Trend spotting in the PR industry is a bit like trying to capture lightning in a bottle. With the way things come and go, it can be a tough task. 

What does it take to see what’s coming next? We asked a few public relations pros to weigh in with their views on the topic.

Is it important to stay up with the latest industry trends?

When asked this question, our PR pros shared that they thought it was “extremely” important.

“It’s vital that PR pros spot emerging patterns and make meaningful contributions at the right time – as conversations are picking up steam, not once they’ve peaked,” said Emily Mong, senior marketing analyst, Shift Communications.

“Understanding what the next Uber or Airbnb is, is a great way to differentiate yourself as a PR professional,” said Brandi Boatner, Digital Experience Manager, IBM.

But Carrie Morgan, author of Above The Noise: Creating Trust, Value & Reputation Using Basic Digital PR and a top PR consultant in Phoenix, Ariz., makes an important point. “If I had to choose deepening skills or staying on top of trends, I’d choose the first every time. Too many PR pros struggle with pitching, writing and measurement skills that are so essential to success.”

How exactly do they keep up with trends?

“The most useful way is talking regularly with other PR pros, especially those focused on fields that differ from mine,” said Matthew Maxey, PR coordinator for Visit Franklin. “Some of my most successful campaigns have come from ideas sparked by others far removed from the travel industry.”

Morgan says she spends a little time every day curating content from influencers, media, and trusted sources to see what’s new in the industry. “I try to test one new skill every week on my personal branding platforms or that of a client. Having a sense of curiosity and constantly learning is essential.”

“To me, staying on top of trends means staying connected to the world,” Mong says. “The interesting thing about trends is they often aren’t industry-specific, so you could be hurting yourself or your clients if you’re hyper-focused on monitoring one industry.” She recommends using Feedly to curate content and follow news from a variety of sources.

When is it advisable for a brand to associate itself with a trend versus staying away?

“A brand should only associate itself with a trend when it’s genuine,” said Mong. “If you don’t feel like you’re adding anything new and real to the conversation, stay away.”

Morgan says, “It’s easy to get caught up in the sparkle of something sexy and new, but it’s more important to watch and wait. Will it help you reach your target market? Does it fit your strategy and help you achieve successful outcomes for a client?”

“As the world’s largest IT provider, staying ahead of tech trends is essential for our business and our industry,” Boatner added. “We do try to make sure not to add to the conversation on negative trends that may emerge on social media that don’t align with our brand values.”

Maxey says his organization is open to tying itself to a trend, “Especially if it’s something nobody else in our industry is doing.”

Can trend spotting be learned?

So, is trend spotting a skill that can be learned, or does it require more of a “magic” touch? Most of our pros felt it could be learned, although Morgan feels it takes experience to separate the hype from what’s real. “You can only do it successfully if you have the experience to recognize what is a trend.”

“I think there’s an art and science to trend spotting,” Boatner said. “I can’t say there’s a magic bullet formula or algorithm for how to identify trends, but you should be able to compile and analyze data sets to extract insights that you can act on in your daily work.”

Have you ever seen a PR team succeed in creating a trend on behalf of its brand?

A recent campaign by Cheerios to help save bees, #BringBacktheBees has helped make this topic trendy again, Mong says. “Cheerios far exceeded its goal of giving away 100 million seeds – 10x over! – giving away 1.5 billion seeds.”

Boatner cites the example of the founder of modern PR, Ed Bernays, with the Torches of Freedom campaign. “The campaign was considered successful as cigarette sales to women increased afterward. Cigarette companies followed Bernays’s lead and created ad campaigns that targeted women.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Morgan points out, “United Airlines is certainly creating an interesting trend on behalf of its brand… a trend of memes, parodies and unleashed reputation-breaking customer stories! Ouch.”

Definitely a trend most aren’t anxious to follow.

Lastly, what trends are these four pros keeping an eye on right now?

Maxey is watching virtual reality to see how it makes its way into effective PR communications in a practical, affordable way.

Also on the tech side, Boatner is curious to see how chatbots like Alexa and Echo are being used in the enterprise. And, she is keen on reputation management issues.

“Given recent events in the news (e.g. United Airlines and Bill O’Reilly), I’m watching for lessons learned and opinions from PR practitioners,” Boatner shared.

Morgan says a trend she’s encouraged by is the shift from basic “how to” type of content in industry blog posts to more sophisticated topics like measurement and ROI—with data playing an increasingly important role.

“I’m tremendously encouraged by the shift,” says Morgan.

For Mong, content shock is top of mind.

“In the last two years, the amount of news stories has increased 36% every year. To cut through the noise, the content we produce on behalf of our clients must be three things: valuable, aimed at the right audience, and presented in a way our audience wants to receive it. Otherwise, our clients will get lost in the shuffle.”

By watching what trends in the PR industry are gaining traction, you can train your eyes and ears to stay open for the next big thing.