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State of PR 2021: Industrywide optimism despite pandemic challenges

Christine O'Connor | July 10, 2021

Photo by Will Francis/Unsplash

Muck Rack’s State of PR 2021 report, released in the midst of our #HotVaxSummer, found optimism rising as last year’s pandemic trepidation shifted to this spring’s “we can work with this” attitude.

PR challenges of the COVID-19 era continue

The 2021 survey responses, gathered from 1,618 agency (50%), brand (35%) and nonprofit (15%) PR pros, point to two ongoing challenges: Breaking through the noise to gain coverage (59%) and working with tight budgets (49%).

As noted in our recent post about Muck Rack’s State of Journalism 2021 Report, abundant layoffs have led to fewer reporters working in the field; increased workloads combined with a news cycle favoring pandemic stories mean that PR pros have to work even harder to find the perfect opportunities for their clients or organizations.

And in both 2020 and 2021, approximately half of PR pros cited placing coverage in the news cycle as a primary challenge and about 40% listed finding relevant angles for pitches.

The most important factors when pitching a story are relevance to the journalist (cited by 42% of respondents) and customizing the pitch to the recipient (35%). Just 14% of PR pros listed timeliness as a key factor. However, “bad timing was the number one reason journalists rejected otherwise relevant pitches, followed by lack of personalization,” the 2021 State of Journalism concludes.

Some industry challenges linked to COVID-19 changed from 2020 to 2021. Early in the pandemic, 54% of survey respondents cited the loss of clients or business revenue as one of three top concerns. This was replaced in 2021 by challenges associated with ongoing remote work.

Dramatic change lies ahead, but PR pros are ready

Whether COVID-19 is responsible or not, the PR landscape is changing. Most PR pros anticipate moderate (48%) to drastic (34%) change in the next five years. Respondents believe the field will change so much that 73% said “public relations” will need to be redefined. Practitioners don’t necessarily view this as a threat, though. Almost 70% of respondents report that they feel at least somewhat prepared for the upcoming changes.

In fact, optimism among PR pros abounds. The vast majority (83%) of survey respondents predict that the importance of the PR function will grow over the next five years. Practitioners are even hopeful about budgets, with 95% of PR pros reporting that they expect budgets to increase or remain the same. One reason for this may be explained by Edelman’s 21st annual Trust Barometer survey, which shows that business has emerged as the most trusted source for information.

Success factors for 2021 and beyond

What will it take to come out on top in this ever-changing landscape? PR pros predict that strategic planning (88%), media relations (77%) and social media (72%) will remain top skills for PR success in the next five years, followed by DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) at 67%. (This is the first year DEI was included in the survey question.)

In line with DEI’s debut as a priority for PR pros, we at Thinkshift also see thought leadership outreach as a significant opportunity for brands. We predict demand for this skillset will grow as our world continues to change at a breakneck pace and the role of business as a trusted source expands.

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How to adapt your PR strategy to break through today’s news 

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