There is an undeniable hopefulness in doing year-ahead trend articles. They’re affirmations, at the darkest time of the year, that life will continue much as it has. Against all odds, we made it to 2018 (relatively) unscathed. Despite some saber-rattling bluster from both Washington and Pyongyang at the beginning of the year, no nuclear war has as yet proved forthcoming, and while the ongoing tumult of the President’s twitter account remains a source of constant chaos, it hasn’t turned openly destructive in ways that can’t be contained. So, with the self-aware caveat that this list will be entirely invalidated should missiles start flying, let’s take a look at the remaining 354 days of the year ahead of us and the PR stories I expect to undergo significant developments and dominate the headlines.
Torpedoes be damned! Full speed ahead!
The #MeToo movement was easily one of the biggest stories of the year, netting its key figures recognition as TIME’s collective Person of the Year. But it’s part of a much larger movement facing the private sector: open revolt against toxicity in business. The common features we see amongst the companies and public figures caught up in #MeToo’s net are focused on the abuse of power and the exploitation of the weak, and those are issues we can see extending outward in non-sexual ways as well: Amazon’s ongoing PR difficulties regarding how it treats its workers, Uber’s frat-house corporate culture, which the mere ouster of CEO Travis Kalanick alone can’t and won’t stop, and the rampant sexism and xenophobia blowing through Silicon Valley, evidenced by the famous “Google Memo.”. Uber itself has suffered a difficult 2017, but Amazon didn’t, even though both have long faced criticism for abusive treatment of their employees.
As 2018 progresses, expect to see the conversation that started #MeToo expand more generally to workplace cultures that perpetuate, not only conditions of sexual harassment and abuse, but to issues of racial discrimination and the exploitation and abuse of the so-called working poor as well. When a company literally has workers sneaking written cries for help into its parcels, we’re looking at exactly the same root issue that animated #MeToo to begin with: people unable to extricate themselves from a bad situation because they depend on it for survival, and people in power eager to take advantage. Expect this to become a much larger issue that companies across the country and the world (an increasingly meaningless distinction) find themselves having to face squarely as the public begins to demand people in positions of power own up to the consequences of their decisions. And with Amazon on the verge of expanding into brick-and-mortar in a very big way with the possible acquisition of Target, those conversations are going to happen no matter what.
The Fragmentation of Audiences
It’s easy to talk about this in strictly political terms – the different persuasions watching Fox News, MSNBC, or CNN depending on where they stand on the left-right spectrum – but we’re looking at a much more comprehensive problem: there is so much media to consume that the mass audience (and the mass market) effectively no longer exists. That profoundly complicates the work of public relations; how do you control a story when there are more sources than ever before, most of whom are simply repackaging previous content which may or may not be the story you’re trying to put out into the world, going after wide-ranging and absurdly specific audiences for nothing more than the revenue generated by their clicks? Long gone are the days when Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw, or heck, even Brian Williams could command the attention of the nation long enough to put out a definitive account that the world would agree on. Which means that controlling your own story is harder than ever before.
Don’t expect this to get any easier, as more and more media companies dive into their own dedicated media channels (including Disney and Apple) and ground-level YouTubers and Twitterers command the attention of their 50,000-or-so subscribers through informal affinity networks that can nonetheless drive news, at least in segmented markets (the first blow-up of which was the famed Gamergate scandal of 2014, which formed much of the backbone of the alternative media universe that helped elect Trump). Those are both some of the most influential media channels around as well as the hardest to leverage. The ongoing project of PR in 2018 is going to be how on earth to reach the people who don’t engage with traditional media sources much at all.
Related to the above, the fragmentation of the mass audience into specialized outlets means that traditional media sources – like TIME Magazine, the New York Times, the Washington Post, NBC Nightly News, CNN, your local newspaper, etc – don’t have the cultural pull they once did, which means declining revenue, which means – inevitably – staff cutbacks. More and more newsrooms are threadbare operations struggling to stay afloat. That means reliable journalists suddenly vanish, and the ones you’ve got to work with now often manage multiple news desks.
By even if the news media is struggling to compete with guerrilla operations and Twitter accounts, the real story of news media in 2018 is the often creative ways they’re adapting – and how that can be leveraged. Because while the audience of CNN, for example, might be fragmented, they still possess cultural cachet which gives them credibility; that means they have a superior ability to leverage social media to disseminate a single narrative. In the wake of the last year, news organizations have displayed a tremendous ability to nimbly navigate and take advantage of social media, and one of the biggest developments of 2018 for public relations is going to be to learn how to ride that wave as far as possible. Because right now, the combination of credibility and social reach has made traditional news outlets powerful in a way we are still piecing together.
There’s no way to avoid the elephant in the Oval Office, seated uncomfortably behind the same Resolute desk that six of the last seven presidents used. And I don’t simply mean the president’s policies, but – in all things – his idiosyncratic use of social media to push news in this or that direction. Politics aside, it’s one of the most fascinating PR stories I’ve ever seen in my 30-plus years in the industry; the bully pulpit of the presidency used to profound effect in the most unexpected ways. It’s long been one of Trump’s supporters’ core arguments in his favor, that his willingness to upend the usual niceties and pieties makes him effective; while I would dispute that this is true generally, it is absolutely true in the specific instance of his ability to fundamentally shift a story by taking thirty seconds and firing off a tweet. More than any staid pronouncement from the Rose Garden or carefully measured, endlessly workshopped official statement, Trump’s carelessly bold, brash, and braggadocious Twitter account can derail an entire day’s news cycle, and then bear no further fruit. It’s PR for its own sake, in the service not of making anyone look good or building a coherent narrative, but of keeping the gatekeepers of public opinion in a state of near-constant chaos. And as he continues to find innovative news ways to throw the news media off-balance in his ongoing efforts to defeat the one scandal that has seemed to stick – possible collusion with Russia to influence the outcome of the 2016 election – it goes without saying that we’re in for quite the year.
I will be surprised if future president’s fail to learn the same lessons. Government by obfuscation may, in fact, be the future ahead of us. That bears close attention by all.