5 Axes of Convergence that are Transforming the PR Industry

Tony D'Angelo

The storied ballplayer/philosopher Yogi Berra once said, “The future ain’t what it used to be,” and that’s especially true now for communication professionals of all stripes. The future has changed because of a phenomenon so pervasively powerful that practitioners risk irrelevance if they don’t attend to it: convergence.

Convergence along a variety of axes is changing the behavior of PR and communication professionals, journalists, and information consumers inside and outside organizations. The professionals in this morphing environment are challenged more than ever to understand these forces and assess what they should change in their own practices, and what should remain the same.

First, we must recognize that convergence is happening on a variety of fronts as technologies, changing relationships, and new ways of doing business are breaking down the walls between disciplines, organizations and audiences. Convergence is fundamentally changing the way they interact. Here are five axes of convergence that are transforming the entire playing field and thus the way the game is played:

1. Media outlets and media sources

Today, any of us can be a publisher or broadcaster. In a sense, we’re all simultaneously content generators and audiences, the former struggling for attention, credibility and influence, the latter for data, guidance and the truth.

In this universe, PR professionals and their organizations (or clients) aren’t beholden to the news media to reach their audiences; they are themselves mass media. But the right to be heard certainly doesn’t include the right to be trusted, so earning trust becomes mission critical for media companies old and new. In a day when accusations of “fake news” and claims of “alternative facts” strain credibility and heighten suspicion and conflict, trustworthiness earned through consistent behavior—not verbal claims—becomes a mandatory differentiator.

2. Competitors and collaborators

Over the past few weeks I’ve seen industry colleagues collaborate and compete in new ways, and sometimes do both with the same parties in different contexts. One friend with a major PR firm answered an RFP and showed up to give a client pitch against, as expected, other agencies—and against, unexpectedly, the new “content generation division” of a major newspaper. This newspaper, like its industry counterparts, is under huge economic pressure as its pages shrink, and has established a business unit to compete against the PR firms it sometimes must engage with to get stories and access to sources.

How will that new relationship play out? Time will tell, but entering a business that journalists are commonly skeptical or even disdainful of signals a new day. In that very same pitch, the competing agencies and media companies could be up against, for example, documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock of “Supersize Me” fame. In a presentation at the 2017 Public Relations Society of America International Conference in Boston, Spurlock described his GE-branded work, Focus Forward Short Films, a series of three-minute stories about innovation.

Here we see Spurlock, once the bane of another mega-corporation’s existence with his innovative documentary about fast-food excesses, now doing branded content work, and potentially competing against PR and advertising agencies—and even media outlets hungry for new revenues. That’s a competitive landscape that couldn’t have existed in those quaintly nostalgic days of the early 21st century.

3. Physical and virtual reality

Physical and virtual worlds are also converging, changing the ways we inhabit them both. Communication theory is built on the concept that the most effective communication method is face-to-face, thanks to its powers of authenticity, interaction and (when done right) empathy. While research data bears this out, what about those instances when the face of the sender and/or the receiver is virtual (and increasingly lifelike)?

My colleague Dan Pacheco, who teaches courses in virtual reality and 360-degree video at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, says the old adage about the effect of experience on perception, “you hadda be there,” is no longer true. “You don’t have to be there,” he notes in one of his lectures, describing virtual reality as “the ultimate empathy machine.” And in both real and virtual worlds, empathy is key to influence.

4. “Official” news and “real” news

Emerging, accelerating technologies bring new capabilities to communicate powerfully, for good or bad. This assigns a shared responsibility to news media, communication professionals, corporations, non-profit agencies and any other type of organization, and to the private citizen-journalists we’ve all become, to depict reality—at least our respective views of it—in open and transparent fashion.

What’s at stake for everyone? A global reputation. Digital and social communication is worldwide and, dauntingly, permanent. We’re all exposed to unprecedented scrutiny, in ways that can approximate an investigative journalist covering a person or organization. We are left with a choice to make ourselves transparent and accurate, or to be exposed by others as being less than that.

Vince Bielski, a senior editor at Bloomberg, told a group of my students that it’s his job to take “official” news from the companies he covers and be skeptical and inquisitive enough to render “real” news about them. While that’s true, I think that this responsibility now also applies to public relations professionals, who risk their professional credibility if they try to foist an official company line on a global community of empowered actors.

In an age of camera phones, drones and ubiquitous social media, PR people who think they can hide anything or fool anyone are almost always eventually wrong. It is better for them to deliver the “real” news themselves in the first place than for others to do it for them; accurate self-reporting will only bolster the credibility of their published content and their organizational reputations.

The Fourth Estate is still essential to democracy of course, but convergence of news outlets, sources and audiences are driving shared responsibilities for transparency because the tools of transparency and reportage are increasingly open to all. Once information is exposed for all to see, this can lead to public discomfort and discord, but also to healthy scrutiny, dialogue and debate among parties, which is the foundation of progress in a democracy.

5. Public relations, communication, advertising and marketing

I’m part of a profession that has, from the early days of the 20th century, suffered from numerous and sometimes conflicting definitions of itself, and confused, critical perceptions. Fast forward to 2017 and not only is the definition of public relations still debated, but so are the definitions and descriptions of strategic communications, advertising and marketing, and those functions’ relationships to one another. How are they the same, or different? Are some of them subsets of the others? Depends on whom you ask.

Convergence of functions and their definitions makes for a confusing and sometimes frustrating mess. But there are ways that first principles of the communication professions can provide clarity for how we should each conduct ourselves as the lines between professions, media and audiences evolve and blur. What hasn’t and won’t change is the essential nature of the three characteristics for people who want to be successful communicators as we sprint toward the century’s second quarter:

  • A clear ethical code: With more media and methods invented, and new bedfellows created, a detailed code of ethics is the foundation for sustained career success. Professional practices, skills, technologies and media will inevitably change; pursuing them with a clear understanding of, and dedication to, what is ethically sound is the primary requirement for communication professionals who don’t want to lose their way.
  • Skill in writing and the arts of expression: Studies have shown human attention spans are contracting. We’re moving into an attention economy where notice must be captured with astonishing speed, so impactful writing is more needed than ever. More content must be delivered faster, which means fewer words and more images, as seen in the rise of infographics and video. These media types, while less reliant on prose, nevertheless require clear, high-impact expression, which forces disciplined ordering of thoughts in order to reach and engage audiences.
  • Continuous learning: Enthusiastic, uninterrupted learning is the only antidote to encroaching irrelevance for communicators. Without that ethic, applied relentlessly over our entire careers, we will become this century’s buggy-whip makers, defining ourselves as being in the horse business rather than the transportation business, and becoming unemployable.

The implications of convergence along multiple axes are profound and mind-boggling, but communication professionals can be encouraged by another convergence—of Chinese characters. In Mandarin, the word “crisis” is composed of the symbols for both “danger” and “opportunity,” and we have even more of the latter today than we could have previously imagined.

Anthony W. D’Angelo, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a professor of practice in public relations at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. D’Angelo’s career has included public relations leadership roles in the corporate, agency and not-for-profit sectors, most recently for ITT Corporation and previously for the St. Joseph’s Hospital Foundation, Magna International, United Technologies and Sage Marketing Communications. D’Angelo is 2017 Chair-Elect for the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), and will become Chair in 2018. He is a past chair of the College of Fellows and a founder of PRSA’s MBA program to bring strategic communications content to MBA curricula nationwide.

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