The Future of Public Relations

Peggy Simcic Brønn

How can communication executives help their organizations meet the future? I have identified six challenges.

KNOWLEDGE @BI: Communication for leaders

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, the more things change the more they stay the same. Public Relations and corporate communication are all about communication between people and organizations, whether it is advertising, a poster on the metro, the webpage, or employee relations.

Even though the ways we communicate with each other are constantly moving and changing -- new tools, new tactics, new channels – the biggest challenges to the field remain organizational ones.  

Communication executives who can master the six challenges listed below will help their organizations meet the future, and further the professionalization of the practice. 

1) Linking business strategy and communication
2) Building and maintaining trust
3) Coping with the digital evolution and the social web
4) Dealing with sustainable development and social responsibility
5) Focusing attention on reputation as organization-wide responsibility
6) Integrating communication functions

Linking Business Strategy and Communication

Connecting business strategy and communication is one of the most important and enduring issues for public relations. This calls into question the role of the communication executive and the communication department and the perception of their role by other executives.
Several future challenges are associated with how communication departments can link strategy and communication. Some of these include creating, aligning and communicating corporate values and getting closer to stakeholders.  Future opportunities include anchoring the communication function in the top management team and more collaboration and co-creation of strategy with stakeholders.

Building and maintaining trust

Communicating an organization’s values to stakeholders can define the ‘face’ of the organization, but a challenge for any organization is to convince their stakeholders that they are to be trusted. 

Building trust requires companies to demonstrate clear personal and societal benefits, to behave with integrity and to engage with customers and stakeholders. The 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer shows a global decline in trust over the last years, and the number of countries with trusted institutions fell to an all-time low among the informed public.

NGOs continue to be the most trusted institution, but trust in NGOs declined from 66 to 63 percent. Sixty percent of countries now distrust media, and government is still distrusted in 19 of the 27 markets surveyed.  Trust in business is below 50 percent in half of those markets.

Coping with Digital Evolution and the Social Web

The media predicted the merging of computer, communication and entertainment industries in the 1990s, but did not necessarily foresee how the speed and volume of information flow would affect organizations and the practice of PR.

With the introduction of digital media, it is no exaggeration to claim that the notion of mass communication and its social, political, economic and cultural consequences face new challenges.  That being said, face-to-face communication is still viewed by a vast majority of practitioners as one of the most important channels when addressing stakeholders.
Dealing with Sustainable Development and Social Responsibility

Increasingly active and interested stakeholders are demanding ethical behavior, trust, credibility, and transparency from corporations.  The media, who constantly study organizations’ behavior on child labor, human rights, recruitment ethics, corporate governance, and bonuses and remuneration for top leaders, often stimulate this interest.  Whether a company communicates or not, their failure to handle these issues in the public arena will be communicated for them.

Communicating about social initiatives is likely to create higher expectations by stakeholders. Fulfilling the communicated promises that build expectations must be done by the entire organization.

Business leaders who list building reputation and brand equity as primary motives for engaging in social initiatives understand this very well.  Success depends on how well the organization listens to its stakeholders, how it interprets their desires and wishes, how well it delivers what it promises and lastly how credible its communications are.

Focusing Attention on Reputation as an Organization-Wide Responsibility

Prior to 2006, the word reputation was barely mentioned in Norwegian media. Now it is common to have communities, leaders, towns, hospitals, football teams and firms talk about the need to improve their reputation or to build a good one. 

Reputation is an intangible asset that can build competitive advantage for a firm.  The 2015 AON report on global risk management listed damage to reputation/brand as the largest risk facing companies.  However, they also found that the increased awareness of reputation by leaders and boards has reduced losses from reputation risk.

Strong communication coupled with a strong reputation provides competitive advantage. Communication executives will be more influential in helping organizations recognize reputation as a component of the overall risk assessment and management process. This signals that the organization is concerned about its legitimacy and is willing to include a broader range of perspectives and voices into its decision processes. 

Integrating Communication Functions

Managing the many ways an organization communicates with its stakeholders will continue to be a challenge to communication departments.  Aligning the demands of all stakeholders with corporate goals requires effective communication and the chief marketing officer and the chief communication officer should be joined together at the hip.

When everything an organization does sends a message, effective reputation management and branding is only possible when all those responsible for developing communication strategies are pulled together. 

Corporate communication brings together marketing communication, organizational communication and management communication.  However, integration of communication is easy to talk about, but less easy to do.  Orchestration of communication emphasizes the necessity of integration if organizations are to build reputation in any consistent fashion.

Peggy Simcic Brønn, Øystein Bonvik and Tor Bang: Innføring i PR. Fagbokforlaget 2015 (in Norwegian).

This article is published in Communication for Leaders No. 2 - 2015

 Communication for Leaders is a Science Communication Magazine published by Centre for Corporate Communication and Department of Communication and Culture at BI Norwegian Business School.

Published 12. February 2016

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