Decoding trends that will rule PR in 2020

Guest Column: Madan Bahal, Co-founder & Managing Director of Adfactors PR says adapatabilty to change will be the key to success in the year ahead

e4m by Madan Bahal
Published: Dec 31, 2019 4:29 PM  | 7 min read


Madan Bahl

Predictions are a dangerous business in the fast-changing world that we live in. Having said so, I foresee the decade ahead representing an unprecedented inflection point in human history. Indeed, we will witness such change and disruption in the next 10 years.

Thus, 2020 is the proverbial bridge to this brave new world – scary and exciting, in equal measure. The game, it seems, is already beyond anyone’s control.
Exponential technologies combined with irreversible climate changes, rising inequalities due to concentration of wealth, massive polarisation and demographic shifts are some of the challenges that the society, its leaders and/or institutions are not equipped nor seem to intend to deal with.

Singularity is at our doorsteps; the debate is whether it hits us before 2030 or sometime in the decade following. Amidst all this change and disruption – we can safely predict – that uncertainty and conflict will only increase.

One can also safely deduce that the ‘corporation’ will be at the crossroads of conflict. The stakeholders will demand accountability, right conduct, and affirmative action. A mere window-dressing will not suffice.

I foresee PR, as a profession, becoming more relevant than ever before. The PR professionals will have a larger mission to become arbitrators of conflict and drivers of a positive change in the society.

Thus, one may argue that these represent exponential opportunities for the practice of public relations. The Big Question: Are PR professionals and consultancies who are normally at the bottom of the pyramid in the professional services food chain ready for these opportunities?

Before I proceed any further, I must humbly confess that I have zero pretentions of being a futurist. I am a lay practitioner who has a ring-side view of what’s happening and perhaps what is imminent.

The following paragraphs do not represent anything fundamentally new; rather these represent an effort to document some of the visible movements and trends relevant to the practice of public relations. I certainly foresee these movements and trends to amplify in 2020 and beyond.

Top trends in the Indian PR industry in 2020-

Reverse migration of talent:
The year 2020 will see some reversal of the traditional one-way migration from consultancies to corporate communications. I do expect senior Corp Comm. professionals willing to explore life at the consultancy yet again. The factors responsible will include near-vacuum of leadership on the consulting side, the slowdown in many industries, the need for diverse experience and agility as well as pursuit of superior long-term growth opportunities.

The exponential rise in reputation risks:
Companies, brands and individuals will experience a rising tide of reputation risks.

Rising scrutiny, stakeholder activism, inspired influencers hiding behind the power of anonymity, low governance in the digital space, and weak redressal mechanisms combined with the speed and power of digital will require an urgent rewriting of the rulebooks of risks and crisis communication.

Many businesses are far from ready to deal with a new reputation risk environment. ORM or online reputation management, as currently practised on the fringes, will need a radical review and overhaul in 2020.

The changing paradigm of influence:
As one definition goes, the business of public relations is about influencing the influencers. In 2020 and beyond, we will see continuing shifts in the influence dynamics in the Indian society. Traditional media will slow down or continue to shrink – meaning fewer pages, fewer journalists, fewer experts for opinion, and accelerated move to paid news and content.

On the other hand, we will continue to witness an explosion of organic micro and nano influencers – dispensing opinion and shaping narratives on hundreds of subjects. The rise of religious and ideology-based influence will be another unmistakable trend that could have an impact on business. For the PR professional, this will mean a higher level of complexity to deal with, requiring new abilities to engage a vastly increased number of people with the power to impact and affect business outcomes.

Customised solutions and digital-first thinking will be the new order:
Professional services consulting has a widely accepted definition – custom solutions for unique business problems. More than ever before, clients will ask for PR solutions to address specific business needs – ranging from reputation issues to change management programmes to corporate branding or capital or policy imperatives. Successful consultants will be those who operate at the confluence of media, markets, and policy, combined with a sound understanding of digital plays in each of these segments.

Digital creates myriad opportunities due to its flexibility to target specific constituencies with customised messaging at an economical cost.

Demand for new kind of leaders in consultancies:
PR consulting in 2020 and beyond will seek new kinds of leadership, beyond the confines of the small and incestuous world of PR consulting. New sources of leadership hiring will be business consulting, marketing, media, research and law among others.

Evolving client-agency relationship:
Business imperatives due to growing reputation risks, rapid responses to changing business circumstances, market segmentation will all require public relations to be specific, adequate, and effective. Clients with a sound understanding of public relations will demand multiple interventions and programmes to simultaneously address multifarious strategic priorities. The ‘one-size-fits-all’ retainer relationship is set for a reboot in 2020. The standard retained relationship, based on a fixed number of media and CAFE deliverables, was always intrinsically inadequate. Mature clients and agencies will move to higher ground – leveraging the power of public relations for business success.

A fresh wave of new PR start-ups:
We should see a hundred or more PR start-ups set up shop in 2020. This trend will go beyond traditional centres such as Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru. The factors contributing will be massive growth in first-time users of PR combined with many senior PR professionals wanting to try their hand at Entrepreneurship – some driven by slowing growth opportunities in traditional sectors of the economy.

I foresee the fast-growing start-up universe, B2B and SMEs providing ready clientele to the PR start-ups. However, scaling up is likely to present some challenges to the resource-strapped start-up PR consultancies. The clientele, I apprehend, as first-time users of PR, will demonstrate unrealistic expectations, lower tolerance for non-performance – resulting in shorter tenure of client relationships and a high level of mortality.

A surge in learning and development of individuals and agencies:
For PR professionals and agencies alike, continuous learning will take a new and urgent meaning. There is a massive aggregate learning deficit in the PR industry – redundancy will claim a large number of victims both at an individual and a firm level.

New competencies in demand would be strategic thinking, research and analytics, crisis communications, knowledge and usage of digital tools, and the ability to collaborate across disciplines and teams. AQ or Adaptability Quotient will find a place alongside IQ and EQ in the hiring process. AQ, in fact, will earn a premium in hiring new talent and determining growth potential. Learning ‘how to learn’ will be a critical new skill. Training will give way to learning.

Any PR professional spending less than 365 hours in learning efforts in 2020 won’t be doing enough – regardless of the level in the hierarchy.

Now that we are barely a few hours from 2020, I am sharing thoughts that represent elements from my self-introspection and will, hopefully, serve as pointers to guide colleagues and partners at Adfactors PR as well as peers from the larger PR fraternity in India. Happy New Year!

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of

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