Public Relations – through the looking glass


What’s the future of PR?  That’s a question the CIPR’s 2020 project is aiming to address through scenario forecasting research being undertaken via a series of focus groups around the UK, led by Professor Jon White.

Taking a peek through the looking glass into another world is always fun; but is it helpful?  The idea of the CIPR project is to identify best, worst and most likely scenarios in order to develop initiatives that can move public relations in a positive direction. 

There are certainly some current trends where action would be useful to propel change for the better or to address negative issues.  But, it is notoriously difficult to predict the future since neither history nor extrapolating from the present are reliable starting points.  Imagining the unimaginable requires mental leaps that are probably beyond most of us.

Nevertheless, there were some interesting debate during the first focus group at Bournemouth University, of which I was a member.  This related to three themes:

image Accessibility – covers a variety of aspects of PR; from its employment by those with powerful interests in society, to ease of entry vs regulation on practice.  Here we would seem to have a choice of paths to follow.  To the left, is an open system with freedom of practice and PR for all; to the right, a closed system with regulation and restrictions where ability to pay would affect access.

Diversity – affects the make up and culture of PR.  The PRCA/PRWeek 2011 Census shows the UK PR industry is dominated by young, white British females – at least in junior positions with senior positions dominated by men.  But it’s not just demographics that count – is there diversity of practice, thinking, social class, skills set and so on.  Again perhaps a choice of paths on the chess board offering us homogeneity with conformity in the search for professional status or variety aligned with complexity of defining PR and an element of chaos in practice.

image Respect – this was seen as the big issue if PR is to reach a positive destination by 2020.  A lack of confidence and clarity in what practitioners do – by clients, the media, and those working in the field was considered.  This requires a focus on tangible outcomes – but that moves us via the chess squares of tactical implementation.  Which means respect for doing the bidding of others.  A higher level of respect for strategic competencies means engaging with intangibles; where the ability of public relations practitioners is not universally accepted.  Selling services and making money is vital for those working in an agency environment where execution dominates.  Although the returns for those consultancies who offer strategic counsel will be higher; that’s probably not the reality for the majority. 

imageThe path here is perhaps a little different.  A schism is forecast; possible with rebranding to a name other than PR required.  We will have the pawns on the PR chess board executing largely publicity or other tactical communications work.  Then the special pieces, who will operate at a more strategic level, involved in influencing decisions and working as executives within organizations or to provide key counsel from outside.

One question is whether a pawn can ever be promoted?  Another: will tactical implementation be recognised and respected as a craft or outsourced to low-cost economies as a production process?

These discussions suggest a few possibilities for the future; undoubtedly there are many other moves which may lead to a victory or an empty board.  Whether we can manage our direction to achieve a desirable outcome is debatable; perhaps some trends are inevitable whilst other others are unpredictable.

The future will be a world as bizarre as any Lewis Carroll could have created.  As with Alice, we will experience numerous oddities, moments of nonsense and illogical shifts of direction.  Whether stepping through the looking glass proves an adventure or a nightmare, only time will tell.    And whether we can plot a successful path alongside all the eccentric characters and events we will encounter, will be fun to find out.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.