The new year always builds on the last. So what can we predict about 2014 as 2013 swings to a close?
Here are my choices for the trends of 2013 that will most influence the practice of public relations in the new year.
1. Content marketing. This really comes in two flavors -- owned media and what's been called native advertising.
Owned media is basically a channel that companies control completely, from url to content, such as a web site or a brand app.
The big news here is that owned media is becoming less promotional and more entertaining or informative in its own right. A good example is Coca-Cola's corporate web site, which as of this writing leads with an amusing animated film featuring the polar bears that appear in the company's advertising. You could easily spend an hour on the site without spotting a news release.
Among branded web apps, Kraft's iFood is a terrific source for recipes and food tips. Audi's iPhone driving challenge is strictly entertaining unless you click on the ever-present Audi logo to go to the company web site.
Native advertising is sponsored content that appears on someone else's web site, e.g., Forbes' or BuzzFeed. It too is non-promotional but service-oriented, imparting information or entertainment that is loosely connected to the company or brand, though its sponsorship is clear.
The best native advertising exists at the intersection of the brand's competencies and readers' interests. Instead of selling the brand, it seeks to "buy" customers by giving them something they might enjoy or find useful.
A good example is American Express' Open Forum, which brings small business owners together to share learnings on a range of topics. A decidedly less didactic example is a recent BuzzFeed posting of "The 12 Cats Of Chrismahanukwanzakah." It features cute photographs of cats and kittens in holiday settings, all taken with Samsung's new Galaxy smartphone. Cat photos on the Internet? How could it miss?
2. Big Data. Forget global warming. An even more imminent threat is the digital exhaust that accompanies every turn we make in our hyperconnected world.
Whether surfing the web, watching TV, reading an e-book, carrying a mobile phone, swiping a credit card, or using the growing number of everyday things plugged into the Internet, consumers leave a digital trail of their habits, preferences, associations, and even aspirations. All of which presents problems and opportunities for PR practitioners.
The problem is as clear as the headlines. People aren't too worked up by Edward Snowden's revelations about the NSA. But wait until they discover what Google and Walmart know about their daily habits. Smart companies are already reviewing their privacy policies and ensuring that they meet industry best practices.
And because someone will always try to push the envelope on the strictest policies, the best PR practitioners are partnering with company lawyers and marketers to ensure everyone understands the spirit, as well as the letter of the law, regarding the collection, distribution, and use of customer information.
The opportunity for PR practitioners is to mine customer information to develop greater insight into their needs, values and aspirations, as well as to uncover the best way to engage them as individually as possible.
To date, PR people have used data mining primarily to monitor what is being said about clients in the blogosphere and to modulate their response to trending attacks and crises. A few companies have taken the next step of using customer data to better target their messages. Merck, for example, uses Weather Channel data in scheduling instore promotions for products ranging from sun tan lotion to allergy medications.
But no one, to my knowledge, has knitted the available strands of customer data into the fabric of new offers. That is the real promise of Big Data and I expect someone will realize it in 2014. But there is little question that PR people need to acquire industrial-grade data analytic skills to stay on top of the practice.
3. Finally, public relations' center of gravity is shifting dramatically.
In terms of classical philosophy, PR has always been about rhetoric. Going back as far as Edward Bernays, PR people have traditionally come largely from the ranks of journalism. Though the best PR people have had the benefit of psychological and sociological insights, their primary product was publicity and promotion. Pushing stories.
Beginning with the social upheaval of the 1960s and peaking during the corporate scandals of recent years, PR has been increasingly about politics in a generic sense of stakeholder relations. Sometimes, and not always to the the practice's credit, that has led to the adoption of political techniques such as grassroots organizing and poll-testing messages. The primary goal has been persuasion or, failing that, redirection.
But the confluence of digital technologies, media fragmentation, and consumer power has led to the practice of public relations as ethics. Not in the school-marmy sense of being the "company conscience," but in the deeper meaning of helping an institution find and keep its higher purpose based on a shared understanding of its values, beliefs, and mission.
That is the theme of a new model developed by the Arthur W. Page Society, a professional association of the world's leading corporate communications officers.
My greatest wish for 2014 is that trends 1 and 2 are guided by trend 3.