Changes in the world of business and our entire civilization compel people to revise their beliefs, also regarding their workplaces. This process may strike the communications and PR industries with particular force. Their role is being redefined as the related perceptions and expectations change. What role will PR play in the near future?
It is of course difficult to propose definitive assessments and/or scenarios. Hindsight can reveal a great deal about the future. The world of values (which, after all, is what business communication is all about) is changing rapidly. That is why business in general and communication in particular will be fraught with challenges for years to come. Some of the key changes will affect well-established paradigms and modes of operation. Here are a few of the key trends that I expect to be vital.
Immersion in the digital world
The future of PR and in fact all communication will be tied closer to digital technology. It is worth noting some of the most essential tools and behaviors that have been readily embraced and that are certain to continue to dominate our work culture. Thus far, technology has enabled us to instantly publish content online and contact clients and business partners directly (whether via e-mail, messengers or social networks). It has also streamlined corporate communication (intranet, instant messengers, texting, newsletters, digital signage, mobile applications) and made interpersonal relationships more casual. What is next? We can count on more technologies to support productivity and make work easier. However, it will also make communication more complex, increasing the volume of information and creating more information noise in companies (Do you also forget whether you have texted someone or talked to someone through Messenger or WhatsApp?).
Texts authored by machines
The flip side of this is a technology-driven revolution in culture and work practices. Even today there are applications capable of producing mini reports and larger texts with no human involvement. The US daily Los Angeles Times uses robots of its own design to produce information texts. Similar devices help the global agency Associated Press generate business reports. The editorial agency Urbs Media combines traditional journalism performed by humans with automated data processing using natural language technology. If the trend grows, it will affect all professions dealing with text production, such as marketing, communication and PR. One of the key challenges to be faced by PR people will be to accept that some of the tasks they once performed will now be done by machines and that their only option is to acquire new skills. Needless to say, machines are unlikely to replace humans in developing complex creative concepts and insights, professionally coaching people for management, or in the posts of leaders and key managers any time soon. Wherever live interaction and psychology matter, machines are unlikely to take over people’s jobs.
Information triggering change
PR professionals will be not evaluated on how much quality content they have published and presumably got across to the audience. Rather, future communication will be judged on its ability to measurably sway the behaviors and views of various groups in the direction desired by their employer. While this may seem an obvious responsibility of PR even today, this particular aspect is bound to acquire a whole new significance going forward. While the goal of putting out a given number of publications appears to be relatively easy to achieve, especially online, this quantitative criterion for measuring PR performance is bound to lose significance. The focus will increasingly shift towards gains and benefits, measured with tools capable of assessing the actual influence of PR messages on target group behaviors and opinions. Given the high volumes of content flooding the world, the most valuable content is the kind that is sufficiently strong to influence readers to change the way they act and engage in new activities. The point is for communication and PR activities to change business environments by, for example, inspiring strategy overhauls (by e.g. increasing sales, raising a company’s stock market value), improving process efficiency (by e.g. supporting recruitment with access to a greater number of desirable candidates) or making the company itself more visibile and attractive as a business partner (by e.g. helping it to establish new partnerships and acquire investors). Technology will enable us to measure all this more accurately. It may even force us to make such improvements.
The decline of mainstream media
Mainstream media has been reduced to one of the many content transmitting channels in existence. Its role in creating and disseminating opinions is set to grow steadily, although its range and influence remain enormous. Alternative information sources catering for precisely defined target groups with their specific needs and interests are already on the rise. Debates that involve entire societies are being gradually replaced with those that enage smaller groups with specific backgrounds. Such groups, made up of customers, investors, business partners and employees, have attracted the interest of PR professionals. Members of such groups no longer rely solely on traditional mainstream channels for knowledge. They scour social media daily searching for information about companies, products and services. The fragmented, unofficial content and opinions they find accounts for much of their perceptions with a huge impact on enterprise reputations. Social media readily offer insights into the way customers, politicians, journalists and other groups think. Whether we like it or not, they also develop new quality standards applicable to content. Reliable information is often hard to distinguish from fake news. Hence, the ethical standards behind content reliability are likely to gain significance.
Those who stop learning will see their chances of producing impactful messages dwindle. Within just a few weeks, changes in the algorithms that govern content display and distribution made by the tech giants (Google, Facebook) that shape digital space, can force PR and marketing professionals to overhaul their communication strategies. Against this background, workers’ readiness to learn and reskill is paramount. It is especially vital that they are capable of getting off the beaten track professionally. Future-ready PR experts will need to be able to readily abandon their habits and acquire any skills that new technologiesmay require. Other fields will be no diferrent.
Customers looking for value
Customers have a growing appreciation of businesses committed to creating value beyond profit or efficiency. In time, reports showing corporate profits will matter less. Sensitive to environmental concerns, working conditions, and corporate impacts on local communities, future consumers will increasingly value and act on insights that reveal that their organization of interest is socially responsible. However, a company’s community outreach should be driven by genuine concern for the community’s needs rather than the desire to take advantage of any low-hanging fruit made available by going pro-social. Corporate reputations will increasingly depend on non-financial factors. PR professionals should therefore focus more on the activities and content that responds to such new expectations of consumers and other company stakeholders.
As globalization engulfs markets and businesses, workers increasingly find themselves posted to distant parts of the world. Such cross-cultural migrations may pose considerable challenges for communication experts. Content types, the expression of thoughts and people’s sensitivities and expectations can all change radically from one country and continent to the next. A communications unit in a Shanghai tech company differs widely from that found in a Warsaw branch of the same organization. Therefore, the industry needs people who are not only mobile (i.e. prepared to relocate from their country) but also aware of the key role that cultural differences play in communication and capable of using that awareness to adjust to a new working environment. Intercultural competencies are increasingly important in part because globalization enables companies once perceived as geographically peripheral to succeed globally.
The future of internal communication
Can in-house communication professionals rest easy? The answer is not clear. Both industry experts and numerous publications report on corporate boards increasingly appreciating efforts by communication professionals. The opinions of internal communication experts appear to carry more weight, affording them more influence on company processes and work cultures. Under optimistic scenarios, management boards will increasingly rely on internal communication units for business strategy planning and implementation. Such units are also crucial for shaping the communications of leaders and building relationships between rank-and-file employees and line managers. Ultimately, such activities are expected to improve worker efficiency and help them achieve business objectives. On the other hand, the strife to monetize and measure all corporate activities may one day pressure experts to justify their existence in the company.
My intention in writing this article was to identify some factors that will shape the communications and PR business in the near future. I am well aware of just how fast changes have become and that it may be impossible to predict processes even a few months ahead. After all, business communication was very different before Facebook and smartphones. It only took a year or two then to turn it around. I will not be surprised if life astonishes us again with things I have never even thought of, not even for a second.
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