“And when the Lamb opened the seventh seal,
silence covered the sky.”
The Book of Revelation 8:1
Over the last year or two a perfect storm has been brewing around the public relations industry. It’s one that, if not managed very carefully by communications practitioners, could have a huge impact on the industry and quite possibly wipe out large swathes of agencies, freelancers and in-house practitioners alike. Don’t believe me? Read on.
At last count, the UK PR industry employed approximately 83,000 people and it was growing fast, up by an impressive 34% in the three years since 2013. On the face of it, that paints a very healthy picture.
But that was before the last US Presidential Election and the explosion of ‘fake news’. It was before levels of trust in stories disseminated on Facebook plummeted and before Facebook responded by doing its very best to kill ‘news’ on the network completely.
It was before technological leaps in areas such as automation, artificial intelligence and voice recognition. And it was before brands started to actively question whether influencers actually had any influence whatsoever.
It is reasonable to assume that the number of people currently employed in PR is still somewhere around the 80,000 mark. It could be anywhere between 75,000 and 90,000, but to my knowledge there’s not been a significant shift in people either leaving or joining the industry in the last couple of years.
What I’d dearly love, however, is a crystal ball to see what public relations looks like in 2020. I’d put good money on that number having fallen back to pre-2013 levels. PR in its conventional sense may very well have peaked as a discipline.
All the Gear, No Idea
Until this point, a large section of the industry has been winging it when it comes to truly embracing change, and it’s been doing that very successfully. Many of the agencies I come across still work very tactically, still focus primarily on media and influencer relations, and pay lip service to things like SEO and emarketing, for example. They still measure soft PR metrics rather than making a real effort to evaluate the financial return of what they do for their clients. They don’t employ strategies that dovetail with business goals.
But we’re going to see a shake up over the next two to five years where only those willing to truly embrace digital technologies and adapt their business models around them will thrive.
I believe there are four key developments that will drive this. Each by itself is a threat in its own right, but in combination they form a ‘PR-pocalypse’, an ominous force that you will not be able to ignore. Let’s look at the menace of each in turn.
The First Horseman (Pestilence): Fake News
When Donald Trump entered The White House in January 2017 it sparked a sequence of events that, though seemingly unlinked, have come together to form a dark cloud over the public relations industry.
The way Trump ran his presidential campaign throughout 2016 by essentially publishing so much propaganda and misinformation that it at best distracted from Hillary Clinton’s reasoned arguments and at worst simply drowned them out, made ethical PR look rather passé. A Buzzfeed analysis found that the top 20 fake news stories about the election obtained more engagement on Facebook than the top 20 factual news stories from 19 major media outlets.
The pro-Brexit campaign in the lead up to the 2016 referendum followed Trump’s blueprint, with the infamous £350 million per week saving figure the biggest example of a complete fabrication that 52% of the population took as read. ‘Alternative facts’ were spreading like a plague.
In September 2017, global PR agency Bell Pottinger collapsed after a campaign for South African president Jacob Zuma, that was according to the PRCA “likely to inflame racial discord”, came to light. It further increased the feeling among the general populace that PR was all about dirty tricks, lies and highly questionable ethics.
It doesn’t matter that for the vast, vast majority of the PR industry the idea of fake news is abhorrent or that ethical conduct is second nature. What matters is that if people don’t trust what they read in the media (whether that be conventional or social media) it leaves PR professionals with an uphill task convincing anyone of anything.
And if we can’t do that, there is quite simple no public relations industry.
The Second Horseman (War): Influencer Decline
In January this year vlogger and self-proclaimed “social media influencer” Elle Darby got herself into a spot of bother when an extremely naive email approach to The White Moose Cafe in Dublin went viral. Top lifestyle blogger and presenter Emily Leary and I discussed it in Episode Three of the Digital Download podcast.
Beyond the specifics of this particular incident however, the story sparked a bigger and, to my mind, very long overdue debate about the nature of influence. This centred around two major points: follower numbers and return on investment.
Buying tens or hundreds of thousands of followers is easy. It takes a small amount of money and no time whatsoever. Stephen Waddington ran an experiment over Christmas this year to prove the point.
But EARNING tens or hundreds of thousands of followers is very difficult. It takes either great skill or a hell of a lot of time; normally both. While this is great news for people like Emily Leary, it’s bad news for the hundreds or thousands of aspiring ‘social media influencers’ out there.
Mark my words, there’s an influencer marketing crash coming. And others such as leading influencer marketing blogger Scott Guthrie agree. In his post ‘Influencer Marketing is Gaming Itself to Death’, Scott outlines five areas in which influencer marketing is warring with itself.
From a PR perspective, when brands start to question the value of spending £30k on celebrity endorsement or even a few hundred pounds on a sponsored blog post (as they are quite rightly starting to do), there will be less ‘influencers’ out there.
This means that competition among those who actually are influential will increase.
Which means the cost of sponsored campaigns will go up.
And that in turn means there will be less brands willing to pay those costs.
So what happens to the public relations industry when this conflict comes to a head and influencers are priced out of the market for the majority of brands?
The Third Horseman (Famine): Content Visibility
As the truth about the Trump and Brexit campaigns came to light, and as details of the way the Russian Government interfered with voting were revealed, trust in news published on social networks (and specifically Facebook) plummeted.
In the wake of fake news and propaganda, trust in social media platforms dropped in 21 of 28 countries surveyed in the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer over the last year. In the UK, only 24% of people now trust social networks when looking for news and information.
As a direct result of this, Facebook has responded with a massive algorithm update aimed at wiping fake news off the platform. The by-product? ‘True’ news was wiped off too. Facebook now prioritises conversations between friends, meaning that publishers and, crucially, Page administrators alike are struggling to gain any traction whatsoever.
Only last week digital publisher Little Things announced it was closing after seeing organic traffic plummet by 75% after the algorithm update.
Journalism fairs better when it comes to trust according to the Edelman study, but opportunities in conventional media relations are becoming fewer with every passing week. Statistical studies show that print news will be pretty much gone by 2020. Digital news publishers have struggled to find an effective business model. And both TV and radio are moving to on-demand models where even advertising doesn’t work. The writing’s been on the wall for years; even as far back as 2015 PR professionals outnumbered journalists.
So if as PR professionals we’re starved of getting our content seen in print, on news websites or across social media, what role do we have?
The Fourth Horseman (Death): Artificial Intelligence
Even if you choose not to accept that the first three Horsemen – fake news, the decline of influencers and limited content visibility – will impact the communications industry in the long term, the sinister threat of the fourth – artificial intelligence – is not one that can easily be dismissed.
Speaking about AI on the Digital Download podcast a few weeks ago, CIPR President Sarah Hall said: “I really believe we’re sleepwalking into this. When I looked at the information I was sent [by the CIPR] in terms of what the threats to the industry are, I literally took a really deep breath. One third to a half of our industry could very easily be wiped out due to automation.”
Such is the extent of the potential issue that the CIPR set up the #AIinPR panel last month; a group of a dozen or so informed and knowledgeable communicators brought together to identify the impact of AI technology and recommend ways to combat and to harness it. Stephen Waddington is presenting a paper at the World Public Relations Forum in Oslo on 22nd April and then discussing the results further in London at Digital Download Live on 26th April (tickets are available here).
AI and automation present quite possibly the most toxic threat that the PR industry has ever known. And as the Horseman that completes a highly malignant quadrumvirate, it could very well be the one that causes the most destruction.
Is the PR-pocalypse Set in Stone?
I’m aware that this post paints a bleak picture that is dark and foreboding. But see this is a portent: a warning of what might be, not necessarily what will be.
Anyone who’s seen Terminator 2 or is a fan of TV series Supernatural knows that Judgement Day may not come!
The CIPR and the PRCA have a huge role to play in helping us to manage the changes on the very near horizon and in limiting damage from the PR-pocalypse. But it cannot all be down to the professional organisations to do this. I believe that the role of educational events, blogs, podcasts, newsletters and social media communications are just as critical if we, as individuals, are to thrive.
We must take individual responsibility for our own development in order to safeguard our careers. We have to seek out and subscribe to information and resources from which we can improve our knowledge and evolve the way we do things, and we have to join groups and attend events where productive conversation takes place from which we can learn. Collaboration is absolutely key, and if you’d like help finding these resources I’m more than happy to point you in the right direction – just contact me.
What will you be doing to defend yourself against the Four Horsemen?