From Increased Technology to More Humanity, 17 PR Leaders Look to 2018, Reflect on 2017

As Aflac’s chief brand and communications officer Catherine Hernandez-Blades says: Nobody could have predicted the Trump Effect on our industry one year ago. Yet 17 courageous PR and marketing leaders are here to prognosticate about 2018 and reflect on 2017’s lessons. Several needs run through this article, including the need for communicators to do better work as audiences become more sophisticated; the need for PR pros to keep up with technology; and the need for brands to reflect the moral attitudes of their audiences.

boltonRoger Bolton, President, Arthur W. Page Society

Prediction for 2018: The role of the CCO will continue to increase in stature and value in response to the growing need to find common ground during a time of polarizing tribalism and strife. CCOs will help enterprises listen to stakeholders and communicate their commitment to working with people of good faith to build societal value. Within the C-suite, the importance of collaboration will continue to increase, putting a premium on the contribution of CCOs who know how to build alliances and align colleagues around common goals and values.

Lesson from 2017: From Sebastian Junger, author of Tribe, I learned tribalism was naturally selected in ancient hunter-gatherer times. The sense of belonging we get from sacrificing for our tribe is positive, but the need to demonize a common enemy is destructive. Our challenge is to enhance the former without triggering the latter.

Andrew BowinsAndrew Bowins, Executive Director, Corporate Reputation and Digital Engagement, KPMG LLP

Prediction for 2018:The communicator is dead, long live the communicator. 2018 will usher in a new era for the profession requiring pros to match savvy communications and reputation management skills with new skill sets that may be foreign to the traditionalists. Skillsets in coding, data and analytics, omni-channel management and paid branded content will need to become part of the toolkit. PR 101 still applies, but a digital retrofit is needed to drive the profession forward.

Lesson from 2017:Content is king but content without purpose is noise. 2017 was an era of content pollution; people tuned out and no longer trust what they’re reading. Time to get back to the basics and create meaningful content that resonates with a defined audience and moves people to act. Less is more and third-party advocacy from earned media will rise to the top of the funnel.


Ally BuninAlly Bunin, VP, Employee Engagement & Internal Communications,Brighton Health Plan Solutions

Prediction for 2018:Internal Communications will be renamed Employee Communications because there’s no longer a wall between internal and external messaging. Whatever gets distributed internally is fair game to be shared on social media or discussed broadly with anyone at any time. The firewall has burned down and there’s no going back.

Lesson from 2017: In employee communications, content is not king, context is. You win when you blend them seamlessly.


ChamberlinDavid Chamberlin, SVP & CCO, PNC Financial Services Group

Prediction for 2018:Predicting is difficult but my hope is that CCOs and their teams will begin to dive more deeply into data and metrics that are available to them and leverage it to better serve their companies. Those metrics are a key part of the puzzle and can help better position them as businesspeople and also allow them to be more strategic communicators.

Lesson from 2017:Our jobs involve numerous stakeholders with very diverse opinions. You’re never going to please everyone 100% of the time. UCLA coach John Wooden said, “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is who you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” If you focus on character, your reputation will take care of itself.


Steve CodySteve Cody, Co-Founder, CEO, Peppercomm

Prediction for 2018: Owing to the plethora of daily societal crises, PR will assume an even more important role within the C-suite. Every organization is vulnerable to tweets, fake news and is expected by employees to take a firm, public stance on important issues. Patagonia and the Utah National Parks is a great example. CCOs must throw out their old crisis playbooks. They need to identify vulnerabilities and understand supply chain issues, develop approved messaging in advance and prepare to respond in a manner that reinforces corporate purpose. Many PR pros have yet to adopt best practices for avoiding image, sales and stock price implications.

Lesson from 2017:The industry lost sight of reality. The correction in 2018 will be less giddiness about digital and big data and more focus on solving business problems. It’s not about AI, AR or digital…it’s about generating sales and helping improve a company’s bottomline. Sometimes billboards are the best ROI for a product, according to a recent British survey.


Paula DavisPaula Davis, SVP, Corporate Affairs & Communications/Chief of Staff to the CEO, HARMAN

Prediction for 2018: We will see communicators becoming BFFs with their HR counterparts to engage future candidates earlier in their education, careers and searches and to more effectively connect with and tell the story of a company’s purpose, people and culture. It’s a buyer’s market, especially in tech. Skilled workers face limitless opportunities. PR will need to play a more substantial and leading role in helping companies recruit and retain top talent.

Lesson from 2017: Communicators are benefitting from a consistent reinforcement of their organization’s values, culture and leadership. Consistency and transparency in policies and protocols also help reduce controversies that can rise from divergent perspectives. Rather than being the single voice or gatekeeper, effective communications pros are empowering and equipping a variety of thought leaders and leveraging a mix of rich, easy-to-digest digital communications to engage key audiences and earn trust and equity.


Fitzpatrick_AAllison Fitzpatrick, Partner, Davis & Gilbert, LLP

Prediction for 2018:In September, the FTC sent warning letters to 21 influencers, including Sophia Vergara, Lindsey Lohan and Naomi Campbell, alleging they failed to disclose material connections in their sponsored Instagram posts. In 2018, the FTC will bring a formal enforcement action against a major celebrity for violating the FTC Endorsement Guides–whether it is brought against one of the influencers mentioned above or a Kardashian. The FTC has been moving in this direction for some time. 2018 will be the year it formally charges a well-known celebrity influencer for violating the Endorsement Guides.

Lesson from 2017:Being transparent about your paid sponsorships is not only the right thing to do, but it will keep you out of legal hot water, whether you are an influencer, a marketer, a publisher or a social media platform. When making disclosures, avoid relying on a platform’s built-in tools, as the FTC has advised most of these tools provide inadequate disclosures.


FLIORErin Flior, Senior Director of Digital Communications, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, National Office

Prediction for 2018: With so much content being created, organizations will shift creative budgets to ideation, editing and promotion, doubling down on investment in user-generated content and influencer marketing opportunities.

Lesson from 2017:Audience segmentation and content personalization is ever more critical to driving action and increasing engagement in a crowded and competitive landscape.


Dave GuarinoDave Guarino, VP, Global Head of External Communications, S&P Global

Prediction for 2018:We’re going to see a greater emphasis placed by communicators on preparation for and response to cyber security issues and intrusions. At the corporate communications level, we’re also going to see greater internal coordination between communicators and government affairs teams given the media’s increasing focus on political issues.

Lesson from 2017: Technology didn’t slow down. Communicators needed to make a commitment to growing their technology acumen to stay ahead of competitors, predict trends and news stories and more effectively engage with key stakeholders and clients.


Catherine BladesCatherine Hernandez-Blades, Chief Brand and Communications Officer, Aflac

Prediction for 2018: At this time last year, it would have been impossible to predict the “Trump Effect” on our industry. Yet, here we are. In 2018, I think #MeToo will inspire more movements. Unfortunately, people will still behave badly. Due to many of the tools we use as professional communicators, like social media, for example, we’ll have access to much more information at unprecedented speed, so they won’t get away with it as much, hopefully.

Lessons from 2017: Three lessons: pundits are prolific, but they should not call themselves journalists; the half-life of technology continues to be crushing; and doing good because it’s the right thing to do is not only ethical, it’s also great for business.


Allyson HugleyAllyson Hugley, President, Measurement and Analytics Practice, Weber Shandwick

Prediction for 2018: In 2018, PR will shift attention to emerging challenges that have the potential to compromise confidence in our industry – bot traffic, audience fraud and biased machine-learning algorithms. We will also begin to see a concerted effort to elevate understanding around the range of ethical questions and challenges posed by AI and the role of communications in addressing those challenges.

Lesson from 2017:As much as we fear and fantasize about the potential of AI, a considerable amount of human hours, effort and oversight are required to train AI systems to deliver useful outcomes. The best results (for now) still come from a human-machine balance that skews more human than machine.


Evan KrausEvan Kraus, President, Managing Director, Operations, APCO Worldwide

Prediction for 2018:With trust in large institutions waning, look for companies to push even harder to make themselves feel more local, to reconnect with communities where they work and operate in authentic and impactful ways. This means an even greater role for employees, who will be increasingly unbridled to serve as advocates, and for technology, where programmatic content targeting using increasingly robust data models will expand dramatically.

Lesson from 2017:There is no limit to how fast a movement can take hold. From #MeToo to Hate Has No Home, organic social movements from the grassroots caught fire and made an impact across the country.

LampMichael Lamp, SVP, Social & Digital Media, Hunter Digital

Predictions for 2018: I expect the online and offline worlds to collide even further. Greater adoption of VR technology will lead this trend, but so will more emphasis on the reinforcement of marketing messages across all consumer channels. Our phones will become even more of a connective tissue, allowing us to seamlessly receive, translate and (re)deliver IRL messages to various digital audiences. We’re all influencing someone, after all. This is especially intriguing for PR pros, as the earned messages we place carry trusted and significant weight and must complement (not contradict) messages delivered in paid and owned environments.

Lesson from 2017: The public isn’t yearning for more content from brands. Sorry. What it is hungry for is better, more personal content that it can relate to, either functionally or emotionally. And as PR pros, we have to get smarter about how we source that content and where we distribute it.


MarinoPete Marino, CCO and Chief Public Affairs Officer, MillerCoors,

President, Tenth and Blake

Prediction for 2018:The Disney and 21st Century Fox deal is just the tip of the iceberg on consolidation as media players realize they need to bundle more scale to deliver audiences and content that marketers demand.


Lesson from 2017: I re-learned in this world of social media to avoid reacting too quickly and posting something when provoked. It’s very easy to want to respond, but the upside is typically not there. It’s best to let sleeping dogs lie, not respond and let the news cycle move to something else.


PrinceMatt Prince, Sr. Manager, PR & Brand Experience, Taco Bell

Prediction for 2018:Experiential marketing will push past micro-influencers as the buzz word for the year. Brands will disguise the selling of products as the selling of experiences – using localization, augmented reality and one-to-one interactions to accomplish it.

Lesson from 2017: Know your place, know your space and get all your executives media-trained.



Rob_Stoddard_printRob Stoddard

SVP, Industry & Association Affairs, NCTA-The Internet & Television Association

Prediction for 2018:With growing acknowledgment that social media platforms aren’t a panacea for our social ills, and that they can harm as well as help our social discourse, in 2018 communicators will need to marry social responsibility with authenticity to generate meaningful results in social media.

Lesson from 2017: It’s not just “a PR problem.” Brands must live up to their promise through their corporate behavior. PR alone will never save you.


TankStacey Tank, CCO, The Home Depot

Prediction for 2018: Companies will spend more energy (and money) syndicating their content versus over-producing content that too few people consume.

Lesson from 2017: In the darkest times, we cannot forget to tell stories of hope. When times are at their worst, humanity can be at its best, as we saw during the unbelievable number of disasters in 2017.


WisehartMelissa Wisehart, Director, Biddable Media, 22squared | Atlanta

Prediction for 2018: Although Facebook historically has been a walled garden, given the increased pressure for transparency (from Russian-funded ads for U.S. elections) and reporting snafus that have eroded trust in its reporting and metrics, I expect Facebook will allow key tech partners and agencies a peek behind the curtain. As campaigns and data become more connected, this will be an amazing thing for digital marketers looking to follow the consumer cross-device and cross-platform.

Lesson from 2017:Strategies are nothing without execution. As marketing initiatives become more advanced, implementation of those strategies has become more complex. I’ve learned that planning tactical implementation along with strategy ensures that you’re up and running much more quickly and you’ll face fewer roadblocks.

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