There are no easy years in PR, but even by the hectic standards of this field, 2023 was a doozy.
Wars, both literal and cultural, deepened existing divisions between people of different social and political perspectives. Strikes, layoffs and an economy teetering between boom and bust upended the marketplace. AI threatened major changes and risks. And, of course, social media was madness as always.
As this intense year draws to a close, let’s look back on some of the biggest PR stories of the last year, and how we can expect them to continue playing out in the year ahead.
Since Oct. 7, the terrorist attacks and ongoing war between Israel and Hamas have dominated the headlines around the world and pushed organizations of all kinds to the brink of disaster.
While many businesses were urged — or simply chose — to make a stand, the repercussions of communications missteps have profoundly altered America’s universities, especially its most elite.
U Penn’s president resigned just days after testifying before a Congressional panel in a way that many felt underplayed antisemitism on her campus. Others, including Harvard University, face the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars from donors. And while the politics here are deeply complex, faulty communications tactics exacerbated many of these problems. Not responding quickly enough, completely enough, compassionately enough caused cracks to form in the social foundation of these institutions that continue to deepen by the day.
While colleges hold a unique place in public discourse, with many holding free expression as part of their core mission, their missteps shed light on just how contentious these issues are even half a world away from the war zone. Their struggles are a reminder to listen to stakeholders, to be as transparent as possible about decision making and to accept that sometimes, we can’t make everyone — or anyone — happy.
Trans rights became a major battlefield as right-wing politicians moved in to challenge medical, parental and educational practices and rights surrounding gender identity. And even as anti-trans laws are being passed in state legislatures, businesses are also finding themselves dealing with waves of outrage for their support of trans creators and causes. These clashes and controversies have sparked counter-protests from LGBTQ+ communities who find themselves pleading with organizations to stand their ground and continue to defend their rights and ensure they feel safe and supported.
Dominating headlines amid this swirl of passionate emotions in 2023 were Bud Light and Target. Bud Light faced widespread boycotts and tumbling sales after a social media partnership with trans creator Dylan Mulvaney, while Target’s inclusion of a swimsuit suitable for trans women led to threats against store associates, fumbled reactions and hits to its bottom line.
Those behind the anti-trans campaigns will surely be emboldened by their success in the year ahead — especially with that looming U.S. presidential election in November. Pride in 2024 could look very different than it did in 2023. We can expect some brands to take a step back from the celebration of the LGBTQ+ community altogether, or perhaps to shy away from fully embracing the trans portion of that acronym.
Other brands will surely continue to support the trans community, whether during Pride or by engaging with trans influencers. When they do so, they must have a communications plan ready, including steps for protecting the physical safety of both their employees and any queer partners they engage with, as well as managing backlash against the brand itself. Bud Light reportedly did not reach out to Mulvaney during the crisis over their partnership, leaving her to fend for herself during a frightening time.
Above all, know your audience. Issues related to gender and sexuality are deeply divided based on demographic factors. Depending on your audience, they may reward you for supporting these causes — or you may see backlash. Know what your organization’s purpose is, what it stands for, whom it serves, what you’re trying to achieve and how to protect both reputation and physical safety.
A bizarre economy
Are we in a recession? It depends on who you ask. The stock market is hitting record highs, but so are prices. Americans are earning more money but feel like they have less. And layoffs are rampant across high-profile sectors, most notably tech.
All of this has created a difficult environment for the storytelling that public relations practitioners rely on. It’s hard to pin down the environment and create empathetic messaging that resonates with consumers or employees when the economy is so deeply mixed. While there are indications that we may be moving past the worst of inflation and high interest rates, there’s no telling how consumers –- and businesses — will continue to feel.
Another contributing factor has been the resurgence of organized labor. Major strikes roiled within the entertainment, healthcare and auto industry, even as other industries fought to form their own unions. These battles have been fought in the media spotlight, with both employers, employees and union representatives all leaning heavily into PR to court public opinion and pressure their opposition.
There’s no end in sight to this issue. Do you have a strike and/or unionization plan in your crisis playbook? If not, now is the time.
Social media shakeups
Social media is always weird and wild, but 2023 raised the bar, led in no small part by the antics of Elon Musk, who seemed bound and determined to change the platform’s tone, functionality and demographic — moves that made the platform an increasingly unstable place for brands to engage. From trading the iconic Twitter branding for the enigmatic X, reinstating controversial figures such as Alex Jones, swearing at advertisers, endorsing antisemitic conspiracy theories and downplaying concerns about ads appearing next to hateful, racist posts, 2023 may mark the year the platform truly died, even if it’s still available.
Other brands have sought to move into the void, most notably Meta’s Threads, but no true replacement has yet taken hold in the buzzy, journalist-friendly way Twitter did for more than a decade. This closes some doors for both social media marketing as well as schmoozing with reporters on their platform of choice.
TikTok has been the new social media darling for several years, but in 2023 it faced existential threats in the United States — including a five-hour hearing before lawmakers — as some governments have moved to restrict or even banned the app for its connections to China. While it’s more popular than ever, it’s yet another question mark in the social media industry.
2024 will certainly be another year for staying nimble in social media — but then, isn’t every year?
And of course, we can’t close out 2023 without discussing AI. The technology is evolving at a breakneck clip, forcing every other industry to evolve as well. It’s bringing increased efficiency to many in the PR space when it comes to pitching, writing and other mundane tasks, but also brings concerns over job replacement, deepfakes, misinformation and more. It also opens new avenues for creativity as AI avatars offer the ability to create AI spokespeople and entertainers or even to resurrect the dead.
The ethical and legal considerations continue to pile up around this technology, requiring wisdom and empathy to navigate.
And those are the traits we wish for you in 2024 above all: wisdom and empathy.
To a happy and prosperous new year for us all.