4 Key PR Trends to Watch in 2018

trends 2018I haven't heard Christmas tunes in the shops of New York yet, but any minute they'll be cranking them out. Once I hear that first awful new version of Mel Tormé's "The Christmas Song" everything's going to become a blur of activity, shopping and consumption. Already I'm having mid-January visions of discarded Christmas trees on the sidewalks, the tree branches curled from the weight of ornaments and brittle from the onslaught of steam heat.

Let's face it—the holidays have passed us by, which means I'm late with my 2018 trends list.

With 2017 virtually in the rearview mirror I thought it would be a good time to sit down over a couple of Cobb salads with Katie Creaser, SVP at agency Affect and a longtime friend of PR News, and talk about the trends that'll have the greatest impact on PR practitioners next year. I explained to Katie how guilty I felt that everyone but me had already written some kind of end-of-2017, look-ahead-at-2018 article. She was sympathetic to a point. When I suggested that I make up for lost time by instead writing a look-ahead-at-2019 piece, Katie pulled my iced tea away from me.

"I think you've had enough caffeine for today," Katie said. "Food might calm you down."

I shoveled salad in silence for a minute, and paused for a deep breath.

"You're right," I said. "Somebody somewhere is even later than I am with an industry look-ahead article. Let's stick with 2018."

We polished off our salads and I pulled out my notebook. Here's what we came up with.

1. Brand Reputation Will Have Even More Currency in 2018

Expect an acceleration of brand crises in news cycles, and for all brands to continue to lose control over the narrative in a crisis. "Your brand's reputation is its most valuable asset," Katie said. "You have to build up your brand's reputation now so people know they can trust you when a crisis hits, because when it does so much will be out of your hands." She recommends that communicators focus on what they do have control over. "This means making a move to owned channels, now, including your online newsroom, blog, social media accounts and your website."

2. Brands Are Going to Feel More of an Urge to Express Socially Good Messages—and Giving In to That Urge Is Not Always a Good Thing

We live in a polarizing time, to say the least. Political developments daily inspire nearly anonymous ranting on social channels, and the negativity has filtered into all spheres of activity. In 2017 we've seen brands try to counter that negativity with what they hoped would be perceived as positive messages. Sometimes it works (Burger King's "Bullying Jr." ad, for instance) and very often it doesn't (the Kendall Jenner Pepsi campaign). Every year consumers get more savvy about rejecting hokey feel-good messages from brands; they also get more gleeful about taking down these brands on Twitter and Facebook. "In 2018, brands are going to have to be very careful about sending out inauthentic, socially good messages," Katie said. "Sometimes you just need to sell the sugary beverage or the eye shadow and leave it at that."

3. Pure Media Relations Tactics Won't Work Anymore

Newsrooms continued to thin out in 2017, same as they did in 2016. Guess what's going to happen in 2018? More full-time journalists are going to lose their jobs, and veteran journalists who lost their jobs in previous years are not likely to find a way back into their chosen profession. Sadly for PR practitioners, their CEOs and clients are unlikely to ease up on the pressure to have their brands covered (in a positive light) in reputable, influential media outlets. The situation is even more complex for PR pros representing b2b brands—their CEOs might want to get covered in trade media, but what if journalistically sound trade media as we knew it is extinct?

Journalists themselves are under intense pressure from their managers to score clicks. Whatever their beats might be, they're expected to crack the news cycle with sensationalistic headlines, or "elevated news," to use a term shared with me by Nati Katz, director, technology practice, for Burson-Marsteller. To get clicks and shares, journalists have to resort to tying their coverage to potentially ill-fitting trending news stories. As a result, newsrooms pump out shallow, poorly sourced content.

"We've got more generalist reporters now in business media," Katie said. "Tech reporters don't cover tech products anymore. They're covering politics and personalities. The BuzzFeed model of news reporting is gaining strength." Given that there are fewer journalists with deep resources and deep experience in a particular industry, media relations pros will have to be more creative in 2018 to get their brand stories told. "Brands have to find new ways to support journalists," Katie said.

The changing landscape of journalism presents an opportunity for PR pros—they can have more of an impact on a brand and express their own knowledge of an industry through branded and sponsored content. "Relying 100% on earned media no longer works," Katie said. "The model should be to support paid and owned media with earned media."

Speaking of earned media...

4. Ad Agencies Will Push Even Harder to Take Earned Media Away From PR

Ad and digital agencies will get better at supporting their efforts with earned media on social platforms and through press coverage. "Fight for your piece of the pie," Katie said. "Don't let the ad agencies take it away from you."

—Steve Goldstein, editorial director, PR News @SGoldsteinAI