Arun Sudhaman 15 Dec 2023 // 11:05AM GMT
We conclude our 2023 Review with our 10 most-read news stories of the year. As ever, we've excluded awards and ranking stories as they skew results. And we should start by thanking all of our wonderful readers for once again visiting so many stories on our site — PRovoke Media has come a long way in the past 15 years, but none of it would be possible without this level of support.
Despite hopes that 2023 would prove to be a less turbulent year than recent editions, our most popular stories reflect a considerable level of drama, with economic issues and geopolitical conflict to the fore.
For agencies and brand communicators, that translated to a heightened level of uncertainty, exemplified by stories about layoffs, non-payments, polarisation and senior level shakeups. Meanwhile, the rise of generative AI emerged as a crucial theme as the year progressed, even as much of the coverage remained focused on its notional impacts rather than any tangible progress.
Sadly, it was also hard to escape the grim realisation that 2023 was, by some distance, the most obituary-laden year in PRovoke Media's existence. In an increasingly volatile environment, often characterised by discord, one thing that continued to unite the PR world was its shared grief for those that left us.
1. Edelman Cutting Roughly 240 Employees Amid Reorganization
Edelman was hardly the only agency to make layoffs during a tough year, but the world's biggest PR firm was always likely to attract the most attention for its decision to cut 4% of its staff. The decision came just 12 months after Edelman became the first agency to cross the $1bn barrier, underlining how quickly the post-pandemic surge in business had reversed course. Edelman's outsized industry status always generates a bumper crop of headlines, but even by those lofty standards 2023 stands out — with the firm's US leadership turnover and high-profile work for Saudi Arabia and COP28 attracting scrutiny across industry media and mainstream publications.
2. James Yi Departs APCO Worldwide Following "Review Of Internal Relationship"
You think you've seen it all, but then along comes a story that startles even the most hardened industry observers. A tinge of sadness accompanies the tale of James Yi's exit from APCO, after a whistleblower revealed that his marriage to Southeast Asia director JJ Lee had been concealed from colleagues and leadership. "Disclosing personal relationships to senior management at the first instance is one of the basic requirements," said APCO global CEO Brad Staples at the time, reflecting how differently this story could, and probably should, have turned out.
3. BCW Shakes Up Global Leadership
New BCW CEO Corey DuBrowa wasted little time making his imprint felt on his new firm, hiring Kristine Boyden as Americas CEO and Michelle Hutton as global chief client and growth officer. There were also promotions for Scott Wilson in EMEA and Guido Gaona in LatAm, while Sunil John and Mary Corcoran stepped down, the former after a storied career with the firm. DuBrowa, of course, was the biggest hire of them all this year for BCW — arriving from Google to fill the outsized shoes left by Donna Imperato — and it seems clear that he has significant plans in mind for WPP's largest PR firm.
4. ChatGPT: A Double-Edged Sword For The PR Industry?
If you were unaware of the rise of ChatGPT in 2023, then you were probably living under a rock. That kind of blissful ignorance sometimes seemed rather too appealing to many in the industry, particularly when confronted with the far-reaching ramifications that generative AI will have for public relations practitioners. As usual, Andrew Bruce Smith explained these better than most, covering its benefits, threats and ethical risks — while smartly resisting the temptation to draw any hysterical conclusions.
5. Agencies Say Rise In Client Non-Payment Makes For "A Scary Proposition"
After revealing last year that Keurig Dr Pepper had included 360-day payment terms in its PR retainer, Diana Marszalek followed up with a thoughtful analysis of how these kinds of arbitrary accounting decisions can impact businesses — in this case small to medium sized agencies — in the real world. A worsening economic climate means that clients are walking away from unpaid bills at an alarmingly high rate, putting livelihoods at risk and forcing agencies to think more carefully about who they work with. The hope is that these issues become less prominent in 2024; the reality is that they are unlikely to abate any time soon.
6. Brands Play It Safe On Israel-Hamas Conflict
It was relatively easy for corporates to take activist stances on most big ticket issues in recent years, but the Israel-Hamas conflict disrupted this sense of equilibrium, bringing an extremely polarising issue into the corridors and C-suites of corporations across the globe. The New York PRSA chapter was not the only organisation that found itself apologising after attempting to address the conflict, with issues related to the war becoming especially pronounced on American university campuses. Most agencies counseled clients to focus on internal comms, but even there the risks were plenty, particularly as the humanitarian crisis in Gaza continued to escalate. All of which meant that brands could be forgiven for wondering whether they can simply avoid addressing more inflammatory issues; sadly, for them, opting out no longer seems like a viable course of action.
7. Bob Pickard Leaves Beijing's AIIB, Citing Ties To China's Communist Party
Geopolitical conflict never seemed quite so personal as it did when industry veteran Bob Pickard fled China, resigning his role as global communications head for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Pickard claimed the bank was dominated by China's Communist Party, while a subsequent AIIB internal report dismissed the allegations, instead claimed that Pickard's tenure was marked by "managerial shortcomings". Either way, the whole affair highlighted how geopolitical tensions are affecting corporate communications — an issue that will surely remain just as relevant in 2024.
8. Obituary: Francis Ingham, PRCA Director General
Of all the obituaries that PRovoke Media wrote in 2023 — encompassing such luminaries as Tony Christodoulou, David Wolf, Angela Oakes, Richard Levick, Jodi Brooks, Mark Weiner, Angela Mears, Bryan Specht and Bob Cohn — it was always likely that Francis Ingham would steal the show once again. The PRCA director-general's passing at the age of 47 stunned the industry in a manner that befitted the whirlwind nature of his short life. In death, many chose to remember Ingham's remarkable accomplishments — turning a once moribund trade association into the global PR industry’s most influential champion of progress and professionalism, and winning bouquets and brickbats along the way.
9. Greater China President Pully Chau Departs Edelman
That there are only two Edelman stories in this list suggests a quieter year for the world's biggest PR firm, which seems a little at odds with a 12-month period that included some significant leadership departures. The exit of Greater China president Pully Chau after two years might seem a little pedestrian compared to the departures of US CEO Lisa Osborne-Ross, COO Jim O'Leary and Bay Area and New York heads Jordan Rittenberry and Oscar Suris, respectively — but it was this article that garnered most traction among our readers. A reflection, perhaps, of how China's PR fortunes, and Edelman's too no doubt, continue to enthrall.
10. AxiCom Wins Lucrative AMD Global PR Account
At last, the kind of headline we would expect from more innocent times. AMD's account review was probably the biggest of the year (although Shell may beg to differ), and Axicom's triumph over incumbent Edelman underlined its emergence as a more cohesive force under the relatively new leadership of Matt Lackie. Major global account reviews seem fewer and farther between these days, which makes sense given the more decentralised nature of global decision-making, but it's somewhat encouraging to note that they retain their ability to captivate our readers.