USC’s 2018 Relevance Report: Navigating Your Brand in an Uncertain Future

This post appears courtesy of USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. The full report can be found here.

2017 has been defined by a series of unprecedented technological and political shifts, many of which have disrupted the media landscape. While these disruptions have yet to slow down, USC Annenberg remains focused on preparing the PR industry for future trends in their newly-released 2018 Relevance Report. 

The Relevance Report is a curated set of brief essays written by communication leaders and executives in the PR industry. The report is released annually by USC Annenberg’s Center for Public Relations (CPR) and provides a framework for corporations, agencies, academics and students to prepare for current and upcoming trends in the field. 

This year’s report – the center’s second – features 32 essays that cover a wide array of topics, including media, communication, technology, marketing and society. Contributing authors include leaders from Edelman, Golin, Hyundai Motor America, KTStewart, Oglivy and Weber Shandwick. 


Highlights from the Report: 

The convergence of technology and communication drives our daily interaction with technology. Michael Stewart, senior group manager at Hyundai Motor America, and IPR Trustee, provides his take on how the digital revolution is sweeping the automotive industry. 

Communications is the central focus of Stewart’s essay, “Communications is Driving the Car Industry.” Stewart starts by noting increased smartphone usage in millennials, a consumer market purchasing automobiles at record numbers. According to a 2017 Autotrader study, 48 percent of consumers prioritize in-vehicle technology over brand and style – nearly all of which is related to communications. 

Today, consumers expect hyper-connectivity between their communications device and their vehicle, often quick to choose automakers that incorporate technologies like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto into their vehicles. With a slew of new technologies on the rise, purchasing a car is less about horsepower, and more about safe communication while driving. 

Change is also necessary in the way automakers communicate with customers in the shopping process. Although today’s car shoppers have 24 different touch points before purchase – 19 of which are digital – shoppers are visiting less than two dealerships on average. Instead, automakers must focus on digital communication and tailored messaging with their customers, to streamline the purchasing process and make the dealership experience more enjoyable. 


Brand involvement also emerged as a major theme in this year’s report, with authors commenting on how corporations should engage in social and political matters.  

James T. Olson stresses global social responsibility as a business imperative in his essay, “Actions Speak Louder Than Words.” The senior vice president of United Airlines reflects on the responsibility that corporations have in ensuring that their actions back their words. 

Olson’s essay plays out much like a story as he recaps his CEO, Oscar Munoz’s trip to Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. The trip – which Olson recalls was last minute and unannounced – allowed Munoz to be with his fellow employees and experience Harvey’s impact in person.  

Subsequent paragraphs illustrate Munoz’s trip in detail, allowing readers to step in the shoes of the CEO and understand his feelings interacting with employees and families affected by the hurricane. His experience influenced United’s decision to turn their commercial airline into a humanitarian operation to deliver aid and relief to victims. 

The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer found that 75 percent believe a company can take specific actions that both increase profits and improve the economic and social conditions in the community in which it operates. As people look to businesses to take action in social matters, business leaders – and their companies – must ensure that they mean what they say and say what they mean.  


USC graduate student Bridget Winstead addresses brand involvement from a political perspective in her essay, “To Be Involved or Not To Be Involved.”  

Political division and hyper-polarization have presented new challenges for brands to stay relevant. As the rift in political ideologies grows in the United States, brands are caught in a catch-22 whether to engage in political acceptance or discourse. Either decision places a brand’s reputation and market at risk. 

Winstead’s essay also remarks the cognitive dissonance in companies that do not stand by their core values. A study conducted by Drexel University and Clemson University found that “purchasing behavior was significantly affected if the company went against prior expectations.”  

Winstead concludes that brand leaders must weigh the pros and cons of taking a side in the political spectrum. Political involvement is the new normal, and brands may have no choice but to get involved in politics to stay relevant in today’s market. 


Although companies do not have control over the disruptions in the technological, social and political spheres, they do have control over the rhetoric used to promote their brand. In IPR Trustee Kirk Stewart’s essay, “The Radicalization of Rhetoric,” urges content creators and communicators to avoid pushing the envelope of good taste in order to get noticed in today’s hyper-competitive media environment. 

The founder and CEO of KTStewart attributes this radicalization to social media users and traditional media sources. As users are willing to say and do outrageous and irresponsible things on social media, there is a newfound focus on what is trending rather than what is true. In turn, media coverage of “what’s trending” on social media only fuels the fire, driving readership and viewership to such outlandish conduct. 

In order to build companies, brands and reputations responsibly, yet still get noticed amid the craziness, Stewart suggests that content creators craft narratives that are smarter, more insightful, more interesting and more human than the competition. It is imperative to be more responsible and respectful of the intelligence of your intended audience, rather than push the envelope of good taste to get noticed. 


Regardless of your company’s brand involvement or rhetoric, it is important to stay true to your word in today’s market. Matt Furman’s essay, “Predicting the Unpredictable,” advises companies to stop anticipating your market’s responses, and instead stick to a course that feels genuine with your company’s values. 

Providing examples from National Public Radio and New Jersey mother Alison Chandra, the chief communications and public affairs officer for Best Buy gives communicators a look into the new reality: No one can tell you what’s going to happen when you engage with the world. As predictability fades in this new reality, Furman recommends that communicators must pick a course that feels genuine and stick to it no matter what people say. 

With the year coming to a close, it may feel like a fool’s errand to try and predict future trends. Nevertheless, businesses have the ability to adjust accordingly and responsibly to recent technological, social and political shifts. Change may require communicators and leaders to reflect on their brand’s core values, but such is the new normal in our society. Although the future is uncertain, there has never been a better time for businesses to rediscover their path and stand by their ideals with newfound conviction. 

The mission of USC Annenberg’s Center for Public Relations (CPR) is to connect corporations, agencies, academics and students to define the future of our industry and to develop those who will shape it. University faculty and CPR board members examine current strategies, forecast future trends and provide insight and feedback to students.  


Angel Kennedy is a student assistant for the Institute for Public Relations. He is a journalism student at the University of Florida.

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