Arun Sudhaman 08 Jan 2024 // 10:48AM GMT
By now, you are probably inundated with trend forecasts, as the PR world gears up for a 12-month stretch that is likely to be every bit as tumultuous as recent editions. But if the current era's volatility has taught us anything, it is that conventional crystal ball gazing is fraught with risk.
Accordingly, PRovoke Media has slimmed down its annual trend hunting exercise to just seven issues this year — each of which, we believe, is likely to play a defining role in the fortunes of corporate and brand communicators. Last year, we told you what we'd like to see happen, this year, we're hopefully explaining what we think will matter most. As always, your feedback is welcome.
1. Have you heard of AI?
Arun Sudhaman, editor-in-chief, PRovoke Media
First things first: this was not written with the help of ChatGPT (but, as you probably already concluded, the visual above was). Expect far more communications messaging to include a disclaimer of this kind in 2024, assuming that the PR industry is serious about its commitment to AI ethics and transparency. Numerous surveys have suggested as much, further indicating that PR’s entanglement with generative AI is slowly becoming more tangible than notional. New Muckrack research finds that AI usage among US pros doubled over the past six months, even if the CommsIndex study of Asia-Pacific clients suggests far higher levels of reticence. On one thing we can all agree — we will hear much, much more about AI in 2024, with agencies already rolling out the kind of product bandwagon that is beloved in business development circles. Whether all of the sound and fury will amount to a radical shift remains to be seen, but it is hard to see how AI will not transform the PR landscape. While there are plenty of valid concerns about the technology’s accuracy, bias and ease of use, its potential to reshape the traditional time-based agency model should probably be vexing more minds than is currently the case.
2. Navigating the election bonanza
Diana Marszalek, senior reporter, PRovoke Media
In 2024, a staggering 1bn people in 64 countries are set to head to the polls, making 2024 known as the year when democracy faces the ultimate trial. It will be the biggest global election year in history. At stake are critical global issues such as the climate crisis, health, and human rights and the pressing need for equity, all of which are dependent on global cooperation. With elections looming in India, the EU, Indonesia, Ukraine and the US, 2024 could see the recalibration of the geopolitical order, which could throw business for a very tricky loop. Election watchers are also bracing for an onslaught of disinformation which, as we learned in the tumultuous 2020 elections, has the power to turn public opinion against companies — a newfound punching bag of politicians and a divided public. If the PR industry emerged from 2020 with the foresight to perfect its political, crisis, corporate, reputational and geopolitical offerings to include tools and techniques developed to support organizations in difficult conditions — the hope is that they are going into the year well-prepared to guide them accordingly.
3. Tackling the climate crisis
Maja Pawinska Sims, associate editor, PRovoke Media
The relationship between the climate crisis and communicators will reach a tipping point this year, as the industry shifts from being a supporting actor in the ESG movement to a more pivotal role. Headland co-head of sustainability Andy Payne says: “As scrutiny rises of how companies are tracking against 2025 targets, communications will begin to focus on driving collaboration and action around external factors, from changes in policy and regulation to consumer behaviour, supply chain and data reliability.” The role of communicators in tackling climate change has been recognised by the UN Development Programme and, as Rupert Younger, director of the Oxford University Centre for Corporate Reputation told an APACD webinar at COP28, communicators can be “Pentium chips” within corporate structures in navigating a hyper-complex environment.
FleishmanHillard sustainability leader Imogen Sackey says companies will have to balance “long-term sustainability impact and short-term pressure on margins”. And while new regulations may give greater clarity around climate comms, those also “bring risk of green-hushing as companies weigh up the benefits of speaking out.” She agrees collaboration will be key: “Sharing learnings and mistakes is critical if we are to collectively find the right sustainable solutions.” Highwire EVP Danny Maiello adds there is an opportunity for PR around energy transition “to help clients shape impactful communications that highlight the value of renewable energy sources.” Blurred founding partner Stuart Lambert concludes that – beyond acknowledging the urgency to avoid the worst IPCC scenarios – comms needs to go up a gear this year: “Any communications around climate must now be grounded in evidenced impact. We are beyond the point where companies should get credit for aspirations. This is now about proof, not trust.”
4. Dealing with disinformation
Paul Holmes, founder, PRovoke Media
Disinformation — and our inability to deal with it — is going to be the defining issue of elections in the UK, the EU and the US in 2024, but it also has serious implications for corporate America, as the technology for creating and disseminating fake news grows ever more sophisticated. Fake news is already being turbo-charged by the ability to create deep fakes using both video and audio, and the willingness (in some cases, it seems more like eagerness) of social media companies to promote and amplify disinformation in the name of “free speech.” And if you think AI is going to save us, check out Microsoft’s chatbot, which responds to political questions with conspiracy theories and fake news of its own.
Since May, websites hosting AI-created fake news have increased by more than 1,000%, increasing from 49 sites to more than 600, according to NewsGuard, an organization that tracks misinformation. Needless to say, whatever works in the political environment will be employed in the corporate realm for fun and profit. Every company needs to have a strategy, bringing together the IT and PR departments, for quickly identifying and then combating disinformation designed to manipulate stock prices or alienate consumers.
5. Addressing the resurgence of organized labor
Historically, the public relations business has struggled with one stakeholder group above all others. While there are major public relations firms specializing in the investor community, or government relations, or business or consumer markets, there are relatively few big firms that focus on internal stakeholders. That has to change. Of course, employee communications is a key part of most CCOs’ responsibilities, and there have been several critical issues in recent years when the internal audience gained the prominence it deserves. But one of the under-reported stories of 2023 was the resurgence of organized labor, particularly in the US. The Wall Street Journal reported in December on the ways in which unions have been “using strikes, strategic walkouts and picket lines large and small to elicit concessions from their employers.” While the Hollywood writers’ strike generated the highest volume of coverage, there were significant — and successful — strikes in sectors ranging from automakers to healthcare.
The first instinct of many companies was belligerence, attacking unions and harshly punishing employees who led organization efforts — an approach that is theoretically illegal but infrequently punished. But as the year went on, more of these battles were fought in the court of public opinion, which involved not only persuading employees but also avoiding the kind of punitive actions that might alienate consumers (most of whom are employees themselves). The trend in 2024 is likely to be less about following the anti-union playbook and more about addressing employee concerns and communicating more effectively — creating a new opportunity for public relations firms.
6. Managing people effectively
Maja Pawinska Sims
This year could see a perfect storm for people management. There are unresolved big post-pandemic questions, including flexible/hybrid working, wellbeing and agency/team culture. After swinging rapidly from the ‘great resignation’ to layoffs, the talent landscape will be complicated by increasing employee expectations, including around remuneration, as pipelines remain sluggish, budgets are squeezed and the cost-of-living crisis continues, plus the need for continued focus on DEI. Milk & Honey founder Kirsty Leighton says the agency’s focus in 2024 will be on personal and professional growth, from resilience and making hybrid working work, to developing consulting and commercial acumen. Rather than senior hires, she plans to invest in new skills such as production, AI and junior talent.
At Hope&Glory, chief client officer Jo Carr says “people are going to take flight” and take up more sabbaticals and travel loans. And other industry-wide pandemic effects include “scarcity of account managers due to a lack of junior hires in 2020/2021.” However, to support work-life balance, annual promotions need to go: “PR is a craft and time needs to be invested in skills. Moving from AE to SAE will take longer if we work shorter hours; becoming a practitioner takes, quite literally, practice.” Finn Partners global employee engagement practice lead Betsy Henning says cultivating a cohort of empathetic managers will have “an outsized impact on employees’ experiences” and team culture this year. She warns against blanket orders to return to offices, saying companies must “weigh costs to employer brand, talent loss, reputation and culture as much as they do the costs of office space.” Finally, Carr hopes more employers will address taboos from miscarriage and grief to menopause at policy level: “Where everyone is encouraged to bring their whole selves to work, employers need to be ready to support people when life gets messy and sad.”
7. Understanding why geopolitics is so crucial
Geopolitics can sometimes seem like the kind of abstract concern that is of more significance to op-ed writers than day-to-day decision-makers. But it would be folly to assume that much in 2024, particularly after last year saw the dramatic exit of a senior communications exec from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. In addition to the issues posed by numerous elections in 2024, expect continued geopolitical tensions, including wars, to have a major real-world impact on public affairs and communications decisions this year. This will cover such areas as trade, cybersecurity and supply chains — affecting market access, regulatory and crisis management strategies. Heightened uncertainty is also likely to spill over into ESG and DEI areas, as corporations attempt to walk a tightrope between stakeholder concerns that can vary wildly according to geographic provenance. The Israel-Hamas conflict is just one example of this brought to life, with companies increasingly required to strengthen their government relations and public policy efforts in order to navigate an increasingly complex environment.