One of the key challenges that we face is that the PR world is simultaneously getting bigger and smaller. This may sound impossible, but I believe it hinges on our evolving understanding of our audience, which now includes every type of ‘contributor’ — from the media and consumers, to bloggers, vloggers, influencers and practically anyone who is actively adding to our global conversation.
Just 10 years ago, PR treated the audience as a mass unit, issuing broad brush press releases and generic campaigns that in hindsight had limited power as they only communicated in a generalised fashion.
We now understand that our audience is anything but homogenous. In fact, it is made up of micro-audiences and individuals who each have their own preferences, needs and quirks. Just think of Dubai, where we are attempting to communicate with people from over 200 nationalities, each of which has its own distinct culture, language and media habits. One size never fitted all but we are waking up to this more and more, particularly as the growth of social media conversation throws the highly complex nature of our audience into greater contrast.
As a result, our work is increasingly about communicating with people in a tailored, targeted and zoomed in way that speaks to them on an individual basis. It is only by taking this personalised approach that we can drive people beyond awareness and through the entire consumer journey to consideration, purchase, retention and advocacy, which is what the ROI of PR relies on.
To achieve this type of targeted micro-communication, PR has become a bigger job than ever before. Our ongoing pursuit to connect with the individual has forced us to expand our services to incorporate the digital world, grow our teams to bring social media expertise on board, and broaden the scope of our work to encompass our clients’ business strategy.
In a nutshell, we are taking on increasingly more work to keep up with the complex way that our industry is evolving in the digital era, and as a result PR is under pressure. As I see it, the problem is this: digital and technological transformation is taking place, moving us onto new platforms and allowing us to connect with our audiences in a new way, but as yet it is not enhancing productivity. In fact, it is currently creating more work for us rather than helping us to cope with that work.
This puts us in an exciting transitional period where we are waiting for the next watershed moment, which I believe will arrive when machine learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) finally make it into the mainstream, sparking a ‘productivity revolution’ driven by intelligent automation and data insights. This will not happen in 2018 because the nature of PR — which is based on human interactions, strategic decision-making and creative content — means that it may be one of the last industries to fully benefit from the technology and AI-based productivity revolution that is already emerging across other sectors such as manufacturing, logistics and finance. However, as technology advances, AI and machine learning will eventually permeate all sectors, and 2018 is about preparing for this paradigm shift while also consolidating the value of PR in the meantime.
Laying the foundations for AI
AI fascinates me and I have previously delved into the subject in greater depth here and here. Major companies including Google, Facebook, IBM and LinkedIn are already using AI to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence in a fraction of the time. AI has also entered the communication and marketing worlds with companies like Unmetric, Cortex, Crimson Hexagon, Simply Measured and Meltwater, which offer AI-powered social media intelligence and analytics to inform creative decision-making. AI-based tools are out there and in 2018 we need to challenge ourselves to understand them and think seriously about how to adopt them to support our day-to-day work. This year, we need to start our migration toward the AI era in earnest. When we get there, we will be able to do more for less by raising productivity through deeper and faster insights into consumers.
Strengthening the human factor
Another important part of preparing for this upheaval is strengthening the parts of our work that machines can’t do and won’t be able to do for the foreseeable future. When AI arrives, its speed and efficiency will free up time to invest in the human tasks that no algorithm can replace, for example creating emotion-led, long-form content, connecting during face-to-face meetings, organising on the ground events, and most importantly, strategising. If we imagine a world where AI has been fully assimilated, it is these human tasks that will continue to separate the good from the very good PR agencies. In 2018, it is important that we put ourselves in a strong position by continuing to pour our efforts into enhancing the quality of our human work at the same time as integrating AI.
Putting our money where our mouth is
While we are working toward the next phase of digital transformation — or what we are calling the ‘productivity revolution’ — we must still continue to demonstrate to our clients that we are productive right NOW. Productivity is measured by the ratio of inputs to outputs; in the PR world, if the input is the man hours that it takes to create a press release, then the output is the coverage this activity generates. What we are aiming for is greater outputs from our inputs, in other words high productivity, and I am pleased to confirm that PR is headed in exactly this way. Successful PR agencies now sign contracts based entirely on outputs or KPIs, which involves putting our money where our mouth is and assuming full responsibility for delivering on the promises we make. This measurement method will remain a vital tool for all PR agencies in 2018 because it is the essence of our value proposition to our clients.
Planning for the future, NOW
2018 is about laying the foundations for the productivity revolution that will take place in the AI era, while continuing to strengthen the quality of our human work and demonstrate the lasting value of PR to our clients. It’s never too early to start planning for the future, and if we do this, we will be in an excellent position to face it and thrive.
Ahmad Itani is the Founder and CEO of Cicero & Bernay Public Relations. An independent PR agency headquartered in Dubai and offering new-age public relations consultancy to the UAE and across the MENA region. | www.cbpr.me