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Top 5 Public Relations Trends for 2016

Pallavi Damani Kumar, Assistant Professor for American University’s School of Communication online Master’s in Strategic Communication program, recently was invited to speak at the Museum of Public Relations on current trends in the public relations industry. She shared her top five predictions for communication trends in 2016 and beyond:

1. PR has never been more powerful

We live in a time when the ability to communicate effectively with an audience has never been more critical. If you look at the landscape of social issues we are confronting as a society, this ability is key in so many ways. How we can persuade people to understand a different viewpoint? Advocate for understanding and compassion? Frame a divisive issue in a new light? Gain acceptance or promote awareness on issues we believe in?

There is a special power that comes from being able to do this, and one that I hope we all take seriously to some degree. Whether it is volunteering our time on causes we believe in to taking on probono clients in our organization or even just dashing off an occasional letter to the editor or op-ed every now and then on an issue we are passionate about, our skills as communicators are unique and powerful and can have impact.

At American University and the School of Communication in particular, we are lucky to work with faculty who carry this public purpose mission forward in the work that they do.

  • Professors Rick Stack and Maggie Stogner have an upcoming documentary, In the Executioner’s Shadow, which examines the death penalty and explores larger questions about American identity, justice, and mercy.
  • Professors Caty Borum Chattoo and Leena Jayaswal are also directing and producing a documentary called “Mixed” about the experiences of mixed-race children and their families in the United States today – a follow-up to the landmark Supreme Court case Loving vs. Virginia.
  • Being an election year, we have many faculty members and students immersed in the campaign cycle from reporting on the issues, to dissecting messaging for news organizations to digging into polling data to help audiences understand votes.

2. Millennials will disrupt the industry

Everything from recruitment to retention will be affected by the millennial workforce. As someone who teaches this population, I can tell you to define this generation is impossible.

However, what is apparent is that if PR firms want to keep and nurture this talent to join their leadership ranks, they are going to have to rethink everything from the length of the workweek to benefits like sabbaticals and the ability to charge your electrical vehicle in the garage. Firms need to authentically tie their organization’s mission to social causes that are important for this generation.

I think there is a tendency in every generation to resist change – the old, “Well I walked three miles in the snow to get to school, why do you get to take an Uber?!” mentality. However, the high turnover rate in the industry will continue unless there is some disruption from the way things have normally been done.

A firm founded by an American University alum, Mike Panetta , called Beekeeper Group in DC won the best boutique agency of the year from PRWeek a few years ago. They manage to keep and retain amazing talent while ensuring the success of the bottom line. Some examples of this firm’s disruption from the norm and highlights of their “hive” mentality include:

  • Flexible work from home policy
  • Requirement to work 15 less billable hours per month as compared to other agencies
  • Community service day every quarter
  • Working after hours or on weekends gets credited to comp time off to use within the next month
  • $1,000 per month to spend on staff outings and activities
  • In-office yoga Mondays
  • 15 hours of mandatory training per year at conferences, classes, or skills workshops

3. Lack of diversity continues

As the U.S. population has grown more diverse, that diversity has not been reflected in the PR industry as it should. While organizations are often touting their diversity initiatives, they need to look at their hiring practices.

One of the problems that I have seen most often among graduating seniors is the habit of PR firms in particular to push post-graduate internships even for students like those from American University who have done four to five internships by the time they graduate.

This practice can be framed as a “fellowship” or “junior training program” but in truth, it is a practice that stifles both racial and economic diversity because these programs pay stipends and not salaries.

I’ve had many students tell me that interning after graduation is not an option for them and thus, the industry misses these highly trained young professionals. This is something that has to change if the industry truly wants to diversify. Post-graduate internships limit the talent pool for the profession and the sacrifice is diversity since race and income are often related.

4. Storytelling is all about content

Everyone with an iPhone is a storyteller these days.

But, the ability to create compelling content that can be amplified across various platforms to reach different audiences is a skill unique to public relations professionals. This curated content in the form of directed videos, CEO blogs, narrative podcasts, infographics and listicles on platforms like Twitter, BuzzFeed, YouTube and Snapchat represent such an opportunity for the skilled public relations professional.

Although not every piece of content will be a viral sensation like Michelle Obama’s turnip Vine video, it is an exciting time to have this level of creative control over content and to upend and even bypass the media to get your message out. And, even though everyone from advertising, marketing and design firms are trying to “own” the creation of this content, PR professionals are the ones that can truly add the strategic vision to make this content effective.

At American University, our writing, social media and practicum courses now include developing this type of content for digital and visual storytelling.

5. The PR industry needs to use data analytics more skillfully

Strategic communicators need to tap into the power of analytics to help with everything from audience insights to measuring success. The power of information contained in our dashboard allows communicators to tweak strategies in a matter of hours and days rather than months and years.

However, this is an area that the industry seems to lag behind. As a PRWeek judge for the past several years, I am disappointed in the number of campaigns that still can’t communicate impact beyond media impressions. “Creating buzz” is not a legitimate objective and one that you would be hard-pressed to measure in any meaningful way.

Does anyone happen to know how many PR agencies won one of the 84 Cannes Lions PR awards this year? FIVE. And, part of the problem the judges said is that PR firms weren’t able to communicate meaningful results in the same way that marketing and advertising firms were able to.

In my courses, we study award-winning cases. Students learn to think critically about the different cases and by the end of the course, they are much more adept at analyzing the campaigns and coming up with suggestions on how they could be even stronger.

We are just on the cusp of what is possible with the type of analytical information now available to us.

Related Resources
Top 5 Strategic Communication Trends for 2015
Strategic Communication Skills Necessary for PR Managers
5 Ways Technology has Changed the Communication Field

About the Author
Pallavi Damani Kumar is a full-time professor in American University’s School of Communication and the Division Director for the Public Communication. Prior to teaching full time, Kumar gained more than 20 years’ experience in the public relations industry having worked as a vice president in Fleishman Hillard's social marketing practice in Washington, DC, a vice president/account supervisor in Ketchum's healthcare practice in New York as well as associate director of international public relations at Wyeth Pharmaceuticals in Philadelphia. Pallavi holds a B.A. in CLEG and Public Communication from American University (magna cum laude) and a Master's in Public Relations/Corporate Communications from Georgetown University. Follow Pallavi Damani Kumar on Twitter.

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