Bournemouth University: The Future of PR

Bournemouth University: The Future of PR

Bournemouth University invited me along with two of its PR course alumni, Richard Fogg from CC Group and Sam Hall from Oracle, to give talks on the future of PR to its undergraduates. I decided to tackle the broader jobs market that they would be entering as well. You can see the full slide deck and read the script below.

View the Presentation


The Oxford Martin school of Management predicts that 47% of jobs could be automated by 2032. Despite the rapid computerisation of so many industries in recent years it’s a prediction that retains the power to shock.

Nowhere have the changes wrought by technology been more visible than in the media. Today I want to walk you through the technology-driven changes we are experiencing across a variety of industries and talk specifically about their impact on the media.

I want to talk about how these changes have shifted the power dynamic, away from the traditional holders — at least to some extent.

I’ll talk about the people like me who have benefited from this power shift. And I’ll talk about how you will operate as PR people in a very different future.

Influencer Marketing

To introduce myself and my relevance to this topic properly, it’s important to know that I started in PR. Though unlike you I didn’t study it at university. I studied Mechatronic engineering at the opposite end of the country in Lancaster. But I realised fairly early on that I was better at talking about technology than designing it. While my friends went off to design wind farms and F1 cars, I found myself parachuted in to rooms full of engineers with a brief to translate the tech they had created into stories we could sell.

A couple of years into my time at Noiseworks, the founder Nick Hayes began working with former IDC analyst Duncan Brown on a new approach. What they called — fairly originally at the time — influencer marketing.

Nick and Duncan wrote the book on influencer marketing and I got to be the guinea pig for their ideas, helping out on early campaigns to identify, target and engage with a much broader range of influencers than the media and analysts we were used to. I’ll talk about this more later in the presentation.

After my time in PR I founded a series of technology-based businesses, most recently a venture-capital backed analytics software company called CANDDi, in which I’m still a shareholder.

These days I work as an applied futurist, helping a huge variety of organisations to see, share and respond to a coherent vision of the future.

That is a pretty varied role. I split my time roughly evenly between speaking at conferences, consulting, writing for myself and others, and appearing on TV and radio. This makes me a very good example of the type of new influencer I’ll talk about later in the presentation.

White Collar Robots

So now you have some context, let me begin properly. Robots. We’re all comfortable with robots in a manual labour environment. Yet somehow we have a blindspot to their increasing appearance in the white collar world.

What was the reason behind the tube strikes earlier this year that forced us three to get off our lazy arses and walk across the city? Robots replacing humans in a retail and customer service environment.

When HMV went bump a few years ago, what caused that? In the final year before it largely collapsed, HMV was turning over £900 million and employing 3,300 staff across its stores. Meanwhile in a posh little office just off Regent Street, 15 people were turning over around £1.7 billion (by my estimate). This was the total European workforce of iTunes.

I run my business on a piece of software called Freeagent. It costs me £30 a month, but it replaces an accountant. It reconciles all my transactions with the bank, calculates and even submits my tax returns for me.

Last year half of all large law firms merged or acquired another firm. What happened when they did? Thanks to the increasingly automated nature of the work that they were undertaking, they were able to shed many of the junior solicitors and trainees: the people they already had could take on more work because they were augmented by technology.

Automated Media

Now you look at the media in the UK. Think about all of the different professions that go into making a newspaper or magazine. Administration. Sales. Printing. Distribution. Channel management. All of the middle management. The best stat that I could find on the proportion of a newspaper’s budget that goes on editorial is 18–25%. And this is from 2008. Do you think that proportion has improved since then?

Now think about that stat from Oxford Martin. How many of those jobs can be automated?

This leads you to a simple conclusion: YouTube. Forget that one is print and the other is video. Think about all of the roles that YouTube automates for content creators: editorial workers. All they have to do is create.

This isn’t necessarily a good thing. Because it creates phenomena like PewDiePie. I’m assuming because you’re all half my age you’re familiar with PewDiePie? This comic Swedish games reviewer has 27 million subscribers to his YouTube channel. Advertising alone netted him $4 million last year.

Put that into context. The most popular British newspaper sells 1.7 million copies each day.

PewDiePie isn’t alone on the web in having attracted such incredible popularity. Because the web has democratised access to what one commentator called ‘weapons-grade marketing tools’.

I’ll give you an anecdotal example of how widespread access is to these weapons-grade marketing technologies. Back in 2010 I was involved in an online campaign for a supermarket, where members of the public could submit videos of themselves doing versions of their ad campaign. One woman really wanted to win and orchestrated a Facebook campaign to drive votes. She wasn’t some secret digital marketing specialist, yet she managed to drive so much traffic in the opening moments of the campaign that she brought the site down.

These days ISIS is putting a much darker slant on the term.

The New Influencers

Thanks to wide access to these tools you are seeing a new class of influencer, well outside the traditional media structures.

Take Liam for example. I met Liam at a consumer tech show this time last year. He’d won a competition to join the press jolly, but he arguably had more cause to be there than the rest of us. Because while Liam is a gas fitter by day, he is a YouTuber by night, with tens of thousands of subscribers to his game and gear reviews. He doesn’t make $4m a year but it’s a heck of a supplement to his income.

Liam is emblematic of a fundamental shift in media power. And this in itself is just part of a much bigger change that is happening, one that has been identified by the Venezuelan economist and political thinker Moises Naim.

In his book ‘The End of Power’ Naim notes that power is increasingly harder to win, harder to use and easier to lose. Where before media power was concentrated in the hands of a few extremely powerful proprietors and editors, now it is increasingly distributed and fluid.

Back in the early days of Influencer 50 we used to talk to clients about a model of influence that looked like this. Between you and the customers you wanted to reach was a small number of different influencers. The media, people’s peers, and the sales channel.

These days that picture is much more complex. People can find information for themselves online. Brands and celebrities have an increasingly direct relationship with their audience. And the influencers in between are much more diverse.

It’s not that the traditional media has gone away. Or even lost all of its power: just look at the influence the Sun and the Daily Mail continue to have over British politics. But they are now part of a much broader landscape.

It’s a landscape that some influencers use to great advantage. If you’re stereotypical students who enjoy daytime TV you may be familiar with my friend William Hanson. William is an etiquette expert who gets flown all around the world to train people in, well, etiquette. How to be proper. He also appears on a wide variety of TV and radio shows, writes books and newspaper columns. He is a multimedia player in the truest sense and one who takes maximum advantage from old and new media.

So to recap on what I’ve said so far, technology has fundamentally changed the economics of media just as it has so many other industries. The resulting redistribution of power and wealth has created a much more diverse media environment and a new class of influencer who take advantage of the media at their disposal to grow their profile and income.

The Three Cs

In this increasingly automated landscape, what roles will be left for human beings? I worked on some research with the Institute of Chartered Accountants last year and in the process came up with this idea of the Three Cs — three skills that I believe will grow in value and come to define the roles that humans retain.

  • Curation is about the ability to discover and qualify sources of information.
  • Creation is the ability to take these sources of information and synthesise them into something new.
  • Communication is the ability to sell this idea to colleagues and customers.

You can see that these skills have clear applications in both media and PR. Your jobs might be safe for a little while.

The Discovery Challenge

If you want to know how difficult curation is, just take a look at the recommendations you get on Amazon sometimes. Sometimes it works, and sometimes you look for wild rabbit and get offered thongs and tanks.

Lots of companies are struggling with this at the moment and huge amounts of venture capital is going into start-ups who think they might have an answer. But most of them ultimately rely on human intelligence to sort the wheat from the chaff and understand relevancy.

The challenge gets particularly acute for you as PR people when you are trying to qualify influence. Very often people mix up reach for influence. Most agencies and most clients would naturally rank media by the number of viewers, readers or listeners they get. But I think this has always been a mistake and it is one that is amplified in a more diverse media age.

Take some of my media channels for example. The most people I ever reach is when I’m sat on the BBC Breakfast sofa with 7m viewers watching. It’s reach like that that puts you on the radar of companies like Apple. But how much do I actually influence the people running around, getting their breakfast and trying to pack the kids off for school? If you judge it by the number of Twitter interactions I get when I’m on, not a lot.

Now compare that to Phil Williams’ show on 5live. I’m on after midnight on a weekday, with many fewer people listening. How much influence do you think that has? Well again if you take interaction as a measure, way more. The phones and Twitter light up. We have non-stop questions and calls for an hour.

Sunday Brunch? I picked up 350 Twitter followers the first time I was on.

How about how much influence I have right here? There may only be 200 of you watching but I hope what I’m saying is getting through.

The most influence of all? When I’m consulting. Dell kindly sort me out with hardware to use and at one point I was testing a giant 18in tablet. I used it to present to a couple of very senior people at a large multi-national. I won’t name them but it was for a potential project on the future of hairdressing.

I didn’t win the gig, but they decided they really wanted some of those tablets.

There are of course tools out there that purport to measure influence. But for me, XKCD has it just about right here as always.

Under Control

There’s also the question of control to consider. When you operate across different media like I do, you operate under a variety of different rules.
Presenting here today or writing for my own blog, I can say pretty much what I like, within the law.

But as soon I step into a radio studio the rules are very different. For XFM, what goes on is a negotiation between me and the presenter. For 5live there might be a producer who works with me to produce the script but ultimately the presenter may have final say. Even if there are two layers of negotiation before you even set foot in the studio, it’s live: the presenter may go completely off script or we may run out of time.

The new class of influencers may sometimes fall under the rules of more traditional broadcasters, but they also may be constrained by their financial arrangements. If I’m sponsored by Coke am I going to respond well to PR pitches from Pepsi? This is a grey area today.

Stories of Success

The next big challenge you face with the new media landscape is understanding what to measure. As Richard will tell you, clients whether internal or external can still be pretty one dimensional about what they value. They want their faces on the front of the glossiest magazines and their names in the newspapers their friends read. You are going to need both smart measurement tools to be able to quantify which media deliver real value to the businesses you’re working with, and a great ability to sell this back to your clients.

This ability to tell a story comes down to the second and third C: creation and communication. Great PR and great media will continue to be about the ability to build a compelling narrative.

There are people building computer programmes that can turn data from football matches in to newspaper copy. But I think it will be a while before they can really tell the story of a great match.

New New Media

The final thing I want you to consider is how your audience will be consuming media in the future. Google Glass has become a cliché but for reasons I won’t go into here, I believe it or something like it will take off. Some media will increasingly be about a form of digital peripheral vision, keeping you informed of what’s going on, while other media will remain an experience in its own right.

In summary then, I think the media world that you will be working in is one that is characterised by diversity. Many actors, many channels, many formats. Succeeding at PR in this environment will require a very clear focus on what success means. Too often clients and agencies alike lose sight of what the real goal is and thrash around chasing abstract numbers.

If you can qualify influence, learn how to tell a compelling story, and keep abreast of the diversity of media channels at your disposal, I think you probably have a bright future in PR.

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This article is by Tom Cheesewright. This post forms part of the Future of Business series. For more posts on this subject, visit the Future of Business page.

Tom Cheesewright

Futurist speaker Tom Cheesewright is one of the UK's leading commentators on technology and tomorrow. Tom has worked with a huge range of organisations across a variety of markets, to help them to see a clear vision of tomorrow, share that vision and respond with agility. Tom draws on his experience to create original, compelling talks that are keyed to the experience of the audience but which surprise and shock with unexpected facts and examples.

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