The Harbinger Group

The Evolution of PR and Communications: How the Industry Has Changed and Where It’s Headed

The public relations and communications industry has undergone a remarkable transformation over the past few decades. From the early days of simply helping organizations share their news to the current focus on driving business outcomes, the field has evolved in ways that few could have predicted.

In a recent episode of the “Can You Hear Me?” podcast, Culp sat down with hosts Eileen Rochford and Rob Johnson to share his insights on the evolution of the PR and communications industry. Drawing on his extensive experience and deep knowledge of the field, Culp painted a compelling picture of how the industry has changed over the past few decades, and what it takes to succeed in today’s fast-paced, data-driven business environment. From the rise of technology and the growing importance of business acumen to the shifting focus on internal communications and the enduring value of relationships and networks, Culp’s observations offer a roadmap for navigating the challenges and opportunities facing PR and communications professionals today.

The Early Days of PR and Communications

When Culp first entered the field, PR was primarily focused on helping organizations share their news with key stakeholders. 

“Over the past four decades, public relations has evolved from essentially helping organizations share their news, if you will, with major stakeholders. Today it is all about helping those organizations make things happen,” Culp said. 

The Seismic Shifts Evolving the Current PR and Communications Landscape

As the industry has evolved, three seismic shifts have emerged that are transforming the way that PR and communications professionals work. These shifts, driven by advances in technology, changes in business priorities, and a growing recognition of the importance of employee engagement, are reshaping the skills and strategies required for success in the field. 

“The marketing and communication industry is at another inflection point, much like our world is. The industry is no longer where it used to be 30 years ago,” Rochford said.

The Rise of Technology 

One of the most profound changes in the industry has been the rise of technology and the growing importance of data and analytics. 

“Looking back to the past, communications and PR was built off a gut reaction and impressions, but now it is important to back those gut feelings and ideas off of data and the hard facts of what this business will get in return from your ideas,” Culp said.  

This shift has been driven in part by the increasing pressure on PR and communications professionals to demonstrate the value of their work to the bottom line.

The Importance of Business Acumen

Another significant change in the industry has been the growing emphasis on business acumen over traditional communications skills. In a recent book co-authored by Culp and his colleague Matt Regas, they surveyed chief communications officers (CCOs) from around the world to gain insights into the evolving demands of the profession. The results were striking. 

“Ten years ago, the skill that was prioritized in the communications field was writing, organizations wanted to make sure that they were hiring people that knew how to write. Now, most people are getting by on that front, but even so, that isn’t the skill that is most needed or desired in this industry,” Culp said.

Instead, the top skill that CCOs now look for in their hires is business acumen. 

“Now ‘business acumen’ is prioritized, meaning businesses and hiring managers are looking for people that understand what drives a business, how the business makes money, how the revenue is being generated, and of course why that is important to society,” Culp said. 

Culp’s research reflects the growing recognition that PR and communications professionals must be able to speak the language of business and demonstrate the value of their work in terms that resonate with senior leaders.

To develop this critical skill, Culp recommends professionals focus on gaining a deep understanding of their company’s business model, financial performance, and strategic priorities. By doing so, they can more effectively align their communications strategies with the goals of the organization and demonstrate the impact of their work on the bottom line. This requires a willingness to step outside of the traditional communications silo and engage with colleagues across the organization, from finance to operations to sales and beyond.

The Shift to Internal Communications 

Perhaps the most surprising change in the industry has been the growing importance of internal communications. 

“Going to market, let’s tell everyone how great we are, needs to be thought about if it can be backed up,” Culp said. 

Employees now play a critical role in driving business success as does the need for their employers to engage them in the company’s mission and values. 

Culp provides a compelling example of this evolution from his time working with Arthur Martinez, the former CEO of Sears. Culp recounts a survey he conducted of store employees, asking who they thought the CEO of Sears was. While the correct answer was Martinez, the survey results showed that the store managers were overwhelmingly seen as the “CEOs” of their locations. When Culp presented these findings to Martinez the CEO responded, “Bingo, it’s working.” This anecdote underscores the importance of effective internal communication in ensuring that employees at all levels of the organization are aligned with its goals and values. 

As PR and communications professionals navigate the remarkable transformation of their industry over the last few decades, it is essential to stay curious, adapt to new technologies and ways of working, and focus on driving business outcomes. 

“Largely, it is important to understand and embrace the vast amount of technology and how to use it and make it indispensable to your organization,” Culp said.

By doing so, PR, marketing and communications leaders can position themselves for success no matter what change lies ahead. We encourage you to check out the full conversation with Ron Culp in episode 62 of the “Can You Hear Me?” podcast.