Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

From PR to Strategic Communications

An evolution of the PR industry is in the offing, one that demands a multifaceted approach to communication that is in sync with a new generation.
Published 17 Jan, 2024 04:45pm

The PR industry has thrived in the spotlight over the past decade. Whether on a G2G, B2B, or B2C level, it has played a vital role in international diplomacy, global movements, political campaigns, business moves and in capturing consumer attention. More recently, we have seen PR lead and steer conversations on major world events and movements such as Covid-19, Vision 2030, BLM, the Russia-Ukraine war and climate change. In fact, Taylor Swift’s PR team currently has America crediting her for holding up the US economy with her blockbuster tour.

This means that stories matter. As does their amplification. And how we tell them. And to whom we tell them. Stories bring impact. Told right, they have the ability to change perspectives, perceptions and outcomes. Remember, Qatar and the FIFA World Cup? Smart storytelling is at the core of PR.

Yet, in a world ruled by trends, influencers, AI, algorithms and Gen Z, the current spotlight on PR has also exposed the limitations of traditional and frankly old-school PR methods. Press releases, articles, event attendance, holding statements and more of the like seem increasingly rudimentary.

An evolution of the industry has been in the offing, with a demand for a more multifaceted approach to communication that is in sync with a new generation, shifting consumer behaviour and the changing nature of stakeholders, information consumption patterns and trends. As a result, on a macro level, we are witnessing the global PR industry transitioning and diversifying into what can be termed “strategic communications.” Indeed, the greats of our time – Edelman, Weber, WPP, Shandwick, to name a few – no longer identify as PR practitioners alone, but rather as creative communicators and agents of change.

This transformation is in approach and impact, rather than a mere shift in nomenclature. What does this mean?

It means companies now want much more from their PR experts. One-dimensional public-facing communications strategies don’t cut it anymore. They demand specialised approaches in both information distribution and reception that align with the industry’s changing landscape. In other words, in a world where the Kardashians brand of reality business dominates Forbes, Imran Khan is a 24/7 TikTok trend and Zelensky shoots for the cover of Vogue in the middle of a war – things have changed rather drastically.

It also means a re-culturing in the way we communicate. It means that the PR industry cannot afford to live on the values of a world that no longer exists.

How does this transformation and re-culturing impact the micro level and what does it mean for Pakistan, a burgeoning communications industry?

On the corporate front, a move to strategic communications means a shift from a once primary focus on press releases and journalist-led content towards leveraging strong community voices for greater authenticity. The native article and jostling for a press release to appear in Dawn, The News or The Express Tribune – the Tier A broadsheet Holy Grail – doesn’t yield the impact it once did. Why? Because the generation consuming content is not looking at the broadsheets. The generation consuming newspapers and making decisions, is, to put it bluntly, moving out.

The new generation has its own voice and values – none of which comes through a newspaper. This generation are not only consumers; they are creators and collaborators of content, of movements and trends. A look at the explosion of social media platforms from TikTok, Instagram to Snapchat, proves exactly this.

Gen Z is not part of a wider global conversation. They are the conversation itself. Take Greta Thunberg, Zendaya, JoJo Siwa, Coco Gauff. Take Shaheen Afridi, Naseem Shah, Shae Gill, Dananeer. Enough said.

However, the digital space is tricky. Communicators will have to create a unique presence for their work in a saturated space. While influencer marketing has dominated, influencer fatigue has set in. This doesn’t mean the end of influencers but calls for an evolution of content and briefs, exemplified by the rise of micro and nano influencers with hyper-focused content.

This also means that the way we measure influence will change. At the moment, this is measured largely through numerical value: reach and impressions. These are the factors that dominate creative and budgetary decisions currently and are frankly the bane of every comms team’s existence.

However, ahead, there will be a gradual but important shift towards the qualitative nature of the digital landscape and of communications in general. This means, contrary to popular belief, that the data game is likely to make way to the qualitative, where feelings, comments and resonance have more space in decision-making, along with numbers and reach.

As AI becomes more integrated with communication, from content creation, reporting and more, the expectations from communicators will adapt. Prompt engineers, for instance, will likely be a key entry-level position at bigger communications firms. AI will not replace communicators; it will simply evolve their skill set. In fact, AI will open up avenues for companies in Pakistan to establish a greater footprint in global markets, giving professionals the quick understanding and access that previously took years to acquire. Communicators learning how to harness the power of AI will have a significant role to play in the industry.

Another change will be the degree of reliance on communicators to build new properties for clients, as opposed to simply working to leverage existing networks. This could take the shape of media, events and entirely new business platforms.

Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 is the most impactful example of this. The Saudis are creating their own global narrative as a progressive country master rebrand, with key tangible events and platforms within it. The entire country is a stakeholder, making it inclusive and creating vision ambassadors out of an entire population.

In Pakistan, up until recently, communicators have relied heavily on existing media networks and leveraged existing platforms for visibility. However, with information continuing to be cluster fed on these networks, seeded messages are more often than not missed or drowned in the cacophony of newsfeeds. This will lead to the growth of more owned platforms for greater narrative control and targeted audience consumption and it will take the shape of both digital and physical properties. Such properties also open up the doors to more experiential sharing and consumption of information.

In the face of clutter, communicators will also need to guide clients through the information ecosystem, helping them discern authenticity from inauthenticity. With the rise of ‘thinkfluencing’ and opinions as news, the increased awareness of global and local media agendas and constraints, the potential to be misled, to get trapped in propaganda or clickbait headlines will grow, and communicators will need to learn how to separate the proverbial wheat from chaff.

The future will also witness a more significant focus on internal communications within organisations, recognising the power of employees as content marketers and advocates – similar to what Saudi Arabia is doing with their Vision 2030 rebrand. As I write this, #RiyadhSeason is currently in full swing and is bringing the who’s who of the sporting and entertainment worlds to the Kingdom, for the Kingdom, by the Kingdom.

This internal communication focus may seem obvious, but it will be, in fact, a very large ideological shift. Until recently, most companies and the communications industry, put the majority of their budgets on an external public. This will change as the understanding of the power of the employee as company advocate grows. The power of one’s own population as one’s ambassador. This shift will also occur as a reflection of the preferences of a generation who don’t conform to traditional power structures and hierarchies, and who thrive when treated as collaborators in the workplace. It will be an era of reverse mentoring.

Finally, the need for an authentic understanding of people will increase the role of psychology in communications. The future will see more synergy between psychology and communication campaigns, narrative building and messaging. I would say that strategic communications companies will make way for psychologists and community counsellors within their organisations.

In many ways, it feels like we as communications professionals are only just waking up to the potential of our industry. It is an exciting shift reflecting a changing world where the industry’s boundaries will continue to expand.

Selina Rashid Khan is Founder & CEO, Lotus Client Management & Public Relations.
@selinarashid on X