Traditionally, public relations have been built upon an ability to provide insightful and precise advice and ideas to engage the public. Going forward, our license to operate will be staked upon our capacity for innovation.

Obama utilized micro-targeting. Trump won by dominating the conversation. Now, Democratic candidates mounting a bid for the US presidency in 2020 hope podcast is the platform for success. Every political cycle has its novelty and provides a fundamental truth of communications: innovation is imperative for those intent to prevail.

At H+K, we believe that every corporate, every brand, every client has a public. And today’s public is more powerful than ever before – increasingly so. Their potential to disrupt the marketplace for corporations and governments is unprecedented.

The public relations industry’s ability to stay relevant and maintain its edge in this context will depend on our ability to innovate. Our internal rate of innovation must be greater than the external pace of change to continue delivering added value for our clients.

Disruptive turning mainstream

In USC Annenberg’s 2018 Global Communications Report, 82% of PR professionals say technological innovation will drive change in the industry. The people and agencies that best understand innovation will win. And it never stops. Things that are considered disruptive one day can become mainstream – or even obsolete – the next.

Social media, once a revolutionary tool, has become an obvious part of our everyday life. We take it for granted that corporations use social media to engage with their stakeholders. There might already be signs that we are seeing the start of social media peaking in key markets.

The application of big data and artificial intelligence is becoming a reoccurring part of discussions, toolboxes and strategies. We are only scratching the surface, though. In the future, these will develop into a key part of the communicator’s toolbox just as social media did over the last decade.

Algorithm-driven public relations

Algorithms are increasingly becoming a driver of innovation in our field. They will unlock a world of possibilities hitherto inaccessible. The precision of insight and analysis will be transformed, directly affecting our ability to support clients efficiently in the decision-making process.

The development of 5G technology will also have a profound effect. With the infrastructure in place to facilitate the Internet of Things, we can expect VR and AR to achieve their full potential, smart cities to become a reality, and autonomous vehicles to roam the streets.

This will affect both society and our industry: there will be more data available to analyze and apply, there will be new platforms and channels to reach stakeholders, and the demands for quality and precision will be higher than ever. We will have to cut through the extra noise caused by more information, more platforms and more entertainment. For PR to remain relevant in an age of big data and algorithms, we need to be able to create those algorithms, not just interpret them on a dashboard.

Following this, a rich variety of new challenges will also emerge. By utilizing 5G and AI, we should expect to see the complexity of fake news increase. Deepfake videos and voice recordings are just two examples of what fake news supercharged by technology might look like.

Humans are no trend

Regardless of technological innovation, communications will still be a question of engaging and creating bonds with the public. Developing creative, engaging and emotional communication needs to start at a fundamental understanding of the groups with which we want to engage.

By extension, this knowledge should be put to work in understanding how we can help public and private entities build trust.

As the power of the public grows and societal complexity increases, professionals with a public relations mindset will be key for both boardrooms and management groups to understand and safeguard organizational reputation; the executive search and leadership consulting firm Spencer Stuart indicated this in their June 2018 report on CCO’s in the boardroom.

We should also expect further integration of marketing and communications as it gradually becomes more difficult to separate these two disciplines. At some point it might be superfluous to distinguish communicators and marketers as their own groups – the skills needed to succeed in public relations will demand professionals embody both disciplines.

Last, but not least, I believe we also need to innovate as employers. To facilitate both the recruitment and success of new generations of talent, we must take a purpose-driven approach to developing organizational cultures that fit the aspirations and ambitions of Millennials, Generation Z, and beyond.

How can we stay ahead?

Although there are times where it seems like technology is an omnipotent driver of change, it is not. I believe that the power of the public is the single most important factor for societal change and the need for innovation in public relations.

This power is not driven by technological disruption alone; it has significant sociological, political and demographic elements, too. If our focus becomes too narrow-minded, we will lose track of what’s important and become unable to respond to challenges efficiently.

Going forward, three things should be considered to innovate our industry:

  1. Implementing “innovation boards” consisting of young professionals and talent. These boards will be tasked with identifying upcoming trends and proposing novel ways to address them, challenging established truths inside the organization.
  2. Establish a proactive team for data and analysis. The amount of data will increase massively, understanding and analyzing these treasure chests of insight should be the work of dedicated resources.
  3. Invest heavily in skills development – also in areas not directly related to communications. Those in our industry bringing value to clients will be those with the most talented and creative teams. We will only stay relevant if our communication competence is combined with advanced capabilities within areas such as technology, creativity, strategy and politics.

In 2030, some of the corporations shaping society will be entities no one is able to foresee today. There will probably be new industries as well. Government and politics might have been reshaped.

This will affect public relations: we exist in a reflective relationship with the world around us. To stay relevant, we must constantly innovate, ensuring our capabilities and practices are in line with the world. Preferably, a bit ahead.