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The future of PR and PR agencies

As agencies and audiences alike navigate an increasingly digital world, the role that PR plays in building and maintaining a positive public image has never been more important. What was once the business of press releases and print coverage has now evolved to incorporate new, novel ways of communicating with key stakeholders and consumers. But what does PR look like now and where is it heading?

If you’re in a hurry, these are the key takeaways:

  • The underpinning strategy of PR remains, but the channels and audience behaviours change
  • Traditional channels (print media, in-person events) aren’t destined for the history books just yet, they can play an important role in integrated campaigns
  • Continued learning helps to leverage data and changing channels to maximise the impact of activity
  • The lines between marketing and PR might be blurred, but this isn’t a bad thing. There’s plenty to be learned from both sides of the tracks, and gained from blending tactics
  • Influencer engagement (when done correctly) helps to connect brands to new audiences and reinforce trust
  • Crisis management operates on a bigger stage than ever before
  • Understanding a brand’s purpose is hugely important – align this with the personality and deeper ethos of the company to foster meaningful relationships with audiences

Now to dive in…

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In its simplest form, PR is concerned with shaping a brand and the audience’s perceptions of it. This involves moulding a business or individual’s image and reputation through strategic and targeted communications. Crucially, this is not just about coverage. PR goes much deeper and looks at influencing audiences – this activity, often termed stakeholder management, is sometimes overlooked in the PR bag of tricks.

The ways in which this shaping takes place are constantly evolving and adapting to broader changes within an increasingly digital world.

So, what is the future for PR and PR agencies, and what are the battlegrounds in which change is taking place? We run through some of the key areas of modern PR and how agencies will be looking to harness its power to their advantage.

The media shift

Working in a rapidly developing discipline, PR companies are now seeking new and unique ways of connecting with audiences – and, for the most part, this means embracing digital-forward strategies to communicate with key audiences and achieve success. Agencies need no longer focus their time and energy solely on traditional coverage opportunities, but instead work to reach audiences where they’re most likely to be found, which often means moving at least some of their activity online.

But with digital PR becoming more common a term within the industry, is it a case of either/or when it comes to developing a strategy? Not necessarily.

While traditional PR relies on tried-and-tested methods of reaching audiences, such as via newspapers, magazines and in-person events, digital PR utilises the power of online content like social media, blogs and articles providing organisations with all-important backlinks, and further powering messages with creative content such as video. Ultimately, though, the desired outcomes should be the same: building brand awareness, and shaping and sharing positive messaging to influence and engage relevant audiences.

It’s also important that businesses react to the continued migration of audiences from one platform to the next. This means staying in touch with behaviour trends as well as emerging technologies and platforms. Channels rise and fall, audiences move and adapt.

If we look at the current landscape, the majority of TikTok users are aged 18-34, whilst there is continued growth of older audiences on Facebook, and the comparatively broad appeal of Instagram secures its popularity among users of a relatively wide spectrum of ages. Understanding and harnessing the power of digital PR is fundamental in developing workable strategies and allowing PR agencies to effectively influence.

Data-informed PR

As a marketing and PR agency working with clients across Liverpool and beyond, Kenyons has leaned into the shift towards digital PR, exploring new ways of reaching audiences with maximum impact. It’s important for PR companies to move with precision, targeting audiences scientifically and using ever-evolving insights to understand and speak to them.

One of the more contentious issues for businesses and individuals looking to invest in PR is justifying their spend against their return on investment – which is where data insights come in pretty handy. With a variety of ways to measure impact, we have an increasing number of tools which help us to gauge the value and success of a PR campaign. AMEC provide a range of frameworks that can help to illustrate some of the impact felt from your campaign, including the AMEC Social Media Measurement Framework, which can be applied more broadly across digital PR activity.

By planning out your audience’s journey from initial exposure and engagement with your campaign or content, through to impact and advocacy for your organisation, you’ll be able to settle on which metrics you’ll use to measure success, justify the client’s spend and plot a clear path from initial input to desired outcomes.

Marketing and PR: the blurring of enemy lines

As the work that PR companies do continues to evolve, the boundaries of what constitutes PR are extending. Many of the tools that marketers use to sell products also provides them with tangible results, and this is becoming increasingly favoured in the world of PR, too. We might be more focused on managing reputations, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to see measurable success to demonstrate return on investment for our clients.

From social media content to native advertising and SEO copywriting, there are a whole host of innovative ways that PR companies are able to borrow from their marketing counterparts to execute content-based strategies that achieve concrete results.

Continuous learning

Now more than ever, continuous learning is an integral part of successful PR. As new channels emerge and established ones adapt to the ever-changing nature of the digital world, PR companies need to be constantly refining their strategies and seeking out fresh, ambitious ways of sharing their messages with consumers.

The days of PR messaging appearing solely as column inches in print are almost certainly behind us, and now, with a wider variety of platforms at our disposal and each requiring a shift in tone, structure and content, PR professionals need to always be looking to refine their skill set, evaluate their methods, and have their eyes open to the rapidly changing ways in which audiences can be reached, persuaded and influenced.

This means that alongside the core foundations of well-rounded PR, the profession requires an understanding of certain emerging technologies and platforms, and how they can best be leveraged to improve purposeful impact and yield results.

Wielding influence

In recent years, brands and businesses have moved away from more traditional methods of advertising in favour of leveraging influencers to act as ambassadors. With audiences arguably sharper and savvier than ever before, engaging social media influencers has become one of the most popular ways for brands to get their messages in front of people, tapping into the trust that consumers have in certain influencers and working with the credibility that influencer engagement affords them.

The human element to influencer engagement helps to position the activity as a useful and effective way of reaching key demographics – something that social media marketing expert Mark Schaefer refers to:

“The social web is simply bringing us back to our marketplace roots where personal connection, immediacy, and word of mouth validation are the most important marketing considerations. We’re returning to the way people have always wanted to buy from us – person to person. Humans buy from humans.”

But it isn’t just high-ranking influencers with tremendous online followings that lend themselves to this method of modern PR outreach. Micro- and nano-influencers who appeal to more specific, targeted demographics are often able to provide further credibility to brands and businesses, communicating messaging in ostensibly more organic ways.

By integrating influencer outreach into their strategies, PR companies are able to maximise the power of human connection and find valuable advocates to act as a proxy for all manner of brands and businesses.

The point to bear in mind for now and the future is the need for transparency. Failure to adequately communicate the setup behind any influencer messaging can lead to sticky situations for brands and influencers alike. This can also be the case when missing the mark and deploying a message that doesn’t fit with the brand or advocate. The call for transparency has been growing louder in recent years and this will only continue. Be true to the values of your brand and the need for this type of audience engagement – why is your message of value to their audience?

Did someone say crisis?

This brings us to crisis management, an important part of the PR armour. PR professionals and agencies have observed crisis management extending beyond the handling of communications, and organisations are now working with PR professionals to understand the wider environment and are pre-planning accordingly.

This can include action plans going beyond the internal and external communication of messages, and looking at what the organisation can do to protect itself, from processes through to staffing profiles.

Things go wrong and we can’t control everything, but we have learned what we can do to minimise damage as much as possible. Working with PR teams to understand the different factors involved helps to identify risk and prepare for unwanted issues.

Taking a stance and making a difference

In a nutshell, it’s time to take action. Organisations are increasingly being called upon to put their money where their mouth is.  Audiences are looking for a brand’s purpose and truth – what do they stand for and how is their work supporting this?

PR professionals can understand how and when to say the right thing, but they also know that if it isn’t the real ‘truth’ of the organisation, then it won’t stick. Superficial positive messaging will melt away to reveal lack of action. Actions speak louder than words…

So, what can PR agencies across the UK and the world do to help effect real change? Representation from communications professionals at director level and board meetings will help – what are we saying? What do we need to be doing? Why is it important? What do we need to change? These conversations can be shaped with wider insight if the PR professional is given a seat at the table where these key decisions are made. This will give opportunities to understand what will make a difference to reputation and, in turn, the long-term success of the organisation.

Audiences are increasingly looking to understand what an organisation really stands for, searching for those whose values align with their own. There may be fear of alienation by putting your position out there, but not doing so can mean losing out on potential loyal followings and ambassadors for your brand (as well as missing out on how much you can add to an important cause!).

From taking a stance on climate change to closing the gender pay gap, there are many battles that need support from organisations with real clout. Connect this to your brand’s purpose and personality, and make sure it really matters to you, the organisation. When it matters, it resonates.

PR professionals and agencies can help to assess where the organisation is best placed to drive positive change and demonstrate how this helps to reinforce brand values and grow an increasingly loyal following.

So, what stays the same?

With a growing focus on the benefits that digital integration can bring us, there has been some confusion over the years as to where this leaves PR… But PR isn’t going anywhere. The crux of good communication remains the same. It’s the channels of communication and the corresponding audience behaviours that change – they need to be continuously evaluated and understood so that plans can shift accordingly. Flexibility and adaptability are key components of good communication in this ‘digital age’ we wade through.

Successful PR is concerned with storytelling and influence, giving audiences something they can relate to and allowing them to connect with your narrative. Storytelling is a powerful and often persuasive tool. It’s about more than sharing your client’s latest announcement or achievement – it’s about giving your audience the tools to connect with your message on an emotional level, engaging their imaginations and allowing them to align themselves with the values, ethos or ideas that a brand, business or individual embodies.

Whether you’re reaching them through traditional print pathways or capturing their attention through engaging social media content, tell your audience a compelling story they can relate to and they open themselves up to the influence that you wield.

It’s about more than sharing your client’s latest announcement or achievement – it’s about giving your audience the tools to connect with your message on an emotional level, engaging their imaginations and allowing them to align themselves with the values, ethos or ideas that a brand, business or individual embodies.