If you Google “The Future of PR”, you will find about 300 million hits on the subject (well, now 300 million and 1), which happens to be far more than the number of PR professionals on this planet.
It seems everyone has an opinion on it, or maybe ten. The truth is no one really knows.
The speed and scale of change in the information landscape has been unprecedented. Ten years ago, we didn’t have Twitter. We didn’t have YouTube. We only just started to have Facebook. Today, these and other digital and social media have transformed how we do PR.
But an even deeper transformation has occurred over the last decade, especially since 2008. The fundamental trust that people have towards governments, institutions and corporations has been deeply eroded. Whether it is food safety, CEO bonuses or government scandals, we have seen a steady deterioration across the globe. The trust we have towards those in positions of responsibility to do the right thing has been replaced by distrust and cynicism. Three years ago we saw Occupy Wall Street in New York; today we have Occupy Central in Hong Kong.
At the same time, the challenges societies across the world face are becoming increasingly complex. Developed countries are still grappling from the effects of the financial crisis and economic slowdown, with high levels of unemployment and a nascent economic recovery. Developing countries are struggling to meet the increasing demands of their constituents for energy, food and higher standards of living, all at affordable prices. Across the globe, economic growth has taken a toll on the environment and social fabric of communities and yet wealth has almost never been more unequally shared. According to an Oxfam report this year, the richest 85 people on the planet have more wealth than the poorest 3.5 billion combined, that is, more than half the wealth of humanity.
Giving the power of digital and social media to people all around the world will bring these forces together in a potentially explosive concoction. By democratizing the creation and use of information, individuals now have the ability to create global movements almost overnight. These social voices when harnessed now have the power to topple governments, as we saw in the Arab Spring, or raise issues to the spotlight, as we saw with how the ice bucket challenge raised awareness of ALS. Never has such a large swathe of humanity had such influence or power and yet had so little stake in the status quo.
What this simply means for public relations is that the public now has a voice that is far louder than ours. Where before PR was largely a one-way flow of information, today, it is multiple threads of conversations affecting each other as they weave through the media superhighway. It follows that brands then have to be prepared not only to give up some control over their stories but also to be closely scrutinized in a world of radical transparency.
For PR professionals, these trends present an opportunity, a challenge, and also I believe, a responsibility, to help rebuild the trust that has been lost. This is where PR truly comes into its own as the ultimate guardians and advocates of the brand and the experts in understanding the external environment. Brands in this environment must be agents to re-establish a connection with the public based on a renewed mutually engaged relationship of trust. To do this, brands must be relevant, unique, authentic, transparent and engaging. More than all of this, brands must be purposeful.
At Unilever, we believe the key to do this is to put Purpose at the heart of our brands. Purpose connects the brand to communities and society in an engaging and relevant way. Purpose keeps the brand real, honest and collaborative. Purpose links the brand’s position and unique attributes to what matters to the brand’s audience and empowers the audience to contribute to the brand’s stories.
For example, Dove has been building its Real Beauty campaign for more than a decade. Its legions of fans look far beyond just the moisturizing benefits of its products to the brand’s ambition to be a force for good in supporting the self-esteem of women and girls. When Dove launched the Dove Sketches video ad, its Purpose came through in an authentic, relevant and engaging way, and so it is no surprise that it quickly became the most watched video ad in YouTube history with more than 100 million views.
Whatever the future of PR, it must be intrinsically tied to our unique role in managing the space between our brands and our audiences – where trust is created or destroyed, facilitating the orbit of conversations and partnerships that protect and extend the brand’s “gravitational pull”. The “gravitational pull” of a brand builds a protective layer of trust, like an atmosphere protects a planet from meteors. As it grows stronger, it also draws more and more into its sphere, extending the influence of the brand as a social force.
Today, we might do this increasingly through new tools in content marketing, digital or social media, but in ten years, there is no doubt more new technologies will rise to replace these. The future of PR lies in updating our skills to cope with the changing external environment while keeping the unique value we add squarely at the centre of all that we do. In so doing, we will find the true purpose of PR.
The writer is David Kiu, vice president, sustainable business and communications, global markets, Unilever.
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