Bringing the Future Into Focus: What 2020 Holds for the Profession

July 22, 2016


A wide-ranging report by the USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations finds that PR executives around the world are optimistic about the profession’s future, with growth in budgets and staffing expected over the next five years. In addition, the respondents believe that they will be expected to deliver more — from strategy and content to creativity and measurement.

Despite the positive outlook, the survey found that questions remain about the profession’s ability to attract the right talent, adapt to new technologies and increase the level of investment required to capitalize on these opportunities.

Fred Cook, director of the USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations and CEO of Golin, recently talked with The Strategist about the Global Communications Report, including the challenges in recruiting and defining what communications professionals do.

As you were first looking over the results, what jumped out at you?

The overall sense was that there’s a lot of opportunity out there in the PR world. And, over the course of the next five years, we have an opportunity to grow in terms of our size and our scope. But I don’t know if we’re grasping that opportunity aggressively enough. I’m just not sure that our profession is changing fast enough or embracing change enough to capitalize on all the opportunities that present themselves.

How do PR professionals capitalize on these opportunities?

We have to hire different kinds of people. We have to look for people who are more creative, more courageous, more bold. And the leaders in the profession have to encourage their organizations to experiment and to try new things and have a little more swagger in terms of what we do.

How does that translate into “How do you ignite the troops?” How do you get everybody to do it? You have to inspire people. You’ve got to get them motivated and try to encourage them to just be a little more courageous in the way we approach it.

We come from a politically correct profession. And we’re always the ones who are advising people on what should be said, what we should write. We’re not “big idea” people by nature. That’s fallen to marketing and advertising and other areas of the business. We just have to remind ourselves that we have the opportunity to be that, play that role and kick some ass.

What is one suggestion for encouraging experimentation in terms of recruiting the right people for the PR workforce?

The survey found that we’re hiring from the same pool. We’re hiring from each other. And everybody admitted that the PR profession isn’t good at recruiting from outside of its ranks. This was a little discouraging.

We also asked what skills would be needed five years from now, and people said writing. I was surprised by that. I thought, five years from now, we’ll still be saying the same thing that we’ve been saying for 20 years — that a good PR pro just needs to be a good writer?

That’s important; [writing] is a critical part of it. But you’d think people would be looking for more creative people, more risk-taking people, more strategic thinkers. And they are. However, it doesn’t seem to have risen to the level of verbal and written communication skills.

So, there are a lot of talented people out there, but a lot of them don’t know anything about public relations. We have to open our doors to different kinds of people who are non-PR grads or people who have worked at other types of agencies. I think all the agencies will say, “We’re doing that.” But I just don’t know if we’re doing it fast enough or aggressively enough.

The PR world is changing. And you see advertising agencies and other companies like that, and they’re all after this business that we have. There’s a lot of competition out there these days.

Based on what you see in this report, will “public relations” still adequately describe the work that PR professionals do?

It’s a big question. And the agency people who answered that question, only 27 percent felt like public relations would describe what they did five years from now.

However, you have to look at it from two different directions. Is it because we’re doing stuff that’s beyond what traditional PR is, and so now we’re really marketing agencies, or we’re ad agencies or we’re digital agencies? Is that the problem? Or is the problem that we’re not able to redefine public relations in a broader scope?

And then we asked people, “What would you call it?” And there’s not a great alternative, because we do much more than marketing; we do much more than advertising; we do much more than communication. So we have a bit of an identity crisis, in my mind, in terms of who we really are. And we’re walking away from the thing that has been our differentiator for a long time.

How do you think the next generation of PR leaders will have to differentiate themselves from today’s executives?

There are two things. There’s a skill set that has to be different, and it’s the things that we all know about. They’re going to have to be stronger in analytics. They’re going to have to be better at technology. They’re going to have to be better at content creation. And they’re going to have to be more creative. The basic written/verbal communication skills are still important.

In terms of the more personal traits, curiosity is a big one. Instead of just playing nice in the sandbox, we need to own the sandbox so we can be more aggressive in terms of how we interact inside companies and also with clients, and try to capture more of the share of the thought process and the creative process.

Given the opportunities and growth projected for PR folks, why didn’t more respondents believe that their job would be more fun in the future?

That’s too bad, because we’re in an industry that is changing so fast; it’s so dynamic, it’s so challenging, it’s so much more interesting than it used to be, and we have all these new opportunities. And people don’t think that’s fun? Do they want to go back to the press release writing business? Was that fun?

In many ways, what we’re doing now has the opportunity to be so much more enjoyable and exciting than what we did before. And we’re on the verge of all this cool stuff — that should be fun. So, I wasn’t surprised by the answer; I was expecting that people would think that, because it’s more demanding and it’s more stressful, and you’ve got to do more with less. But we work in a very fun business. I can’t imagine a business that is more fun than what we do.

Any closing thoughts about this research?

There’s a giant opportunity, and we just have to have the courage to grasp it. I think a lot of people are moving in the right direction. We just have to move a little faster and a little bolder.

Survey at a Glance

The USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations conducts the annual Global Communications Report in conjunction with The Holmes Report, the Institute for Public Relations, the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, the International Association for Measurement and Evaluation of Communication, the PR Council, the Worldcom PR Group and PRSA.

  • PR agency leaders predict the overall business for their firms will grow from its current number — estimated at $14 billion — to about $19.3 billion over the next five years.
  • Corporate leaders expect budgets to increase more slowly over the next five years, by just 13.1 percent by 2020, which represents about 2.5 percent annual compounded growth.
  • Writing ranked as a more critical job skill than strategic planning (84 percent), social media expertise (76 percent) and multimedia content development (76 percent), and also ahead of business literacy (62 percent), analytics (62 percent), research (48 percent), search engine optimization (41 percent) and behavioral science (32 percent).
  • Most agency and client-side respondents (81 percent) listed content creation as the top service that will drive future growth.
  • Some agency leaders (27 percent) believe that, by the year 2020, the term “public relations” will clearly and adequately describe the work they do.
  • The majority of respondents (76 percent) said that their jobs would be more complex in 2020. Only 27 percent of respondents thought their work would be more fun.
John Elsasser

John Elsasser is the editor-in-chief of Strategies & Tactics. He joined PRSA in 1994.



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