[Editor’s Note: As the times seem more uncertain than usual, for this year's PRNEWS annual prediction feature we let our PR prognosticators know they could express uncertainty in 100-words-or-fewer submissions. However, they barely wavered. Moreover, their mood mostly is upbeat—just one person mentioned disinformation, for instance. Instead, most anticipate PR continuing its recent ascension in importance and growth.
Yet, a totally placid 2023 isn’t likely. For example, several, including senior communication executive Dwayna Haley, see disruption in traditional value models. And plenty touched on employee-employer difficulties, requiring an increase in internal communication. In addition, some anticipate a decline in concern for DEI, a continuation of quiet quitting and a difficult market for PR talent.
Moreover, University of Georgia professor Dr. Yan Jin sees more “sticky” PR crises ahead, which means increased business for crisis pros, says kglobal partner Gene Grabowski. Of course, while uncertainty and turbulence mean an unpleasant business environment for many, it's somewhat different for PR pros. Their talent as managers of turbulence raises demand for services.
Speaking of more business, financial maven Rick Gould, of Gould + Partners, anticipates PR enjoying growth and 20% margins in 2023.
However, we include a section on recession in this predictions feature, something we've not done previously. Indeed, Gould believes the U.S. economy will suffer in 2023. Accordingly, few anticipate extravagant PR budgets. As Page president Roger Bolton says, since CCOs may have fewer dollars for upgrading staff skills, chief communicators will experience more stress in 2023, “if that’s possible.”
On a lighter note, new this year, is a section with our predictors’ 2023 PR-related wishes. Most are sanguine. It's published here.]
ACADEMIA, INDUSTRY and INTERNAL COMMUNICATION
Roger Bolton: Good news. CCOs will step up and continue to address global socio-political-economic challenges facing their enterprises. CEOs increasingly see CCOs as being valuable and central to their efforts to transform their company in the face of a rapidly changing business environment.
The bad news is that CCOs also will face increasing cost pressures as they seek to upgrade their teams’ skills and capabilities, leading to more stress than they already are feeling…if that’s possible.
Angela K. Chitkara: The need for strategic counseling has never been greater and will increase. As such, we need to move from tactician to strategic counselor. This will require taking a cross-disciplinary approach toward problem-solving and developing skillsets that reflect our unique expertise in stakeholder analysis, alongside the CEO, chief risk officer and chief talent officer. Our remit is strategic and research-driven, stakeholder- and policy-oriented, and cross-functional and agile.
Ron Culp: Watch for a dramatic increase in the number of agencies and corporations ramping up team training and certification efforts with a major emphasis on increasing knowledge of business essentials. Recent surveys of CCOs and agency leaders rank increasing business acumen right behind the perennial plea for improved writing skills.
Neil Foote: As the world unravels from the COVID pandemic, PR educators and many others in the field will be forced to return to basics. Two years of virtual schooling has hurt many students, who were unable to learn and practice basic grammar, spelling and punctuation because they didn't write enough or simply didn't apply them. Educators at all levels will take a deep breath and a massage dose of patience to ensure students have the proper communication skills for any job, but particularly for those in PR and communication.
Gene Grabowski: Organizations of all sizes will focus much more on internal communication as they seek to satisfy employees who are enjoying increased leverage. As such, companies increasingly will take public stands on social issues important to younger workers, including diversity, climate change and political news. They also will make a greater effort in keeping employees informed about everything involving the company. But they’ll need to resist the urge to spin or mislead employees, who will watch for hypocrisy and inconsistencies.
Dwayna Haley: 2023 will be a go-to-market race that will reinvent the traditional agency model as firms seek a competitive advantage. Unlike years past when large agencies dominated the most coveted brand clients and AOR opportunities, today’s field is saturated with niche, specialty players, intensifying the need to differentiate. We’re already seeing a shift in how agencies determine value (e.g. Edelman’s Mighty Dream and Ketchum’s Trauma-Informed Consultancy). With a possible recession, the lingering effects of Covid, social marketing and more opening opportunities for agency work, 2023 will see amplified focus on future-proofing business.
Karen Mateo: If the pandemic and remote work taught us anything, it’s that employee relations needs to be a key priority in your strategic communication plans. We must find innovative ways to stay connected no matter where we are physically working, and create robust two-way dialogues and integrated outreach campaigns, so all employees are engaged, informed and part of the ongoing conversations around company culture and priorities.
Kim Sample: We’ll see the death of the billable hour. With the increasing cost of high-performing and diverse talent and clients demanding lower rates, PR agency leaders will transition from hourly billing to charging for value delivered.
Alex Slater: The communication labor market will remain competitive, despite a downturn. Some agencies will find pretexts to squeeze staff, thinking employers now have all the power. That is culturally wrong and strategically foolish—sought-after recruits place a premium on high-quality work, DEI, values and retention rates. In some cases, agencies will be creative to be competitive. For example, some leaders believe a degree of in-person collaboration is vital, but newer team members can see it differently. Everyone needs to collaborate—the future of the industry model depends on it.
Michael Smart: 2023 will present whiplash to PR pros who joined the workforce within the last 10 years. They'll go from getting recruited and offers of 20-40 percent raises in 2022, to watching their teams shrink and being expected to demonstrate value and high effort to sustain their employment. In short, no more quiet quitting.
Grabowski: C-Suite members increasingly are concerned about protecting company reputation and how the next crisis will disrupt business and their careers. As a result, crisis firms and experts will see a greater uptick in business than in recent years. In record numbers, companies will craft new crisis plans or refine them. They’ll also develop relationships with crisis experts whom they can call for quick help managing damaging events. And senior execs will participate, to a greater extent than previously, in planning for crises and managing them.
Dr. Yan Jin: 2023 will see an increase in emerging, intertwined sticky crisis challenges across organizational and public arenas. Their formations and mutations will go beyond conventional crisis playbooks or ready-made solutions. Crisis communication leadership, grounded in knowledge, courage and earned respect at the head table, will be quintessential. Crisis leadership training and education will emphasize prevention and preparation. Crisis leaders will not only provide counsel on response, but also champion the redesign of crisis communication architecture, highlighting risk management and conflict resolution, gaining influence in business decision-making in an increasingly competitive, complex environment.
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
Steve Cody: Ageism will become a hot topic in PR. Far too many people are put out to pasture in their mid-to-late 50s simply because we're a youth-obsessed culture (and younger employees work for lower salaries). That'll change because Gen Z and Millennial employees, who lack the depth and breadth to understand the implications of what they say, write, post, etc., have too much control. Hence, the myriad reputation crises PRNEWS covers daily.
Allison Fitzpatrick: As companies continue to focus more on DEI in all aspects of their business, they will place pressure on their collaborators—PR firms and law firms, for instance—to ensure that employees, suppliers and production companies are reflective of their DEI principles and standards.
Foote: The post-George Floyd moment has come and gone. Sadly, too many PR agencies and corporate communication departments are going to scale back their efforts to recruit, retain and promote diverse team members, blaming economic uncertainty and a recession as their excuse for slowing investment in DEI initiatives.
Sample: Workforce DEI strategies will continue to provide value. Leaders who committed to DEI will reap rewards that a diverse and inclusive group delivers: more employee engagement, relevant and impactful work and profitability. Those who suffer from DEI fatigue will realize their critical error.
Aaron Sherinian: 2023 is when innovative faith-fluent voices and platforms will become more prominent in media, business and advocacy. While the majority of the world’s population identifies as people of faith or members of a religion, a study shows a global deficit in coverage, treatment and understanding of faith-related issues in modern society–including in journalism and the workplace. As such, organizations will ask communicators to improve understanding between faith institutions and the media. These sectors will work toward more balanced, thoughtful and accurate representations of faith’s role in people’s lives.
Jaclyn Tacoronte: For DEI, 2023 is all about alignment and advocacy. While some organizations focused on national declarations in 2022, local and regional brands are aligning with spokespersons/people to represent their mission. 2023 will be a great time for brands to fulfill their DEI mission externally and internally. Advocacy efforts will need integrated campaigns. Just like a nice chili pot, you will need press, social media and marketing for it all to work, just as you need beans, sauce, spices and the meat (or tofu).
Jenny Wang: DEI communication will continue to evolve. We’ve seen organizations reckon with and focus–some for the first time–on equity and how best to communicate DEI. Moving forward, we’ll see efforts to embrace and storytell wider notions of diversity in a more comprehensive manner–beyond race/ethnicity and gender. So, messaging inclusive of those who are differently abled, come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, are neuro-divergent, have various immigration stories, etc.
ECONOMY and RECESSION
Culp: Despite strong, mostly double-digit growth during 2022, agencies and brands will revert to the cyclical Chicken Little fear that a much talked about recession is about to hit the U.S. Others will use this as an opportunity to demonstrate their creative skills that help achieve client goals and perhaps help head off a recession.
Rick Gould: In 2022, I predicted here that “growth & profitability will continue to climb.” This happened, as our financial benchmarking surveys confirmed. For 2023, despite a nationwide recession and inflation, the PR industry will continue to spike in growth and repeat with close to 20% average profitability. Tight labor and overhead management, downsizing of office space and modified remote work practices will achieve this prediction. M&A activity will continue as a growth strategy for most firms, as well as agency owners looking to monetize sweat equity in their firm.
Fern Lazar: Against a deteriorating economy, communicating value and creativity will become a litmus test for enduring relationships. C-suite thought leadership, inside and outside of organizations, will be key to maintaining customer and employee loyalty as stakeholders prioritize trust and value as part of their brand decision making.
Dr. Tina McCorkindale: Communicators will have to assuage employees about their job security as we brace for a recession. However, the impact will not be as severe as anticipated. Still, companies will over-prepare (and re-hire some positions if they laid off employees or froze hiring). The talent market will tip back in favor of the employer rather than the job candidate, who will have less power to make demands as they did during The Great Resignation. Flexibility, though, will be key for employee loyalty as more people head back to the office.
Slater: It’s stereotypical to say recession is when PR budgets are cut. But doing that in 2023 will be a strategic error. Corporate leaders can’t just communicate their way out of a recession. But neither can they recover from a recession without communicating—about who they are and what they stand for, in good and bad times. Covid increased the value of organizations’ communication—and the cultural reckoning means companies are defined by stakeholder perceptions of their North Star, culture and ESG commitments, regardless of the economy. Bottom line: keep investing in communication.
ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance)
Gil Bashe: Carbon footprint and ecological impact will rise near the top of the Fortune 500 agenda. More C-Suite leaders will turn to CCOs and financial officers to engage on COP27 commitments. For good reason: 150+ million global citizens are displaced due to climate change and an equal number are undernourished. As communicators, we are the clarion bell that reminds senior executives that the planet doesn’t need people, but people need the planet. Companies know they must track ESG performance and share data with stakeholders and policymakers. Communication is the front-office link to these influential audiences and can rally people toward climate action goals.
Chitkara: There will be a greater need for ESG communication in 2023 as ESG disclosures become mandatory around the world. This will give communicators an opportunity to evaluate what is in the best interest of our clients’ stakeholders, driven by research, policy issues and core strategy.
Haley: A possible recession and political fatigue will give license to softening (or dismissing) recently adopted values, such as purpose-driven brand positioning, heightened focus to diverse stakeholder (versus shareholder) prioritization and building equitable, inclusive work cultures. Since the 2020 social reckoning (post-George Floyd), many are watching to see which companies have aligned to vanity metrics in DEI, CSR and ESG, and who is walking the talk. There’s nothing like tough financial times to put the moral imperative of purpose over profit to the test.
Ben LaBolt: As the debate over what defines ESG continues, successful brands will define their real impact in tangible outcomes, not symbolic language. Putting rainbow colors on a product for Pride Month is much less impactful than dedicating corporate resources and advocacy behind legislation that promotes equality–and passing it. There’s no greater demonstration to staff and customers than taking and delivering on a meaningful action–and holding yourself accountable to the outcomes.
McCorkindale: While there won’t be significant disruptions from 2022 to 2023, we will see some changes. Internal and external stakeholders increasingly will demand that companies do more to fix problems such as climate change and disinformation, as well as social issues. Yet companies won’t respond effectively or quickly enough. Global political challenges, team optimization and better strategic use (and understanding) of digital technologies are other strategic issues that communicators will have to manage effectively.
Bob Pearson: New data science models will show us which attributes of E, S and G matter to each organization’s audience, so it can align with the actual needs of customers. When companies can match the market’s specific needs with their business-related actions to improve society, we have the potential for sustainability that can make a difference. Imagine there are 50 attributes important to how we measure the E. There may be five that are important to a company. Knowing this leads to better programs and results that matter.
Lindsay Singleton: In 2022, some voices spoke against ESG, accusing adoptive companies of corporate wokeism. A divided government in 2023 promises partisan legislative efforts, investigations and hearings targeting these same companies. Despite the rhetoric, new research shows Republicans and Democrats oppose restrictions on corporate ESG activities, but at the same time, voters are conflating ESG with wokeism. Taken together, this means that companies will need to educate stakeholders on what ESG is–and isn’t–to help avoid federal and state efforts to punish them.
Cody: Business FINALLY is awakening to the power of laughter and humor to help attract and retain top talent, ‘teach’ leaders to be more empathic and vulnerable and master crisp, compelling and unexpected storytelling. Organizations with CEOs who are comfortable in their skin will recognize stand-up comedy and improvisational humor are game-changers. Proof? Stand-up comedy is a required three-credit course at Stanford Graduate School of Business. [Editor’s Note: Cody is a professional comedian and author of "Laughing Through the Madness: The Power of Humor in Business" HarperCollins, 1/15/23]
Wang: The stakes are greater than ever for CEOs. In today’s increasingly active stakeholder environment, it’s a must-have, not just a nice-to-have, for CEOs to be effective, decisive communicators (example: Disney’s recent leadership shakeup). Especially amid culture wars and ahead of the next presidential season, there are endless opportunities for serious missteps. The bottom line: no organization can afford for its leaders to be anything less than strong communicators.
Karen Jones: Customer experience will remain king. Gone are the days of selling an ideal; now is the time to show me what you got if you want me to remain loyal. Brand loyalty is all about the experience now, customer service, relationship, ease of use, user experience and intuitive tools. B2C and B2B brands must stand up and provide the customer connection their competition can’t offer.
Michael E. Lewellen: The slide in higher education enrollment–down 10-plus percent nationally in 2022-23 alone–will trigger more direct-to-student messaging, with Instagram video as the primary platform. Content will rely on student voices and stories, focusing on why they chose a particular institution. Expect surgical-strike videos topping out at 30 seconds, with call-to-action messages in the 15-second range.
Pearson: The most undervalued media platform on the planet is Google. Communicators are starting to realize that a new position, search media relations, is critical to building a great media team. If our customers can ‘discover’ our story in its most powerful narrative via search queries, we are able to leverage SEO in new ways. Think of SEO today as ‘old school.’ We should ask if our best narrative is showing up for each query that matters to us.
Samantha Qualls: Opening adult-use cannabis dispensaries in the world’s media capital, NYC, in 2023, will hugely influence media coverage of cannabis, specifically lifestyle media. While media is aware of cannabis, there’ll be more focus on it as it becomes a larger part of mainstream culture.
Smart: Media relations will fragment even further, and the savvy professional will identify her target journalists and influencers by multiple segments. For example, instead of pitching technology journalists, she will build a list of "IT-industry columnists who quote third-parties without breaking news to offer."
Curtis Sparrer: If a recession occurs, it will hit tech publications hard. There will be fewer earned media opportunities because of advertiser cutbacks and staff reductions. As such, as PR pros we must be very careful about how we conduct outreach. Spray and pray will alienate journalists. Instead, be mindful of what you send to whom and why. Also, it is key to be knowledgeable enough about the client and the publication to write a winning pitch.
Suzanne Struglinski: Understanding the difference between what counts as news to a company and what is newsworthy to a reporter will rise in importance in 2023. As the media industry evolves and readers’ habits change, PR pros still will seek earned media, but with better goals about who they want to see, read or listen to that coverage and what action they want readers or viewers to take.
Lewellen: With news outlets like CNN dropping several recognizable paid experts for cost savings, unknown, unpaid names may struggle to deliver the believability of their more-famous predecessors. Until fact-checking proves otherwise, social media cynics may feast on these unknowns. These changes likely will mean PR pros will monitor media more intensely.
METAVERSE and TECHNOLOGY
Nicole Dye-Anderson: This is less of a prediction and more of word of advice with a futuristic slant. As more and more companies and brands outside of the tech space begin to explore technologies like machine learning and AI to provide individualized content, I encourage my fellow PR practitioners and aspiring digital marketers to look into Web3 technologies and AI influencers—if they are not doing so already.
Bolton: Increasing demands from CFOs to show the ROI of strategic communication should lead to more focused efforts by strategic communicators to use CommTech tools to drive not just impressions and reputation, but specific stakeholder behaviors that advance the interests of the enterprise and of the stakeholders.
LaBolt: As we move from Web2 to Web3 and from a desktop experience into the metaverse, communication will change radically. Our audiences will rely upon us not just to deliver words, but experiences that put us at the center of fast-moving technological change and make us not only bystanders but active participants. This will transform customer expectations for communication and marketing. The most innovative brands have a chance to lead us into the future.
Michael J. Lamp: As we see increases in usership and general awareness of Web3/metaverse platforms, a key byproduct of this is a greater focus on (and public discussion of) gaming, in all its forms. Many brands who are trepidatious about jumping headfirst into the metaverse may use 2023 to test the ostensibly safer gaming space and develop programming at the intersection of console, mobile and virtual reality. It’ll be about co-creating with your audience and providing the space for co-creation among your audience and influencers. Ready, Set…Game!
Sparrer: The pandemic-driven commitment to work-life balance will continue, affecting technology decision-makers, too. The consumer-ization of B2B will accelerate. As a result, B2B and consumer PR tactics will continue merging. For example, there is an increase in visual communication, which will continue to outperform words. And where photos used to suffice, now a video is worth 1,000 pictures.
Kelly Williamson: Advancements in augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technology will continue to become increasingly integrated into our daily lives, including the work environment. As we near year three of the global pandemic, virtual collaborative tools and platforms have become an essential means of communication. Fully bridging and integrating the physical and virtual worlds will be essential to maintaining a cohesive culture and to deliver maximum business value.
Jin: A major challenge to healthcare PR practitioners and public health information officers will be how to use strategic communication to address mental and physical health issues associated with pandemic fatigue, a hazard resulting from overexposure to COVID-19-related health messages. Fatigued individuals are likely to have reactance to health communication efforts, including avoiding health information and/or refusing to follow health authorities’ recommendations. In addition, they might become more vulnerable to health misinformation, especially on social media. The key to de-fatiguing at-risk publics and building post-pandemic resilience is yet to be identified.
Lazar: Patients will demand tailored health information and services and increasingly turn to retailers like Walmart and Walgreens for their preventative health requirements. They’ll also demand more engaging content from industry players, reflecting a preference for a tailored sensory connection with information.
Mateo: It felt like 2022 moved at record speed, and the world is only going to move faster and faster. This will continue to have a direct impact on the communication profession, and our ability as practitioners to be nimble and responsive to change will rise in importance. Companies and organizations will place the highest value on communicators who can set the narrative before it is set for them.
Singleton: Americans’ expectations that a company will make public statements about social issues unrelated to its business is down from last year, but that doesn’t mean they are off the hook. Our recent research shows people want companies to focus more on issues related to their core values and to do rather than just say. In 2023, expect more companies to adopt frameworks to help determine when to respond to social issues, what to do and how to reduce their ‘say-do’ gaps.
Williamson: Corporations, particularly those operating in the U.S., will have to navigate a divided government. Division at the federal and local levels will bring a variety of complexities as political and societal expectations may differ. When facing these complexities and national polarization, corporations will have to consider how to communicate and act effectively, which may be difficult to address as tensions rise.
SOCIAL MEDIA and INFLUENCERS
Timothy Chun: Social media had a wild ride in 2022. TikTok’s rise continued, BeReal is the hottest new app and Twitter, well…. 2023’s common thread will be an increase in AI-determined content. To stay relevant, utilize listening tools and go beyond photo recognition. For instance, consider popular music and audio. Instagram just implemented music on static posts. We’ll see more platforms develop ways to connect through music. 2023 also will see more partnerships with micro-influencers. Authentic storytelling and candid moments will be what audiences want from influencers. Additionally, brands will tap influencers beyond typical partnerships, creating content integrated into organic and paid marketing. And super-curated feeds are dead.
Dye-Anderson: In 2022, we saw micro influencers attend the Met Gala, sit front row at Fashion Week; even Queen Bey broke the internet with her single, “Break My Soul.” TikTokers and micro-influencers are the new ‘celebrities.’ This won’t go away anytime soon. Simply, if content is king, TikTok is poised to reign supreme in 2023. (Sorry, Instagram, I still love you.)
Fitzpatrick: Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidance continues to evolve as new forms of marketing gain popularity. We have seen a lot of action from the FTC over the past few years, and we can expect this will continue. In 2023, the updated FTC Endorsement Guides will go into effect, and the FTC will ramp up enforcement activity against influencer marketing, including actions pertaining to the metaverse and child and virtual influencers.
Lamp: Through the TikTok-ification of social media (launches of Reels on Instagram and Shorts on YouTube, to name a few), we’ve seen a change in what drives engagement and brand love. It’s moved from the most polished, studio-generated content to extremely relatable, hyper-approachable, with no filters and choppy edits. This learning about production value vs. the value of production will become more critical in 2023, as the power dynamic continues to shift into the hands of creators and consumers.
Sherinian: If the past few years are an indication, social media influencers are here to stay. In 2023, we will begin to see an emergence of influencer networks. That is, a clearer organization of groups of influencers banding together around a shared purpose–whether that be a community of ideas, of brand identity or a social issue–to maximize the reach of their message.
Jones: In the supply chain and transportation sector, it has been a disruptive few years. With every headwind you can imagine, the industry’s future still is rather unsure as far as stabilization ── which is not what most consumers want to hear. One thing is certain: change and disruption will continue. New technology will strengthen how we operate, with better visibility and communication tools. Automation will make operations safer and more reliable, and dynamic predictive analytical tools will enable us to forecast and manage inventories with greater ease.