• In order to find out what the public relations industry will look like in 2022, Commetric interviewed several prominent PR practitioners.
  • They expect a stronger media focus on topics such as diversity and inclusion, political divisiveness and misinformation, and also think that innovations like the metaverse will present new challenges to comms strategies.
  • In addition, they anticipate that the industry will care more about analytics, but will move away from vanity metrics and put an emphasis on in-depth research and evaluation.

Speaking about the future of public relations is no easy task. Unlike many disciplines, where narrow specialisation is of great advantage, a good PR expert should have a firm grasp of the whole socio-cultural zeitgeist where brands operate.

This means that if PR practitioners are going to give some predictions for the future of their profession, they should be well-versed in everything from social movements to climate science, from politics to what’s hot on Instagram. PR pros should be knowledgeable and creative enough to help their clients find the right balance between profit, people and the environment. 

With this in mind, we thought it’d be very interesting to ask some seasoned PR people about what lies in store for 2022. The people we reached to are among the top influencers from our PR Measurement Twitter Influencer Index, which uses Commetric’s proprietary influencer mapping methodology and human analyst expertise to identify social media influencers actively participating in the Twitter discussion around PR analytics and communications measurement and evaluation.

New media narratives to attract public attention?

While the presidential election, the pandemic and racial reckoning were stories that drove intense interest and engagement to news outlets in 2020, some metrics suggest that 2021 represented the inevitable hangover: engagement with news content plummeted last year compared to 2020 due to the decline in interest in news about COVID-19 and politics.

It seems like the Trump era and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic created a one-of-a-kind media moment that will be hard for news companies to replicate. For example, data shows that the Omicron variant is not jumpstarting Americans’ engagement in COVID news like it did at the onset of the pandemic.

Martin Waxman, president of Martin Waxman Communications, told Commetric that it’s hard to imagine a world without Covid news. While it’s difficult to predict the future news cycle, there are ongoing and important discussions about issues like diversity, equity and inclusion which will continue to have an impact on the profession.

Similarly, PR consultant Michelle Garrett thinks the impact of the pandemic on various aspects of our world will continue to be a story the media is covering for the foreseeable future. Although we never know what will attract the public’s interest – that’s one reason working in the PR industry is so interesting – she thinks inflation will also continue to be a story.

And according to Tressa Robbins, Client Onboarding VP at Burrelles, other narratives that will continue to attract a lot of media attention are the U.S.’s political and ideological divisiveness (and whose fault it is), social media and big tech regulation and privacy concerns, and the state of journalism and news media itself. 

Political and ideological divisiveness was also on James Crawfords mind. The managing director of PR Agency One thinks that if the sociological trends and themes that capture the zeitgeist will continue to be seen through the divisive lens of argumentative social media bubbles, it will be the stories that polarise opinion which get the greatest visibility.

Against this backdrop, Anup Sharma, Independent Communications Strategy Consultant in India, said that organisations will have to stand out and be heard amidst the noise via effective storytelling: “Considering that even Google ranks the highest for an informational intent query, clear content will give a more effective reach, communicators need to have all content designed and optimized with search intent in mind.”

Talking from her experience, Maya Koleva, Head of Research and Insight at Commetric, said that when exploring healthcare and science-related media narratives, she sees that the stories cutting through the noise tend to share similar patterns and similar language – for instance “miracle drug”/ “wonder cure” stories tend to attract a lot of attention – and reactions.

Misinformation to become more pertinent

Katie Paine, CEO of Paine Publishing and Founding Member of IPR Measurement Commission, told Commetric that the issue of misinformation or better information will be particularly relevant to communications folks. She cited a study in the Harvard Kennedy School’s Misinformation Review, which found that misinformation makes up a teeny-tiny share of what most people read, and we might want to worry a little less about debunking it or trying to get people not to read it. Instead, the study claims, more efforts should be devoted to improving the acceptance of reliable information, relative to fighting misinformation.

That will play into the political fights, according to Katie Paine. “The 2022 elections will occupy much of the news as the fight over gerrymandering and the big Lie ramp up the closer we get to primaries and then elections,” she said.

In this regard, Magnus Hakansson, Commetric’s CEO, added that amplifying expert voices has already yielded positive results in the discussion with the largest amount of misinformation at the moment – Covid vaccination. Commetric’s recent social media analysis showed that Twitter’s latest policy to amplify expert voices has been successful: the most influential accounts in the vaccination debate now include high-profile media outlets, journalists, doctors and experts.

Hakansson explained that Commetric’s analysis shows that doctors, experts and academics have started to take a more active part in the Twitter conversation around vaccination: together they commanded a 21% share of voice in the firm’s research sample. He cited a recent article in the Wall Street Journal noting that there’s been a growing group of scientists and public-health officials who are increasingly active and drawing large audiences on social media. They say they feel a moral obligation to provide credible information online and navigate the conversation away from proponents of conspiracy theories around vaccination that have gained a substantial share of voice across social media platforms.

For more on this topic, read our analysis: “Vaccination Misinformation: Can Twitter’s New Policies Pave the Way for Social Media to Fix Its Reputation?”

AI and Metaverse

Martin Waxman thinks we need to pay attention to news on artificial intelligence and its implications for PR including the ethical collection of data, privacy issues, algorithmic bias, and how the introduction of natural language generation or AI writing apps might change the profession. In order to do that, PR professionals should be both forward and backwards-looking: “By that I mean we should make sure we listen and learn about what’s been discussed in the past and continue listening, learning and reflecting as we develop values-based communications programs in the future.”

Over the next year, PR professionals need to educate themselves about artificial intelligence, what it does and how it could harm or enhance relationships and reputation and develop strategies around that, Martin Waxman added. To start, we need to be able to distinguish between the three types of AI: narrow AI, based on statistical predictions and what we have now, general AI, when machines can transfer knowledge from one task to another, similar to humans, and superintelligence or the singularity when machine intelligence will eclipse collective human intelligence. “If we don’t do that, we will not be able to participate in meaningful strategic discussions around AI implementation and what the risks, challenges and opportunities might be.”

The metaverse will be another big topic of conversation as brands decide whether to play in Zuck’s world or not, according to Katie Paine. From an inside-baseball perspective, the importance of knowing and relating to your specific audiences will eclipse communications’ obsession with the media. The “marketing funnel” will decrease in importance and the various leaks in that funnel caused by bad customer service, terrible use experiences, brand scandals and controversies will be the focus of much handwringing by communicators.  

With these changes in the media landscape and media consumption habits, organisations are realising the importance of managing reputation more than ever, according to Anup Sharma. While most communication has been focused on creating awareness and getting the brand name out there, now the focus will be on providing a personalised experience and engagement: “2022 will be the age of creators – driving engagement, promoting brands with compelling storytelling and growing engaged communities with measurable success of that story. Brands will drive mobile-friendly, interactive, two-way communication with their customers leveraging the metaverse virtual space.”

Magnus Hakansson said that it’s still unclear whether one dominant metaverse will emerge or whether multiple companies’ metaverses will exist in competition. He explained that Facebook’s attempt to control the metaverse narrative via its corporate rebranding is a clear sign that in the crowded tech industry, PR and comms are just as important as innovation. Many brands have tried to become synonymous with certain concepts but Facebook took it one step further and became literally eponymous with the metaverse by changing its corporate brand to Meta. In this way, early adopters of the concept can seem like followers.

For more on this topic, read our analysis: “Metaverse: Will Facebook Control the Narrative Around the Future of the Internet?”

Measurement and evaluation in focus

Michelle Garrett thinks clients want to know the impact of their PR efforts, and measurement and evaluation are vital to helping them understand this: “One thing PR pros should always do is to ask more questions BEFORE embarking on a PR campaign. Why are we doing this? What’s our goal? Who do we want to reach? If organisations go into a PR push not understanding the answers to those questions first, how can they know if it was successful?”

As a managing director of a PR agency and also a board director at AMEC, James Crawford told us he would like to think the industry will be more reliant on metrics. According to him, the Barcelona Principles and the AMEC Framework have taken us much further than we could have imagined just a decade ago, and now thanks to free and paid-for tools we have access to more data than ever.

But while PR and comms people will care more about analytics, Katie Paine said that the emphasis will be on research and evaluation and less on measurement. People will need more data to navigate the new world realities and old outdated data won’t suffice, so they’ll invest more in surveying their audiences and figuring out how people really feel. “So rather than “likes” and “follows” comms will want to know what % of their audiences hates them the least. Metrics like share of search and SEO ranking will become much more important than impressions.”  

Tressa Robbins said that she heard a lot of rhetoric about qualitative and quantitative (beyond ‘vanity metrics’) measurement for several years, with it amping up quite a bit in the past couple of years. For her, the problem seems to be that PR is often not privy to the same data as the marketing cohorts. Which metrics will be important depends on the goals and objectives of the organisation and the campaign or initiative, so it’s going to look different to different people. “The one thing we need to try to move away from is using AVEs (Ad Value ‘Equivalency’), but in my real-life experience, that still isn’t happening on a broad scale.”

In a similar manner, Martin Waxman thinks the industry has evolved beyond AVEs (at least most people have) and media or social media impressions. For him, the biggest challenge we face is around what we measure. Now, PR pros need to gain a better understanding of an organisation’s business goals and build strategies based on that: “A good place to start is by following AMEC’s Integrated Evaluation Framework and shift from outputs and big numbers of impressions to measuring outcomes and impacts that affect the business, including engagement and reputation.”

In Maya Koleva‘s experience, more and more PR pros are being suspicious of vanity metrics and impressive big numbers with little relevance to communication objectives. She thinks communication professionals already rely a lot on measurement and evaluation and many are very data-driven and metrics-savvy. The importance of clear and straightforward metrics that help tell a data story from communication objectives to outcomes and impact of communications is growing – and those may vary based on context, campaign specifics and so on.

Talent shortage and mental health

Tressa Robbins thinks the talent shortage (or “talent mismatch”) will continue for at least the first half of 2022, but the issues won’t just go away. Employees now care more about flexibility, individuality, and overall wellbeing. She added that the World Economic Forum and SHRM were warning about a ‘global talent mismatch’ coming in 10 years—”and that was exactly 10 years ago (2011)!”

Anup Sharma referred to this phenomenon as the ‘Great Resignation’ across the world millions of employees have voluntarily quit their jobs due to the pandemic. One of the key reasons for this was the collective burnout or exhaustion arising from prolonged emotional and mental stress. Now with hybrid working being the new normal the boundaries between work and life are getting blurred leading to burnout and mental health issues. This will bring a host of new challenges for communicators to rethink internal communication strategy for employees, including providing silence periods with a chance to hit “pause.”

Agreeing, Michelle Garrett said that the way the world of work is shifting, i.e. The Great Resignation or Big Quit, and how that impacts both workers and employers is certainly a topic of interest for many. 

ESG grows stronger

ESG is increasingly looked at by investors as a way to assess reputational risk, so rather than see it as a “nice to have” it will be a mandatory priority for communications as a way to protect their brand, according to Katie Paine.

Tressa Robbins thinks climate action, brand purpose, and DEI—especially inclusivity—are all going to continue to be prominent. The difference in 2022 is that consumers and employees alike now expect organisations to “walk the walk.” The time for talk is over; the time for action—and accountability—is now. It’s crucial that both internal and external communicators are involved at every level on ESG-related initiatives, from planning and strategy through implementation.  

James Crawford and Michelle Garrett agreed. Crawford hopes that in 2022 ESG will become less about optics and increasingly linked to day-to-day operations and corporate behaviours, while Garrett said that it’s not enough for brands to make flowery statements: their audiences have to see them acting on those statements in meaningful ways. “Otherwise, they may not believe they mean what they say, which can undermine trust. Earning and keeping the trust of your audience should be at the core of any PR effort,” she explained.

Anup Sharma added that in the age of hyper-connected and hyper-transparency, organisations will keep re-evaluating their “purpose in society” and the narratives will reinforce transparency about sustainability, as well as DEI efforts, showing a real impact. In the digitally connected age, with high demand on holding brands accountable to the promises they make, organisations will have the challenge to cut through the noise with credibility and stand out in the crowd to be seen as authentic.

To that end, Magnus Hakansson thinks that the ESG concept can be used as an opportunity to build your brand and corporate reputation by showing how your company actually delivers “purpose”. Commetric’s recent research actually shows that comms professionals should move beyond purpose and focus their efforts on ESG – a much more specific and tangible concept with better defined KPIs which is yet to gain full momentum, especially on social media. Be among the first to utilise the power of social media and engage a wider circle of stakeholders in a more informal fashion, particularly on Instagram, a platform that has much higher engagement rates with many key stakeholders and where ESG topics are very popular among millennials.

For more on this topic, read our analysis: What’s Beyond Purpose? How to Use ESG to Stand Out From Your Competitors

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