As we face large-scale problems like extreme weather events, political unrest and cyber threats, organisations of all sizes and across all sectors are recognising the need for proactive communication strategies. Beki Zondo and Kutloano Makgoro from Serufe outline trends that will be important in the public relations industry for the year. 

1. AI-Enhanced Data Analytics

In the dynamic realm of public relations, data is king. Artificial intelligence (AI) is set to revolutionise how PR professionals measure and analyse their efforts. The year 2023 was dubbed ‘The year of AI’ as we saw the emergence of this disruptive technology and began to understand what it really is. Communicators dipped their toes into the murky waters of AI and began experimenting with using the technology in their work systems to increase efficiency and improve the quality of work and quantity of content they put out.

Imagine managing a PR campaign for a new product launch. AI-powered tools can sift through vast amounts of real-time data, including social media mentions and news articles. This enables PR teams to quickly identify emerging trends and adapt their strategies. The true power of AI lies in its ability to provide insights into sentiment analysis, allowing PR professionals to gauge public perception with greater accuracy. AI can play a pivotal role during a crisis by sifting through numerous social media posts to identify potential issues before they escalate. This proactive approach enables PR professionals to address concerns swiftly and effectively, ultimately safeguarding the organisation’s reputation.

2. The Emergence Of AI-Powered Online Communities

Online communities provide people with a place to interact and share their brand experiences with the brand itself or other like-minded individuals. You’ve probably heard of ‘Gag City’ by now – a fictional pink city created using generative AI.

‘Gag City’ came to be after popular rapper Nicki Minaj promised her fans that her anticipated album would make them Gag: Gag is slang for being at a loss for words. Her fans took her literally when they started creating a fictional, dreamy pink city using generative AI to imagine what the city would look like if it were real. #GagCity went viral and got major brands such as Spotify and Converse to participate with their own versions of the city. Communicators that harness user-generated content and embrace new technologies to foster engagement will build thriving online communities.

3. Real-Time Crisis Management

In the digital age, crises can escalate at an unprecedented pace. Media intelligence tools are set to become essential for PR professionals to monitor and manage crises in real time. Whether it’s a negative news story, a social media firestorm, or a product recall, immediate response is crucial to mitigating potential damage.

Consider a scenario where a company faces a crisis due to a product safety issue. Media intelligence tools can provide instant alerts whenever news articles or social media mentions about the crisis appear. This allows PR teams to respond promptly, take control of the narrative, and implement strategies to mitigate damage to the brand’s reputation. Real-time crisis management is not just a trend; it’s necessary in the fast-paced world of public relations.

4. Authenticity

In a world saturated with information, authenticity is becoming a key differentiator in public relations. Remaining true to a brand’s identity and values, especially amid external pressures, sets organisations apart from their competitors. Authenticity is not just about projecting an image; it’s about building trust and credibility with clients.

PR professionals are encouraged to be their authentic selves. Embracing honesty and vulnerability allows organisations to connect with their audience on a more personal level. Consumers appreciate authenticity, and showcasing imperfections helps build relatability. For leaders, authenticity lays the foundation for trust, contributing to a lasting organisational culture. In 2024, being authentic is not just a trend; it’s a cornerstone of effective public relations.

5. Nurturing Strategic Partnerships

Building relationships and genuine connections is a marathon, but the yields are worth the effort. In 2024, a significant portion of PR budgets is expected to be allocated towards nurturing strategic partnerships. While understanding associated costs can pose a challenge, the benefits of strengthening ties and generating a strong return on investment are well worth the effort.

Constantly nurturing and building relationships with partners contribute to a positive organisational culture and enhance the overall effectiveness of public relations strategies. Strategic partnerships go beyond financial transactions; they involve collaboration and shared goals. As organisations recognise the value of these partnerships, the trend of focusing on nurturing them is expected to continue in 2024.

6. Employer Branding

In the competitive landscape of 2024, employer branding takes centre stage as a critical component for businesses looking to market themselves effectively. From recruitment drives to reputation management, a proactive employer brand strategy ensures control over the company’s image and champions a positive workplace culture.

Work in ’employer branding’ has seen an uptick, particularly in sectors experiencing skills shortages. The intensity of securing the brightest and best talent has become a core business objective. In 2024, this trend is anticipated to continue, highlighting the importance of proactive communications in shaping a positive workplace culture.

As we navigate the complexities of the modern world, public relations professionals must adapt to these trends to stay ahead of the curve. AI-enhanced data analytics, real-time crisis management, authenticity, nurturing strategic partnerships, and employer branding are not just buzzwords; they are the pillars that will define successful public relations strategies in 2024 and beyond.

7. The Rise Of Ethical Consumerism

A shift in consumer behaviour is seeing more ethically conscious consumers put their money where their morals are. Geopolitical conflicts have prompted people to take a stand and stop supporting brands whose moral compass is questionable. We’ve seen how effective calls for boycotts can be on social media and how some brands that have ties in the Israel-Hamas war have lost public support. Brands need to constantly reaffirm their values in their storytelling and find creative ways to showcase ethical and sustainable practices to maintain relationships with stakeholders.

8. The Growth Of Social Search

People are abandoning traditional search engines such as Google or Bing and are turning to social media to find information about companies and products. Young people, more especially Gen Z, spend at least four hours on social media a day and have reported that they’d rather use social media channels such as TikTok, X (formerly Twitter), and Instagram for their search enquiries to hear/see what people are saying about the company/product.

Technological advancements, including new social media platforms, short-form video-creating tools, AI-powered algorithms and voice-enabled search, enable an allure to this type of informational search. Communicators need to be able to create valuable content that addresses their audience’s needs while leveraging social media SEO in their copy across all platforms.

9. Being Prepared For Election Season

This year, 1 billion people will vote in 64 countries, making 2024 the biggest election year in recorded history. Elections are looming over us in South Africa, and with that comes a lot of misinformation about political parties and brands alike – monitoring public opinion during election season will require communicators to devise a cross-platform strategy that is not limited to listening to news but also what people are saying on social media to manage corporate reputations effectively.

In the world of public relations, ‘change is the only constant’ – communicators must stay on the pulse of relevant and emerging trends to put together effective strategies for their clients and help them navigate the ever-changing environment.