lNow that we’re past Super Bowl XXXIX, we’re officially on the flip side of Q1-2005; and its clear that, in the coming months, businesses will be handing off more frequently, devising new sets of signals, and showing some different formations to get a leg up on the competition.

In our profession, a fresh survey of agencies by the Council of Public Relations Firms finds (thankfully) that clients are ready to boost their financial commitments to their public relations firms. One of the reasons certainly is the overall increase in business activity that’s loosening up budgets. But, as pointed out in a recent Airfoil white paper, companies also have found new and more effective ways to work with their agencies.

Small businesses and large are appreciating more than ever the advantages of outsourcing their PR work, gaining the talent, scale and cross-client experience of a top-notch PR staff without needing to increase their headcounts. As a result, they’re placing higher-than-ever trust in their PR agencies and assigning them a greater range of responsibilities. Instead of becoming an extra set of hands, PR firms are being positioned as entire new departments with operational assignments and productivity goals. Just as they do with internal staff, clients now are focusing much more on measurable results for their agencies’ public relations efforts. Pre-campaign research and subsequent follow-up studies used to be an ideal; now they’re essential.

To make this all work effectively, PR firms and their clients alike will be looking throughout the year at a number of communications methods that are just emerging or gaining acceptability. Instant messaging (IM), the one-to-one chat and file-exchange technology that long has been used by individuals to keep in touch, now has become an important tool for agencies to get a faster-than-email answer to a question posed by a reporter, fact-checking for news releases, and schedule checking. Clients are using IM to make an instant connection with their PR account staff, to send information in a crisis or to set up a meeting.

Text messaging on cell phones is being employed by PR firms for marketing as well as for reaching clients who are away from their computers and may be in situations where they can’t engage in a phone conversation. In Europe, text messaging has become an important—and trusted—channel for individuals to convey and discuss news of the day.

PDA sales will continue to decline in 2005 (shipments reportedly were down 13% last year) as smart cell phones usurp the market by offering an organizer combined with telephone capabilities.

The invention of the iPod and portable media players in general—initially designed for younger music enthusiasts—has stimulated the imaginations of businesses who will find ways to use the little devices that may never have been anticipated. Because each of these players is essentially a portable computer disk drive, it can be employed for all types of storage. Physicians are carrying digital X-ray files on these gadgets as a convenient way to transport them. PowerPoint presentations are being routed directly from media players. In just the past few months, individuals across the globe have been producing their own Internet “radio shows” and, with the help of some brand-new software, making them available instantaneously to portable media players worldwide that download them automatically. It’s kind of a portable radio TiVo. Think of the direct-marketing potential of this technology, which has earned the name “podcasting”: radio programs built around product and service descriptions, with accompanying endorsements and testimonials, beamed directly to the pockets of young consumers. And on the first day of this year, the world’s leading wireless carriers announced agreement on a standard for sending high-res video to mobile phones, still a few years away from implementation.

All the technologies coming into their own in the approaching months will allow executives to travel less often for meetings because full-fledged electronic collaboration becomes easier.

Blogs, like this one, not only will continue to proliferate but also will become a more popular form of collaboration (where links to key resources can be shared in context) and of providing business reports and analysis. That means PR executives, who are accustomed to checking electronic message boards and chat rooms for references to their clients, soon will be monitoring thousands of blogs in efforts to revise inaccurate or negative information.

This year the new technology also will continue redefining the meaning of a “business location.” While a seemingly endless flow of corporate mergers and acquisitions constantly reshapes the communications landscape in cable, computers and telephony, “the office” is becoming more of a network of people and resources than a single physical site. Virtual teams work together in Asia, Europe and America to get products to market faster. Business functions are converging toward intranets and the Web. Today intra-company status is much less a function of square footage of carpet than gigahertz of processor power.

Expressed in the Bowlian logic that we’ll be enduring in Detroit for the next dozen months, Year MMV is going to mean Much More Variety in operating our companies with Many More Vehicles for business communications.

— Janet Tyler