What 2019 taught us as a specialist PR agency

Posted by Sara Hawthorn

This year has had more plot twists than a Netflix and Prime Video original series put together and I’m not sure about anyone else, but as we enter the final few days of an eventful year (and decade, for that matter) we’re bloomin’ exhausted.

As a public relations agency we need to anticipate, react and respond in the best interests of our clients and in calmer years this keeps us busy enough, but this year the speed of news development, massive political changes and dealing with an economy that’s on a rollercoaster has tested our ability to its extremes and, at times, our patience. Here’s an honest look at what 2019 has taught us as a PR agency.

 

We can never stop learning

What we’re being asked to do for and by clients, and what we’re now expected to be able to do is so vastly different from my early days in PR that at times I’ve felt genuinely conflicted about still calling ourselves a PR agency. From SEO to video production, this year laid down the gauntlet on whether we could keep apace with change. We invested in a 4k camera and lights, took CPD courses in AI and read books and listened to podcasts on topics from crisis communication best practice to the latest digital marketing trends. Why did we invest so much extra time  on top of client work in this? We paid attention to what our clients were asking us, listened when they sounded unsure about something they’d heard about or questioned whether they should be exploring a particular tactic. For our clients to trust us and rely on us as experts they have to have faith in our knowledge and if that means answering a question about Tik Tok or the latest new shiny thing in marketing, to stay competitive we needed to have those answers and that means continual learning.

 

Act like a human

This is probably my most used phrase this year when talking to clients and contacts when we’ve spoken about copy and social media, closely followed by ‘social media is called social media for a reason’.  Slowly, the realisation of quite how much time social media can take up and how convoluted it can get with spreadsheets, scheduling tools, researching and sourcing content to fill the channels has dawned on business owners and in house marketers. As a result, most social content businesses are posting dull, safe and all push. We’ve been guilty of it too; for a PR agency with communication at its core, our social channels have become like plants we forgot to water. Increasingly, though, I noticed a pattern in most social plans and approaches we looked at – almost no-one had built in time to reply, converse and join in the social media discussions and everyone had forgotten to act like a human. It is possible to be professional and still engage on social media like the humans we are. Next year, instead of spending three hours collecting, writing and scheduling posts, block that time to be present on your channels, listen and reply to what contacts, customers and potential customers are posting and be part of the conversation not the conversation stopper.

 

Content is holding tight to the throne

As much as I hate the phrase ‘content is king’ 2019 has shown us it’s not abdicating the throne any time soon. Leaving aside the arguments around content vs context, a huge portion of our work this year has been around creating content, or owned media, for clients, from ebooks to video advice series. Where we can we’ve looked to support strategy, PR messages and media relations work with additional assets. The increase in desire and opportunity for video within the specialist areas we operate has been significant and a big factor in the LinkedIn company page success we’ve had for clients.

I’ll take a moment here to iterate that content is nothing without strategy and content for content’s sake is not a good or recommended approach.

As expected, the world of content marketing is evolving and this year one thing above all others has shown itself to be the popular kid. Any guesses what it is? Everyone and their dog has one and if they don’t they’re launching one.

Yep, podcasting.

It’s been huge this year and will probably continue to grow next year, we covered how to create a business podcast in a niche market a few weeks ago so I’m not going to cover it here, except to say that as podcasting as content is a difficult market to break – whilst it’s fairly inexpensive to get started, the editing and promotion of the podcast takes time and like all other types of content marketing has to be, well, good. Interesting topics, guests, interviews, discussions are needed if your podcast is to make any kind of impression in what’s turning into a busy space. During 2019, we learned that sadfishing is a thing (Thanks Paul Sutton) and that businesses are keen to produce their own stories, in their own way, outside of traditional media relations.

 

Agility is a must-have ability

When I first started in PR the forecasting and planning was at least 12 months ahead, but one of the sharpest changes we’ve noticed in the last two years, and particularly this year, is that continuing uncertainty has required a new kind of agility and flexibility in PR. And not purely in relation to client work; continuing political and economic uncertainty has required an ability to move into new sectors and challenged us to continually up-skill and be aware of areas in which we need to be stronger.

This year has been tough for PR for a lot of reasons – some familiar to us, some new like the alarming rise of deep-fake videos and how to fight the widespread use of misleading information and news. The ability to advise, adapt and respond to the unpredictable nature of the business, economic and political landscape has given us a resilience which will benefit us as we await what the coming year has to thrown at us all.

 

The big things we learned?

This year, and arguably the past several years, offered us several lessons and warnings for the future but only if we choose to learn them and heed them. PR is being challenged on a lot of fronts – from business consultants to SEO specialists and even virtual assistants, but we can and should hold and reclaim our ground.