Gen-Z: a PR’s perfect nightmare

The world of PR is always transitioning to fit new ways of working and communicating. It’s what it does best. So, it should come as no surprise that as Gen-Z come of age and begin entering the workforce at an increased rate, they are bringing with them a generation of change. Things like well-being and benefits have never been under the microscope as much as they have in the last decade, and young people won’t take no for an answer (or risk taking their talent elsewhere). 

However, this begs the question, what impact is this generation having on the world of PR? How are PR professionals transitioning to be able to handle the wrath that is Gen-Z? Terms such as cancel culture, de-influencing, and greenwashing are now a part of our everyday language, and brands do not want to get caught on the wrong side of these issues. So, what do PRs need to know?

Influencer marketing and PR

One of the key elements that Gen-Z are continuously looking for in brands is authenticity. This is a generation that grew up in a time of elite consumerism, watching endless TV adverts for toys, clothes, and everything in between. Being sold to constantly, as we all know, is exhausting. Because of this, there has been a significant rise in “de-influencing”. 

This term denotes a new trend flushing through the likes of Instagram and TikTok. The trend sees influencers comprise videos in which they inform their followers of products they wouldn’t buy due to being “over-hyped”. The last thing any company wants is to be the subject of a de-influencing video. 

young woman is filming herself talking in front of a rail of clothes, her mobile phone is recording on a tripod.

So how do you avoid this? The key is understanding who your audience really is. You can pay the current big TikTok influencer to promote your product or service and get guaranteed reach, but are you really cutting through the noise and making an impact on your true potential consumer base? Only when you’re able to narrow this field and understand fully who you are trying to target can you make an informed decision on the best person to work with.

Another key consideration when creating social content for a brand is not to trend hop all the time. Whilst reactionary PR can be successful, with Ryanair being a great example of a witty and relatable social media strategy, sometimes it can backfire in your face.

If you are going to engage with an online trend or news, then you need to make sure that the brand has a level of relevance to what is being said, and that you’re not too late! A recent example of this can be seen in the social media campaign for the upcoming Barbie movie, which saw various brands creating their version of the viral poster, but many users interpreted it as ‘cringe’.

Brands should ensure that the trend they’re engaging with will correlate with their audience. Don’t just make the content because everyone else is; understand it and recognise its potential. Could it help you reach a new target audience, or does it resonate with your brand identity? These are the essential questions that require answering before you trend hop.

Cancel culture and crisis comms

Crisis communications have been a part of a PR’s toolkit since the beginning. All brands need to be prepared for if a scandal is dumped on their front steps, whether that’s a mistake on social media, a poorly received campaign, or a member of the team gets into some hot water. With the rise of social media over the last decade, the landscape that brands operate in has completely changed. 

Before, a statement about the situation that is shared around would be the appropriate level of response to a situation, outlining the actions to follow. Now, social media gives any individual the power to have a say in any situation, ever. 

To mitigate the risks of being “cancelled”, every business should have a crisis communications plan in place in case disaster ever strikes. Some agencies are even specialising in the event of being cancelled, with tailored services dependent on the brand and their audience.

We spoke to Clare Collins, an associate at Magenta and crisis comms expert, for her thoughts on the landscape of social media and how it has impacted the way crisis communications are handled.

picture of Clare Collins on a grey background

“Social media has had a huge impact on how we create crisis comms plans. Now that basically anyone can have a social media account, they can voice their opinion on every issue. There is simply no right way to reply to members of the public on social media, as you’ll never be able to please everyone.” 

The key is to have clear policies in place, so if you are in the event of a crisis, everyone knows what to do and what not to do. Ultimately, when a crisis hits, you’re too late to try and learn how to handle it. You need an expert who can help you through the process. Simple principles include the rule of not speaking to media unless instructed to. Senior teams need to know and understand what their stance is on the issue and stick to it.

It is easy to lose control of the narrative you’re trying to create on social media when the frenzy takes over and suddenly you’re trending for all the wrong reasons. Therefore, preventative measures are necessary, such as knowing what language is and isn’t good to use. It is also important not to get overwhelmed. Even though everyone in the world allows themselves to have a say on your issues, it doesn’t mean they all have a right to reply.”

The younger generations are quick to rally behind a cause, both good and bad, so it’s best to be on the right side of it. 

Social Responsibility and CSR 

Gen-Z are a cohort that has grown up with news of the climate crisis all around them, and now they are entering society as adults, they have plenty to say on the matter. This generation is one of the most educated on issues surrounding climate change, diversity and inclusion, racism, gender pay gaps…the list goes on. Creating a fair society is at the top of their agenda.

One study found that 47% of Gen-Z consumers believed that brands should speak out on sociological issues “because it is the right thing to do”. This links back to the earlier observation that Gen-Z values authenticity and honesty from brands. People can resonate with these character traits because it humanises a company beyond the corporate mist. To be able to take accountability for an issue you created is a clear demonstration of growth and change, and it’s something we are starting to see more of.

Additionally, corporate social responsibility is at the top of the Gen-Z agenda. A recent study found that 51% of Gen-Z will ensure a brand’s values align with their own before spending their money with them. But with the rise of sustainability has also seen the introduction of a new phenomenon – greenwashing. Greenwashing is where a company makes an environmental claim about something the organisation is doing that is intended to promote a sense of environmental impact that does not exist. 

Many businesses have come under fire from greenwashing scandals over the last decades, with Volkswagen’s emissions scandal being a top-level example of how it can backfire. As sustainability becomes higher and higher on the agenda, brands are being hounded to conform to these values by their customers amid threats of shopping elsewhere. However, if they do so illegitimately or falsely, the repercussions can be worse than not acting altogether. 

logo for the anti greenwash charter

As a PR, ensuring you use the correct language when discussing a client’s work is essential to guarantee you are reporting on their work truthfully and accurately. Magenta recently signed the anti-greenwashing charter to define the standards we adopt throughout our organisation to ensure that green claims made about our products and services, and our clients, are fair and substantiated. 

As the world continues to change, we must continue to adapt to the new standards being set by the upcoming generations. For now, the future of PR promises an interesting battle for Gen-Z’s attention. 

Anna Kiff