The Holmes Report's six-part trends forecast looks at how trends in consumer marketingcorporate reputationpublic affairstechnologyhealthcare and digital are shaping the public relations industry.

There’s good news and bad news for the old folks—in this context, that means anyone over the age of 36—running public relations agencies.

The good news is the digital and social media will continue to grow in 2012, to the benefit of a public relations industry that otherwise would be feeling the impact of global economic uncertainty far more keenly than it is. The bad news is that new media channels, new tools and new techniques means that the pace of change will once again be dizzying.

To get a sense of what digital and social media mavens expect in the year ahead, listen to Sabrina Horn, founder and principal of US technology specialist The Horn Group, who says that “2012 will see a fundamental change in the way companies do business.”

The reason? “Digital and social no longer exist in a silo, and are instead woven into the fabric of a company’s entire operation. Take a look around: sales teams are turning pitch material into branded online experiences, account managers are engaging customers via social media, and the C-suite is deciphering how to re-shape traditional services for a shifting space. Every employee now operates in a digital ecosystem, and that means a whole new set of strategies for achieving business goals.”

In developed markets, digital and social are now so routinely and completely integrated into everyday marketing and public relations opportunity, one might be forgiven for thinking that the revolution is over (and that the revolutionaries have won, resoundingly).

“The shift to digital is almost complete,” says Daryl McCullough, chief executive of Citizen Paine. “While the last few years have seen a much higher percentage of spend shifting to digital and social engagement campaigns and programs, we find organizations are comfortable with where they have leveled out. While there could be more spending in some sectors, we think the split of traditional and digital has been sorted out…. Social media is a channel, and therefore we should be using it in EVERY campaign, we don't have to choose on or off.”

The result, he says, will be integrated, insight-driven programs that are “social by design” and “always on,” helping companies to connect to influencers, enlist advocates, and amplify their message through traditional media.

Of course there is still plenty of room for growth in developing markets, which are catching up quickly.

“There is a compelling argument that effective digital communications is even more important in emerging markets than in developed markets,” says Fiona McCollum of Latin American specialist Speyside Corporate Relations. “The emerging urban middle-class tends to be just as digitally savvy if not more so than its mature market counterparts and in a region with a total population of around 580 million and a GDP growing at around 3.5 percent, sophisticated, effective digital communications is an area that will continue to grow and grow.”

Certainly, that’s the view from Eastern Europe.

“Digital and social media sector is going to be hot in 2012, as well in PR as in other industries,” says Rafal Szymczak of leading Polish independent firm Profile, who says that in his country digital is now “a seminal—even leading—element in integrated communication campaigns…. Traditional media are in crisis; consumers and advertisers migrate to internet.”

Growth Sectors

More good news comes from the fact that while the use of digital and social media is now de rigueur in consumer marketing—and much of the technology world—it remains under-utilized in other industry sectors. But there is plenty of evidence that business-to-business marketers, and others, are catching up.

“I think in business-to-business, this year will be the one that companies truly invest in communicating with audiences through digital and social media,” says Clare Granville of UK B2B specialist Man Bites Dog. “The last few years have seen a lot of dabbling and experimentation. Now that the business case is largely proven, the temptation of communicating directly with niche B2B audiences will be hard to ignore.”

Australia consultancy Rowland agrees: “Investment by non-consumer brands into social media strategy is set to make ‘Social Media for B2Bs’ the hot topic in 2012,” says Liz Dougall. “Fast-moving consumer brands have been more aware and active for some time…. [But] as the B2B community builds its understanding of the risks and opportunities online, we are likely to see them drive social media growth in areas like online reputation management and online stakeholder engagement.”

Digital and social media are now being employed across a wide range of activities, Szymczak says, from helping to recruit customers online for the launch of a new bank to creating a health education game for Facebook to government projects. “We’ve just started a campaign concerning implementation of European Qualification Framework in Poland, where digital activities are important part of integrated communication. More and more often client will choose creating their own communication channels than use existing ones.”

The last frontier is the healthcare sector.

“Blame it on the FDA. Blame it on a highly conservative industry. Blame it on the ‘soft’ ROI of social media,” John Bell, managing director of the social media practice at Ogilvy Public Relations, observed in our look at what’s hot in healthcare. “Whatever you blame it on, the pharmaceutical industry will not make any significant advances in using digital and social media to serve their various customers and constituents. US-based efforts will continue to use the FDA’s lack of urgency and clarity as the excuse. What could have emerged as a period of innovation with industry and regulators cooperating in defining the rules as they go has turned into a kind of stalemate of excuses.

Not everyone is quite so pessimistic, however. Ritesh Patel, head of digital at healthcare specialist Chandler Chicco, says that “the pharmaceutical industry has, for the most part, become very educated about social nedia. Most of the major firms have social media guidelines and social media departments. Medical and legal have also become educated and have begun to understand how social media works. While they haven’t fully embraced it, and are in many cases still uncertain as to how to engage due to the lack of guidance from the FDA, they are no longer paralyzed by it.”

Content is King—and PR is King of Content

When the social media revolution began, there was reason to believe that while public relations firms would excel at the conversation-driven aspect of the new channel, which seemed to require the skill set PR people have always used (conversation, dialogue, authenticity, transparency). But there were greater doubts about whether the industry would be able to match the content creation capabilities of the ad business.

As it turns out, those concerns were misplaced. Public relations firms have demonstrated the ability to deliver a wider range of content: everything from white papers to mobile apps, from microsites to online games. The industry has gone beyond earned media to produce an incredible variety of owned media.

“With the advent of social and digital media, every brand has the ability to publish its own story and every consumer and influencer has the opportunity to respond,” says Liz Kalpow, president of New York’s Kaplow Communications. This presents “an even more exciting opportunity to use social and digital channels to get to know your audiences better, to listen to what they are saying and what they want, and deliver even better service.”

Chris Perry, president of Weber Shandwick’s digital offer, says “the tech and ad worlds are hyping multi-platform content as the future of entertainment and advertising. This has huge implications for how companies develop a narrative strategy, designed for digital, and orchestrated through often siloed business units and agencies that support them. On the client side we may see the creation of a chief content orchestrator and on the agency side the opportunity to consult on brand content strategy designed for digital platforms—notably mobile—and social behaviors these platforms will continue to encourage.”

Bell, similarly, says he expects to see “brands invest in their own story creation and distribution, not curation, to fuel the shift to content marketing and earn thought leadership.”

But the context in which the content appears is increasingly important, says Janet Tyler of Detroit-based technology public relations specialist Airfoil.

“The key to realizing high return on social or digital engagement in 2012 has nothing to do with getting your brand on the latest social channel or mobile platform, ironically,” Tyler says. “While these can be effective ways for companies to connect with their audiences, digital and social avenues drive the most business communication value when messages are delivered in the right place at the right time. In other words, in 2012, it’s no longer about the channel—it’s about context.

“This is because the fragile line already separating social, digital and virtual from actual experiences, will become even more so in 2012. Customers are increasingly accessible through multiple social and digital touch points, so brands must compete for their attention by offering information that is so relevant, it’s downright personal.”

The Next Killer Apps?

As content proliferates, so do the channels though which it can be delivered to consumers, and social media experts are always on the lookout for the next new way to help companies connect with consumers. The year ahead is likely to see more activity in location-based marketing, video, and mobile apps.

One of the top items of the annual list of “10 driving forces in digital marketing” produced by UK-based technology firm Hotwire is location-based marketing. According to the firm, “After a couple of years of growth, Foursquare emerged as the leader in location. But with the introduction of Facebook Places, if you’re not building your presence on location-based services that matter to your customers, 2012 will be the year you fade from view.”

Patel suggests that there will be growth in mobile marketing and in video: “YouTube is the second largest search engine and is developing its own content. iOs and Android devices allow users to consume video in quantities previously unimaginable. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, a video is worth probably a million.”

“Given that the camera on our smartphone is almost as good as our actual camera, video social networks will blossom,” adds Brett. “It is worth noting that Google index websites containing videos higher therefore video content will continue to improve brand visibility. Analytics are here but surprisingly few brands are really using the latest at-a-glance dashboards to understand their brands. These could become the next big public relations bonanza.”

“Social television began to gain some traction late last year when shows and commercials provided Twitter hashtags for you to follow,” says Gini Dietroch of Chicago-based Arment Dietrich. “Our bet is, beginning with the Super Bowl this year, companies will provide ways for people to ‘go down the rabbit hole,’ so to speak, where they'll find a complete user experience.”

As a result of all these changes, Tyler says, the line between e-tail and retail is increasingly blurred. “Thanks to a more consumer-driven marketplace intersecting with incredible innovation in mobile platforms, successful brands no longer wait for customers to walk through their stores. They are bringing the store to the customer via mobile devices and applications.”

In addition, the line between information and the purchasing decision is blurred, Tyler says. “Augmented reality is increasingly supporting consumers in their purchasing decisions and brands in their marketing strategies. It can facilitate instant comparisons with businesses that compete with the one you’re considering setting foot in; enable on-demand marketing collateral; and let shoppers try products virtually before buying.”

Experts also see the rise of new social networks, with Pinterest the current hot phenomenon.

“We need another social network like we need a hole in the head, but companies such as Pinterest, Polyvore, and Chill are gaining users really quickly,” says Dietrich. “The trends for social networks, this year, are toward more visual storytelling, such as Pinterest, and all-in-one tools, such as JugnooMe and”

“Visual bookmarking is set to be a big social media trend for 2012, providing a new growth stream for a host of brands and their digital campaigns,” says Sara Balme of UK consumer shop Focus PR. “Sites such as Pinterest are leading the way, encouraging members to ‘pin’ images of things they like, building up themed scrapbook ‘boards’ and sharing their interests by building a network of followers.

“As opposed to the fleeting nature of tweets and the linear narrative of Instagram and Tumblr timelines, Pinterest members can continuously build their boards. Members are also able to ‘re-pin’ from within the site to engage with others, building their own network of followers whilst spreading other members’ and brands’ ideas.”

She says the site has already proved popular with design-related brands, “allowing them to share their latest products and the inspiration behind new collections” but suggests that boards can also be used for beauty tips and recipe suggestions, providing an attractive option to a broad range of consumer lifestyle companies.

Finally, the opportunity remains for public relations people to take a more proactive role in managing search.

“One area in particular we already see impacting our business in 2012 is search,” says Kevin King, global practice chair, Edelman Digital, who points to Google’s deep integration of its search capabilities with the Google+ social network “in an attempt to turn search into a much more social experience. Whether or not this is a permanent change, continued development in making personalization and relevancy a key factor in how people find information ultimately creates better user experiences, quicker access to information that matters, organized results based on trust and people who matter to you.”

More Data-Driven Digital

The other major shift in 2012 is likely to be toward a more data-driven approach, as digital and social media agencies get to grips with one of the perennial challenges facing our industry: how to measure return-on-investment.

“Communication firms that can monitor, interpret, and capitalize on public sentiment quickly, and educate their clients to it will conceive and develop broad new ranges of public relations services,” says Richard Brett of UK consumer consultancy Shine.

Jeremy Woolf, the Hong Kong-based global digital lead at Text 100, points to analyst predictions that social and digital media spend will reach $80 billion by 2016, and predicts that with new owned channels in place—Facebook, YouTube, twitter, LinkedIn, blogs—the big trend in 2012 will be for a more data-driven approach.

“Good use of data will ensure social and digital PR programs deliver tangible results,” says Woolf. “Data are already telling us that social consumers want customer support from social networks and B2B buyers want online conversations with experts. These data points will see executives from a range of business functions stepping into community management and online advocacy roles traditionally held by marketers.”

John Bell, managing director of the new cross-functional Social@Ogilvy practice, agrees. “As many marketers expand their budgets and commitment to all forms of earned media, the pressure is on to manage that investment via meaningful real-time data. Public relations chiefs will be much more aggressive this year about three things: defining metrics that matter to the bottom line; tracking the right digital key performance indicators; and using data dashboards to their always-on brand editorial efforts.”

Bell says brands such as Unilever, Coca Cola, IBM and Pepsi are all developing internal mechanisms to measure success in digital marketing and communications. “Meanwhile, PR leaders will embrace their scientific selves and start to get more serious about analyzing data to gain business and reputation insights. What do their white-list of 100 key influencers think about the performance of the company? What does the level of engagement on particular Facebook wall posts say about the believability of their community claims? Can the visual display of Twitter brand-related topics serve as a bellwether of larger constituent sentiment and concerns?

“PR leaders will be hiring measurement and analytics experts at a premium price to assemble the next dashboards for data. They will also be committing to ongoing testing and analysis to clarify how public relations—digital and otherwise—has a sales impact not just a reputation impact. While the worldwide economy continues to leave many business leaders guessing, we can still expect smart money investments in data-driven public relations.”


While social media clearly present smart companies with an opportunity to engage more effectively with consumers and other key stakeholders, it also presents challenges—which is why many business leaders remain wary.

The past year has demonstrated that social media have the potential to increase the speed and severity with which bad news can impact corporate reputation, and Perry says he expects to see more activity in the crisis management arena, in part because of “self-inflicted crises based on misalignment with customer attitudes, anticipated reaction to business behaviors.”

As a result, there will be “more opportunity for PR leaders to influence behaviors and policies of companies, based on real-time feedback from social listening. We've seen recent examples where business decisions were made without a clear read on customer interests/reactions that had big reputation and financial impact. The information is there, it’s a matter of having the access and consultative strengths to influence C-suite decisions.”

A crisis preparedness study conducted by Burson-Marsteller found that 81 percent of business decision-makers believe that digital’s role in driving reputation during a crisis is on the rise.

“With the global economy teetering, people largely distrustful of government and large companies and most firms expecting to experience a crisis in the next 12 months, fighting fires on the web is already a major corporate health hazard,” says Charlie Pownall, BM digital strategist in the Asia-Pacific region. “Organizations focused on the long-term impact of their reputations, or that have suffered at the hands of online stakeholders, are already preparing in a more structured and holistic manner to handle digital crises and to manage online issues, a trend that will only accelerate.

Another risk, says Pownall, is that many companies will start to take functions such as community management in-house, depriving PR firms of one potential opportunity.

“Public relations firms have benefitted from clients stretching into social media but not having the resources or skills to manage the online channels and communities that form their social media first base,” he says. “But with much of the core infrastructure now established, organizations are increasingly focused on how to leverage their communities more effectively and efficiently, often by taking these roles in-house.

“Messaging, one-to-one communication, a focus on relationship-building—all are central to good community management, and while PR agencies can expect to continue to advise, train and respond on this important activity, the days of comprehensive outsourcing are likely to be limited.”

Many companies, according to MSL Group digital practice lead Stanislav Magniant, “have come to realize that a couple of whiz kids ‘managing’ their community is simply not enough and are upping their budget in 2012 to start implementing social CRM, which he says “is about graduating from having a couple of community managers playing ‘human routers’ between online consumers and representatives of consumer affairs, marketing, or PR, to setting up scalable systems across corporate silos.”

Even as companies take more digital and social media activity in-house, there may be opportunities for smart PR firms, however. Bell says Ogilvy is providing clients with access to digital training academies and what he calls “digital terraforming teams.”

“C-suite executives will invest in training in practical, bespoke digital straining to transform marcom teams slow to evolve,” he says. “To accelerate internal adoption of advanced digital skills and techniques, C-suite leaders will graft specialist teams from partners onto their internal marcom teams. This is all temporary and meant to more quickly train, coach, pressure their internal organizations to become digital ninjas.”

Finally, there are some indications that companies are falling out of love with social media in some areas where it has perhaps been overused. Employee communications expert David Grossman, for example, predicts that “2012 might be called ‘The Year They Turned Off the Switch,” as employers cut back on email communication—a tool he says is now overused.

“A handful of companies are electively reducing or eliminating emails sent to employees, and we expect to see more companies with policies that limit email, and address email abuses and abusers. That said, while it’s a step in the right direction, eliminating email and email abuses isn’t the ultimate solution to improve employee engagement, work/life balance, and productivity. It’s a Band-Aid—a welcome one nonetheless—because the much larger issue is about ineffective communication inside organizations today, which is negatively affecting business results.”

It seems you can have too much of a good thing.