The Year In P.R.

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As 2015 comes to a close, it seems more than fitting to take a quick look back at the year and what may come in 2016. After all, as the classic saying goes, “we can’t know where we’re going unless we know where we’ve been.”  So with that mind, here is my summation of the 2015 year in public relations.

Most Notable Crises

Crisis management continued to be a cornerstone of the industry, as 2015 saw its fair share of major crises. There are way too many to list, so I have chosen to focus on the ones I felt dominated much of the year or had a very significant impact on an organization and/or individual.

Subway/Jared Fogle – In probably one of the most shocking and upsetting crisis no one saw coming at the start of the year, Subway’s once very popular spokesman Jared Fogle was indicted and subsequently prosecuted on child pornography charges. Subway quickly distanced itself from Fogle and cut all professional ties. Some have debated the fast food chain’s response to the crisis, including me, in this post. However, Subway’s response aside, perhaps the greatest lesson drawn from this crisis was the reminder of the inherent risk involved in tying a company brand so closely to an individual spokesperson.

Bill Cosby – Celebrity scandals, sadly, are rarely ever unexpected. Still, it was shocking for many to witness the dramatic downfall of a once beloved television icon. Much of the first half of the year saw woman after woman come forward with accusations of sexual assault against Bill Cosby. Cosby has and continues to deny the allegations and as the year comes to a close, he has filed a defamation suit against seven of his accusers. Whatever side of the issue you stand on – whether you believe Cosby is guilty or innocent, the damage is done. It seems highly unlikely that Cosby, who built his career and success on the image of being the warm, lovable pseudo-dad, loving uncle type, can recover from this. The lingering questions and doubts and suspicions will always remain.

Volkswagen Recall – Car manufacturer crises are nothing new. Recalls, accusations and allegations of companies circumventing responsibility to cut corners and save money are constant. And this year was more of the same, when U.S. regulators accused Volkswagen of cheating on emission tests. While the German manufacturer company responded quickly with a public statement admitting wrongdoing and later followed that by then-CEO Martin Winterkorn publicly apologizing to the public at a press conference, things still fell apart for the company. Their stocks and sales tumbled, Winterkorn later resigned and at year’s end, the company’s stocks and sales, as well as its public image are all still on a downswing.

Brian Williams – Despite all the talk in recent years of traditional news media dying and being replaced by online news sources and social media, there is still an appreciation and respect for the traditional news source. And by that token, there is still a certain standard of quality and credibility expected of journalists; a fact NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams learned this year, after reports surfaced that he had fabricated and exaggerated parts of his experience in a military helicopter during the Iraq War. What followed were awkward, fumbling apologies from Williams and a six-month suspension without pay, after NBC officials did their own investigation of the allegations. Williams has since been transferred to MSNBC and was officially replaced by Lester Holt as NBC News Nightly anchor.

Chipotle – It has been a rough year for fast-casual restaurant giant, Chipotle. First, there was a salmonella outbreak in Minnesota, found to be tied to the tomatoes being used at the locations. Then there was a foodborne virus called Norovirus, which affected a total of 100 customers and employees combined, at a Ventura County restaurant. But the restaurant chain’s biggest crisis came when more than 30 cases of E. Coli in Washington and Oregon caused them to temporarily shut down 43 restaurants across the two states. While many have praised Chipotle’s handling of the crisis – including, timely and consistent updates to the public, taking full responsibility, cooperating fully with government officials and agencies – these incidents still remain a significant blow to the popular restaurant chain. As I began writing this, news of five new cases of E. Coli from other locations of the restaurant, broke. You do have to start wondering how many more crises of this nature Chipotle can survive, before customers begin walking away for good.

Ashley Madison – How does a company that is largely built on the privacy of its customers survive a major hack that threatened that very privacy? In the case of Ashley Madison, the website for married individuals looking to cheat on their spouse, I’m not sure it can. I commented on the scandal back in August when it happened and questioned then whether or not the company could recover. As of October, some members of the site were still reporting getting emails from hackers trying to extort money from them in exchange for silence about their being a member of the site and very recently, some members claimed to have blackmail letters sent directly to their homes. The company also still faces numerous lawsuits from its members.

Race – It’s been over fifty years since Martin Luther King Jr.’s seminal “I Have A Dream” speech and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Supposedly we now live in a post-racial world and yet, as 2015 comes to a close, that notion seems highly unlikely. Race, discrimination and treatment of minorities took center stage for much of this year.  From the University of Alabama’s fraternity scandal back in March that saw members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) chapter chanting a racially offensive song to the University of Missouri, which saw walkouts and protests from faculty, students and the football team in response to the university’s poor handling of a series of racial incidents. The situation culminated in the resignation of the university’s president and later chancellor. However, the most notable issue of racial tension throughout the year included the multiple allegations of police misconduct in connection with the arrests and deaths of African Americans. The situation escalated to a series of protest and riots around the US and spawned the #blacklivesmatter movement. Many city and state officials opened investigations into the conduct of the police force but with a very tense presidential year coming up, it remains to be seen if things will get better or worse.

Key Industry Trends

Use of Video – Being visual is always an excellent tool to grab and maintain your audience’s attention and to increase the chances of their remembering your message well after it’s over. Visual elements, such as infographics, charts and videos and more, have always been a big appeal to individuals. And this year saw more of this, especially with the emergence of live video streaming. Video streaming became a big part of the industry’s conversation with the introduction of the apps Meerkat and Periscope, the latter which has quickly amassed a significant number of followers. I broke down the pros and cons of live video streaming in this post and it remains to be seen how truly dominant it will become in the industry. However, the use of video is definitely not only going to stay but also continue to expand and evolve.

Rise of Instagram – Social media continued to be a focal point of the industry, as is likely to be the case for years to come. What was particularly interesting this year with regard to social media, was the growing influence and importance of Instagram. According to statista.com, as of November 2015, the photo and video sharing network had a total of 400 million active users, ranking it seventh on the global chart of most popular social networks and just above Twitter. According to the social network itself, there were 14 million active UK users, while research conducted by Ipsos in August 2015, showed that 19% of internet users in Ireland used Instagram. eMarketer.com reported 11% of internet users in Japan and 55% in Canada were using Instagram and Adweek reported 22% of the population in the Middle East/Africa region are on Instagram. Organizations and brands started paying attention, and if your organization’s audience is teens and young adults, then you really needed to be paying attention as the platform has surged far ahead in popularity within that demographic.

Mobile Marketing – As the pervasiveness of smartphones continued this year and by that token, mobile usage, mobile marketing continued to be a key trend in the industry. Research showed young and adult alike used their smartphones and other mobile devices for everything from shopping, surfing the internet, paying bills, etc. Naturally, brands and organizations paid attention and made continuous efforts to reach their current and new audiences through the medium.

Integrated Campaigns – With the worlds of public relations, advertising and marketing continuing to intertwine and overlap, integrated campaigns employing elements of each continued to be prevalent throughout the year and is likely to continue into the next year.

Emergence of African Markets – On the global level, 2015 saw the continued emergence of African markets in the public relations industry, which began a few years earlier. Global strategic communications firm Hill + Knowlton announced its launch of new operation in Nigeria back in March, making it the eighth African location in the firm’s operations, which already has locations in Tanzania, Egypt, South Africa, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Ghana.

Looking Ahead – Trends To Expect In 2016

Mobile – As noted, the use of mobile devices continued to dominate this year and it is unlikely that this will be changing any time soon. Thus, the industry is tasked with keeping up with this change and aligning its strategies accordingly. I noted the focus on mobile marketing above and while that is sure to continue in 2016, firms and brands are going to have to evolve and adapt even more to take full advantage of the medium. That includes having specific strategic plans focused solely on mobile, understanding the firm’s specific needs and goals with regard to the mobile world, establishing expertise in that specific area, etc. Mobile essentially needs to be treated in the manner that social media eventually has. It’s not enough to throw it in as a small part of a larger plan – it needs to be regarded at its own specific focus and medium.

Good Content Matters – You’ve probably all heard about the traditional press release being dead and with mobile and social media, everyone is always rushing off to the next thing and essentially has little time to read or care about anything longer than a paragraph or two. That may be (not sure I entirely agree), but even in the digital world, good content still matters which yes, means good writing still matters. In fact, in a way it matters even more. Because if you have a very little window of time to grab and hold a person’s attention, delivering poorly worded and badly written content is not going to accomplish that. New or traditional media, public relations is still a storytelling function and the best way to tell that story is still through well crafted, well written, clear and concise content.

PR & Marketing – The worlds of public relations and marketing will continue to merge and blur into each other in 2016. While the two industries are different in many key ways, they do share many similar elements, which often makes the intertwining so seamless and natural. Firms and brands now understand the importance of incorporating elements of public relations, marketing, advertising and new media into creating a successful large scale campaign and how all these industries essentially need each other.

Real Time Feedback – With the world going mobile and essentially having so much of their lives at their fingertips, firms are now able to get more immediate and timely feedback from consumers and the public. While in-depth research and measurement reports are still important, immediate reactions to a new product, an announcement, etc. can be very valuable and more firms are recognizing and embracing this.

Thought Leadership – One of the more recent growing focus in the industry, has been the role and importance of thought leaders and thought leadership, which I wrote about a few months ago. This focus continued to increase this year and is likely to continue in 2016, as many more firms and organizations continue to recognize its significance.

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