Technology will help citizens become engaged – but also more polarized

Our fourth annual survey of the public relations industry, conducted earlier this year, revealed that a majority of global PR professionals predict the next few years will bring dramatic change to the communication industry. Eighty-three percent believe technological innovations will be a powerful driver of that change and most believe not all of it will be good.

As shared in the 2019 USC Annenberg Global Communications Report, three out of five public relations professionals (61%) predict that future communication technology will cause the average citizen to become more engaged. However, the same number (61%) believe that engagement will be based on misinformation, which almost three-fourths (74%) think will create a more polarized society. PR students are slightly more optimistic. Only 43% predict the citizens will be more misinformed in the next five years, while 53% say society will be more polarized.  

Technology advancements in the communication industry also raise the question of whether machines or humans will be more important in the future. The survey participants gave a mixed response. While nearly half (47%) of PR professionals answered, “Human capital will be more important in the next five years,” another 30% expect machines and humans will have equal importance. And students predict the machines will rise: 46% say that, in the future, technology will be more important than humans in the communication industry, while only 32% say the opposite.

While the number of technology tools available to the PR professional is growing exponentially, few are viewed as very important to communication work currently being done. PR professionals cite media monitoring services (44%) as the most important tech tool for their current work. When asked to predict what will be most valuable for future work, social listening (54%) and website analytics (54%) both rise to the top, with social media management (51%) also predicted to increase in importance.

Interestingly and perhaps alarmingly, only 18% of all PR executives believe artificial intelligence, which is being heralded as the next big thing, will be a very important technology for them in the future. But that may be because only 3% claim to be very knowledgeable about potential AI applications.

When asked what technology skills future communication professionals will need to be successful, 65% of respondents cited big data analytics, with video production (59%), search engine optimization (59%), digital design (54%) and user experience (53%) among the top responses. Contemporary undergraduate PR programs teach coding, analytics and video production, which means a stream of tech-savvy recruits soon will be available to bolster agencies and corporate communications departments.

This year we also asked CEOs — through a joint survey with Chief Executive magazine — where they think their company’s communication efforts should be focused. Just under half (44%) of the respondents said sales is their most important communication goal, while 39% say their primary goal is to differentiate their company’s brand from the competition.

Asked what communication strategies would be most valuable to their companies in the future, social media and online influencers (shared media) were chosen by 38% of the CEOs, slightly ahead of original content distributed through their company’s channels (owned media) at 36%. Traditional, earned media coverage ranked third at 14%, and a mere 12% cited advertising (paid media).

One-third of CEOs identified customer experience optimization as an aspect of communications they would like to advance through future technology. This is a new area of opportunity for PR professionals—CXPR, where discrete communication is built into each interaction a customer has with a brand.1 In-house communicators are also planning to marshal tech resources around the customer experience (18%), as well as measurement (21%), and audience targeting (20%).


To download a full copy of the 2020 Relevance Report, click here.