Lynn ApplebaumLynn Applebaum

Top PR pros analyzed the seismic shifts reshaping the marketing communications business during a panel discussion presented by Public Relations Society of America's New York chapter on April 17 that was held by Makovsky & Co.

Henry Feintuch, president of Feintuch Communications, led the panel in sharing their top takeaways about the dramatically shifting PR landscape. SPOILER ALERT: No one used the words “public relations” in their observations.

Barri Rafferty, president/CEO of Ketchum, talked about how pervasive technology is in driving the industry’s dramatic changes. She discussed the increasing importance of left-brain analytics in tracking the consumer journey, starting with shifts in how people get news and with the need to connect with key audiences in non-traditional ways.  She contrasted this with the importance of right brain creativity, and with the increasing importance of visual storytelling.

(l to r.) Grace Leong, CEO + partner, Hunter; Barri Rafferty, president & CEO, Ketchum; Henry Feintuch, president, Feintuch Communications; Jon Iwata, IBM senior advisor and executive fellow, Yale School of Management; and Bill Doescher, author,(l to r.) Grace Leong, CEO + partner, Hunter; Barri Rafferty, president & CEO, Ketchum; Henry Feintuch, president, Feintuch Communications; Jon Iwata, IBM senior advisor and executive fellow, Yale School of Management; and Bill Doescher, author, "Dear Folks: Essays and Insights from a Public Relations Leader."

Rafferty observed that there is a shift in corporate social responsibility and how it can be a “force for good,” citing increased opportunity for public and private sponsorships. She cited Patagonia’s environmental campaigns and Nissan’s championing of women driving in the Middle East as examples.

Social commerce changes, led by China, is a third area in which Rafferty saw major shifts in the customer shopping journey. Microtargeting with geo-tracking uses technology to recommend shopping choices to consumers in real time on what to buy and where to buy it near their immediate location.

Jon Iwata, former IBM senior VP & chief brand officer, took a look at the way PR is practiced today. PR professionals need to “unlearn thinking about controlling messaging, storytelling, positioning and content creation.” There is a shift from thinking about an audience as a monolithic large group, to targeting individuals with personalized delivery due to the phenomenon of data.

For practitioners to make this shift requires a significant investment in skills, digital technology and culture, according to Iwata.  Some call this "CommTech," modeled from MarTech, which is transforming marketing. While almost all communications teams today are creating digital content and making it available on social platforms, CommTech goes further -- it engages people in a highly personalized way to take action, not just receive a message or story. So, while CommTech may be a radically new operation that we must build, its purpose reminds us of what good PR and communications have always been about: nurturing people's behavior. The real job is “understanding people and what drives them.” 

Iwata, who is now executive fellow at Yale School of Management, said that the chief communications officer is the best person to be responsible for the brand and that brand management is a dead end if a company looks at its brand primarily in terms of customers and prospects. Brands need to communicate and resonate with ALL stakeholders, especially policy makers and employees.

Grace Leong, CEO of Hunter, said industry professionals need a stronger combination of “head and heart” strategic skills/knowledge, and the desire to be constantly learning and adapting. Beyond strong writing, verbal skills and media relations, PR pros need to master data management to drive insights, balanced by great emotional storytelling that connects to audiences.

Leong illustrated this through the power of Fred Rogers (PBS’s "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood"), to connect with children by storytelling during an era when most children’s programs used visuals and technology to superficially attract children. She reflected on whether people are starting to reject so much screen engagement and if “the screen has cracked.”  Based on a recent New York Times opinion piece by Nellie Bowles, (Human Contact is Now a Luxury Good, March 23, 2019), she conjectured that  mainstream audiences beyond the very wealthy may start to value more human interaction over their connection with technology.

“From the impact of AI to the implications of data on personal geo-targeting, four outstanding leaders in our profession gave us valuable ideas on how to navigate the future of communications,” said Leslie Gottlieb, president, PRSA-NY.

The speakers made clear that the PR industry needs to adapt to an ever-quicker pace of societal and technological change. As technology blurs the lines between marketing and PR’s role in the marketing mix, PR pros need to increasingly focus on bottom line client results and how they genuinely connect with their audiences in ways the drive results beyond their controlled corporate messaging.

The event celebrated the launch of Bill Doescher's book,  “Dear Folks,” which contains his reflections, insights and practical lessons learned during his career of more than 50 years.

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Lynn Appelbaum is a professor in the advertising/PR program of The City College of New York.