Jennifer HawkinsJennifer Hawkins

As the head of a New York-based public relations team specializing in travel and a passionate globetrotter with passport stamps from more than 50 countries to prove it, I’ve always figured that wherever I’m headed, it won’t take me long to discern how to make the most of my time.

During a recent trip with my family to Greece, I decided to leave the itinerary planning to my Gen Z-aged children, who, like so many their age, are impressively well-versed in using social media as a search engine. Literally within minutes—and with no direction from me—both had come up with a world of options for our family to engage and enjoy in the destinations on our vacation, and without referencing a single travel article, website or Google search.

Instead of traditional travel guides, they tapped into travel recommendations on TikTok. As Gen Zers are wont to do, they kept on scrolling as we strolled the sites and streets of Athens and the islands of Mykonos and Santorini. TikTok provided endless ideas for diversions, from “must-go” restaurants and hip beach clubs to fun and traditional historical sites (and what to skip). This dynamic approach allowed us to discover hidden gems and trendy spots, making our travel experience both modern and memorable.

The social media-generated convenience impressed me almost as much as my kids’ desire to take charge of our travel plans. It also drove home an important point that's key for those of us working in travel communications: As public relations continues to expand, PR firms must broaden their apertures to include social media and influencers as part of any 360-degree comms strategy. This is an invaluable way to promote the brands and destinations we represent to broad audiences who no longer rely on the traditional channels that have been central to PR for decades.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jul. '24 Travel & Tourism PR Magazine

It’s no secret that the landscape of digital communications is rapidly evolving. A recent study by Talker Research and Forbes Advisor found that platforms such as TikTok and Facebook Marketplace have become tried-and-true tools for searching and shopping, with 24 percent of participants using these platforms for functions that have long been the realm of search engines, and 13 percent making purchases directly within the apps.

Though the study also found that 84 percent of the population still uses search engines to comb for brand names, there’s a 30 percent decline in such use between Baby Boomers—like me, though I’m right on the edge—and Gen Z whose buying power will soon reign supreme.

Meanwhile, a recent survey of 2,000 Americans commissioned by the online travel agency justfly.com found that social media is key to travel decision-making for Gen Z and Millennials alike, with 81 percent of the former and 75 percent of the latter considering social media when choosing a travel destination and 52 percent and 48 percent, respectively, indicating that the ability to post photos on social media played a role in selecting their vacation destination. This is no surprise to me as I’ve seen this firsthand, but the data is a significant marker for a dramatic shift in both the travel industry and communications.

The FINN Partners travel team has employed social media as well as influencers for over a decade to move the needle for our clients and connect with broad audiences of consumers that, more and more, are beyond the reach of traditional public relations tactics. And with more and more research being published on the impact of social media marketing, we’re constantly getting creative with how to leverage its power to benefit our clients and keep them ahead of the curve.

For instance, when an international hotel brand wanted to tell a story about its growth in the Maldives to a luxury consumer audience, we knew that creating compelling visual assets and narrative storytelling was the best way to do so. Our team collaborated with an influencer storyteller who, as a video host for the luxury publication Travel + Leisure’s Instagram channel, had a wide reach and broad access to that target demographic. The resulting reels and stories generated over 596,000 video views, an estimated 88.9 million impressions, and over 12,700 engagements.

And when a boutique hotel brand with hotspot properties in a few major U.S. cities needed a push to elevate its visual identity—a necessary element of luxury travel research on Instagram and TikTok—our team gave its online presence a complete overhaul, with photo and video assets that were designed to speak to the destination, brand differentiators, and ultimately illustrate an aspirational getaway that any social media user would be thrilled to discover. The savvy pivot of our client’s social media account resulted in a 26.2 percent rise in impressions in the first month.

All of this is to emphasize the point that public relations is at a crossroads. The reliance on traditional media channels like magazines and online text-based publications, while still important, must be complemented with robust social media strategies that meet the current appetite for social media-first discovery. This involves not only understanding where our audiences spend their time but also creating content that aligns with their preferences and behaviors—in other words, exciting content that is discoverable on Instagram, TikTok and Facebook, whether it’s in Greece or Cincinnati.

As PR professionals, we have the opportunity and responsibility to lead this transformation. By expanding our communications strategies to become more integrated, we can ensure that our clients remain at the forefront of their industries, engaging with their audiences in ways that are current, relevant and impactful. The future of PR lies in our ability to adapt and innovate, embracing the platforms and voices that shape today’s digital landscape.

In conclusion, the data is clear: Our audiences are on social media, using their mobile devices, and influenced by authentic voices they trust. It’s time for us to meet them there. Let’s expand our PR strategies to incorporate the full spectrum of digital engagement, ensuring we deliver value and results for our clients in this ever-changing world.

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Jennifer Hawkins is Managing Partner at FINN Partners.