituencies say about you.
This is third-party endorsement in its truest sense — and it’s what PR professionals have been excelling at for years. We are the generals who deploy armies of message warriors to preserve, protect and enhance a company, product or individual’s reputation. Our ability to analyze audiences, craft messages and make sense of complex communications channels is moving us closer to the Golden Age.
New breakthroughs in technology will reshape and expand our opportunities, especially our product and service offerings. Our skills and tools must evolve, and they must do so quickly.
Technology-proficient “geeks” will become an essential part of our business — the same way graphic designers and research specialists are today. We need technology experts to help us stay ahead of the curve by engineering our content and developing cutting-edge apps for us and our clients. If we want public relations at the center of the marketing mix, where it belongs, then it is essential to master technology.
Indicators also suggest that another big wave of technology is on its way. This means new business for us, especially in the areas of consumer electronics, B2B technology, everything mobile (including banking) and the green economy.
The second coming of TV
According to Jeff Cole, a research professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism in Los Angeles and director of the center for the Digital Future, television will once again fill our leisure hours — only this time it’s going from the living room to the handheld. As the number of hours spent watching TV increases from 34 hours per week to an estimated 50 hours per week, the demand for content will skyrocket. PR professionals can help shape, create and distribute that content.
The cost of getting public relations wrong is greater than ever before
Today, what’s inside is outside. Anything and everything that a company, its competitors, partners, employees, shareholders or neighbors say gets added to a wide open book. Internet connections exist everywhere, and this presents a great managerial challenge. If managed carelessly, then the dam will break, and the cost is steep. It’s easy to make a mistake, and with the cost of public relations at such a modest level, demand for our services should increase in the years ahead.
Growth in stature
The PR profession has traditionally played David to the ad industry’s Goliath, at least in terms of revenue. But we may be starting to close the budget gap. PR spending is expected to increase 17 percent by 2016, compared with a 6 percent rise in ad spending during the same period.
Our clients must understand that they need all of the techniques and channels at their disposal: social media, mainstream media, direct marketing, conferences, mobile media, branding and graphic design, to name a few. In other words, they need public relations. If you had to limit yourself to one tool in the marketing kit, then PR’s multifaceted approach makes it the best option.
While there are reasons for optimism for our profession, we face three significant challenges:
Software — According to a recent piece in The New York Times, expensive lawyers may soon be replaced by new “e-discovery” software that can analyze millions of documents in a fraction of the time — and at a fraction of the cost — of today’s lawyers. And they aren’t the only ones being replaced. Software now carries out tasks like computer chip design, loan and mortgage processing, and tax consulting. Could PR practitioners be next?
Metrics — According to a recent survey, the three most used measures for communications effectiveness in the past year were media coverage favorability, employee satisfaction and engagement, and the CEO’s gut feeling. Surely, there are better methods. Which measures will we use to demonstrate the value of public relations to our clients?
Human capital — Talent is important in our business, and our Golden Age could be derailed by a shortage of qualified people. We try to hire the best of the best at Makovsky, but some will inevitably fall short of the standard of excellence to which we should all aspire. Obviously, salaries are tied to fees, which are tied to service. But when a newly minted MBA from a good school commands a six-figure starting salary, it becomes harder for us as a profession to compete. And we definitely need more strong senior-management types who are business thinkers.
The Golden Age of public relations lies ahead — a world with booming business and a flourishing economy, clients clamoring for our opinions, talented people drawn to our profession for the challenges and rewards that it offers, and universal recognition of the value we provide. We just need to acquire the capacity to make it happen.
Ken Makovsky, APR, Fellow PRSA, is founder and president of Makovsky + Company, one of the nation’s largest independent PR, investor relations and branding consultancies.
Email: kmakovsky at makovsky.com