Throw in political uncertainty and a volatile economy and it’s no wonder that South Africa is under the spotlight. All eyes are on us. All eyes are on brands. All eyes are sceptical – and rightfully so.

This year, brands can either continue the current momentum defined by questionable ethics and distrust or they can leverage the forces they can control to move in a completely different direction – the direction consumers are waiting and expecting them to follow.

I am sure of one thing: in 2018, something has to change. In fact, a lot has to change. Brands need to understand how to leverage the motion around them to move forward and to disrupt their markets and delight their customers. And they need consultants who can help them navigate that motion.

Here are some of my predictions for the PR and communications industry for the new year.

1. Consultancy will change

This year, local brands will be more accountable for their actions, decisions, and values than ever before. Even loyal consumers who love your brand will be unforgiving if you step out of line. They won’t hesitate to join in the lynching and it will take a lot of work to earn their trust again.

This is forcing PR agencies to up their game in terms of consultancy. Media relations, as one example, is meaningless and can be disastrous if there is no intelligent consultancy behind them.

PR is no longer just about putting a brand’s best foot forward through the media. It’s about understanding a brand’s audience, their challenges and values, and how the brand can meet its audience where they are. It’s about helping brands to form valuable relationships with their audience and understanding that those relationships are not transactional – at least not from the consumer’s side.

Traditional PR alone cannot achieve that, which brings me to my next point.

2. Execution will change

PR agencies are maturing and are increasingly moving out of the traditional space, which focuses on building relationships with the media but places little focus on a brand’s relationship with its audience.

Tools like predictive analytics help brands to better understand and engage with their audience on topics that matter to them, at a particular time. It’s up to agencies to help brands make sense of those insights and to consult on how they can leverage the data to move forward and to connect.

Marketing is becoming increasingly automated, freeing up agencies’ and brands’ time and resources to focus on what really matters: the customers.

The differentiator lies in how we use these tools to help shape a brand’s point of view into a tangible, meaningful offering. This suggests that agencies, too, need an offering: a roadmap detailing how it will move brands forward in their journeys with their audience. Agencies can have all the smart consultants they can handle but without an offering, they won’t be going anywhere – and neither will their clients.

3. Focus will change

This one is a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario. While PR agencies need to specialise in one industry, they also need to diversify away from their niche.

Brands are starting to go after other verticals they have no experience in, simply because they have to if they want to survive the disruptive economy. Medical aid schemes are launching banks. Retailers are offering insurance. The lines between industries are becoming blurred and entirely new industries are emerging.

PR agencies have to move, too. They need to become jacks of a few trades while maintaining their mastery of one. In my experience, technology is the place to be. Today, every company is a technology company purely because digital tools drive everything we do. Agencies that operate at the intersection of people, technology, and brands can help their clients to drive business impact through transformative storytelling.

4. Training will change

PR agencies have a responsibility to nurture and develop the next generation of change-makers, yet this is where the local industry falls short. If we want to grow the industry and harness the change and momentum we wish to create for our clients, we need to beef up our internship programmes.

Graduates are the future of the industry, and we owe it to them to devote as much time and energy as possible to their growth and development. Whether the internship is six months or leads to full-time employment, every single intern deserves proper training and guidance from a senior manager, who can provide the safety net and secure environment that they need to flourish.

5. Workplaces will change

These same graduates bring fresh perspectives and ideas that can benefit any agency. But they also have different expectations from the workplace. They want flexibility and the opportunity to do great work.

Agencies that want to attract and retain the best talent need to offer flexible working arrangements. Flexibility is underpinned by trust and can take a long time to get right, but there is a sweet spot. Flexi-time works well with skilled self-starters who understand the industry and sector they work in and who don’t need to be micro-managed.

Of course, graduates cannot expect a flexible working arrangement right off the bat. They need to focus on getting experience and proving that they are reliable. Flexibility follows naturally from that.

A new year naturally brings change, fuelled by a desire and motivation to do more and to be better. The PR and communications agency is no different. A new year means a new opportunity to change the way we’ve always done things, to move the industry forward, and to try something new.

We can’t stand still. Our clients are constantly in a state of motion. We cannot move them forward if we don’t move ourselves.

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