Outlook | Striving and thriving: The Irish PR sector | Dr Martina Byrne, CEO, PRII and PRCA Ireland

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The public relations and communications sector in Ireland is in good health and, while cognisant of the disruptive power of ‘events, dear boy, events,’ there is optimism and confidence around for the coming twelve months, both in agencies and among in-house teams. Budgets for public relations spend are holding steady or growing.

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According to research earlier this year by the Public Relations Institute of Ireland (PRII) there has been an increase of €200m in the contribution of the public relations and communications sector to the Irish economy over the past five years – which includes the years of pandemic lock-down. In 2019, the contribution was estimated at €1.2 billion and in 2024 it was estimated to have risen to €1.4 billion.

Relatedly, occupation data from the Central Statistics Office in Ireland shows the sector experienced a 20 per cent growth in jobs in that period and now employs over 3,300.

Reflecting the sector’s overall growth, the Public Relations Institute of Ireland (PRII) has expanded significantly. With nearly 1,200 members from both public and private sectors, PRII now represents approximately one-third of all professionals in the field – a record high in its 70-year history.

We saw significant extra work for communications in all areas of expertise from digital content to internal communications and public affairs and, at the PRII, we witnessed notable recruitment across private and public sector with organisations establishing their first-ever in-house communications resources or growing in-house teams in 2021/22. There was over 50 per cent more public relations and communication job opportunities published on the PRII website in a six-month period in 2021-2022 compared to the same period in 2018-2019. 

Research carried out by Irish agency Springboard Communications this summer found 50 per cent of internal communications teams increased in headcount since 2022.

Indicative of an active public sector procurement market, a PRII analysis found that in the first quarter of 2022, there were twenty-seven relevant tenders. This contrasts with the same period in 2019 when there were seven tenders. The PRII eTender Watch service facilitates its members accessing public relations, communication, and events-related public sector tenders. 

Now, from the vantage point of 2024, we can say that while that ‘red hot’ growth has returned to more normal figures, the activity levels and employment figures have held. 

Recruitment, retention and managing team performance continue to be among the top concerns though the pressure is less acute than in the immediate aftermath of Covid. Working from home remains popular with most spending two to three days in the office per week. This may explain why a PRII study in 2022 saw an increase of 10 per cent in respondents saying they had a good work life balance, up from 66 per cent in 2019 pre-Covid and the experience of working from home.

The Awards for Excellence in Public Relations 2024, which took place in June, highlighted the quality, as well as the range of organisations undertaking great work. The Awards, co-hosted by the Public Relations Consultants Association Ireland and the PRII for the last 31 years, recognise the best in Irish public relations, public affairs, and internal communications across the public and private sectors. This year saw the second highest ever number of entries, across a wide range of topics and organisations, from public health to Irish culture, and from environmental and technological innovation to combatting deprivation and social exclusion. 

UCD Research won the Best Public Sector Award for their publicity campaign on the launch of Ireland’s first satellite. 

Primark (Penneys) won the In-House PR Team Award. 

The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, with their agency Drury, won for its issues-led campaign highlighting the importance of consent. 

Google Ireland, working with Methods+Mastery, an agency within FleishmanHillard, won an Award for a PR Event for Google Lens and the Gen Z audience.

The Best Healthcare Campaign went to Specsavers hearing loss campaign ‘Don’t Let the Craic Go Silent’ implemented by Wilson Hartnell.

CERN Membership for Ireland, a lobbying campaign by the Institute of Physics supported by Gibney Communications, won the Public Affairs Campaign Award. CERN is the European Organization for Nuclear Research, one of the world’s largest centers for scientific research.

The Health Service Executive (HSE) National Cancer Control Programme won the Award for the Best Public Information Campaign for its Skin Cancer Prevention campaign SunSmart.

The ISPCC won for a hard-hitting media campaign that showed no fear of exposing harsh truths about childhood in Ireland. The campaign tag line was ‘For some children, Christmas doesn’t happen.’

Legacy Communications and Cullen Communications won the PRCA Agencies of the Year Awards, for larger and smaller agencies respectively.

Artificial Intelligence, while much talked about in every office, is not so much of a concern. The sector accepts it is here to stay and is already embedded in all aspects of life and work. While many are dabbling in the use of new tools and getting to know them, the main concern is how to go about utilising generative AI tools to gain efficiency in routine or data-based tasks while protecting their own, or their client’s, data. 

To support its members the PRII have set up an ‘AI in PR’ Working Group and, along with expert briefings and training sessions, will soon publish its own Guidelines for Using AI in PR outputs.

Communications advisors were already aware that they need to include misinformation, dis-information, and cyber-security threats, into their crisis -preparedness plans but these are being updated to take into consideration what the same ‘bad actors’ can now do with freely available AI tools. 

The latter two subject areas, along with maintaining strong sense of teamwork and organisational culture are likely to be pre-eminent in the minds of sector leaders in the year ahead. 

Not to mention the current geo-political crises, climate change and this outcomes from ‘The Year of Elections.’