Public Relations is changing: the power of PR has never been so great.

Leadership is suffering an unparalleled crisis of legitimacy, the boundary between internal and external  communication is disappearing, and Google will soon allow our peers to filter what we read. So why should PR have any cause to be optimistic about the future?

A recent PR Moment Conference brought together a string of industry heavyweights to explain why seismic shifts in public perception and the media landscape have put PR on the cusp of a massive breakthrough.

Ketchum Partner, Rod Cartwright, discussed Ketchum’s recent 12-country Leadership Communication Monitor survey, which offered a glimpse into a world deeply disillusioned with those at the top. One in five global respondents felt there was a marked failure of leadership across every sector of society, and the problem was worst of all in Western democracies; leaders in politics, religion, business and the NGO community were rated markedly worse in the US and Europe than in the ‘emerging markets’.

From “hacktivists” to Greek rioters, from the Tea Party to the “shareholder spring”, the spirit of subversion is everywhere. TIME Magazine’s front page last year embodied the revolutionary mood, featuring “The Protestor” as its 2011 Person of the Year, while anti-Establishment figures like Julian Assange have become icons of our time for some.

Yet through the gloom, we can also start to gain a sense  of how this crisis could represent a new dawn for PR and assist with the long-standing efforts to cement PR’s place at the  boardroom table.

For the study found that the most highly-prized leadership quality and determinant of leadership effectiveness globally was clear and transparent communication. And yet, only 37% of global leaders currently live up to this ideal.

Critically, respondents rated trustworthiness the most important indicator of corporate credibility and placed a willingness to be open and honest about the current challenges way ahead of holding back for fear of damaging fragile confidence..

In other words, the current global leadership crisis has the potential to take PR from the press office to the heart of boardroom, from the periphery to the centre of corporate thinking if the industry is able to grasp the opportunity and responsibility open to us.

Intriguingly, Cartwright noted that ‘traditional’ communication vehicles such as personal appearances, print and broadcast put social media in the shade in terms of their effectiveness as an interface between leaders and their audiences. As custodians of corporate values, people want leaders to be both ‘personally present and are often unsure who really lurks behind the Twitter feed.

This further illustrates the opportunity for PR to move from a peripheral to a central role, by giving future leaders an authentic ‘presence’, even where they are physically invisible.

The Conference also heard from communications chiefs at some of the world’s leading organisations, including Barclays, IBM, HSBC, John Lewis and the BBC, who explained why PR is on the cusp of a transformation, and how to succeed in today’s 24-hour communicational “chaos”. Key themes that emerged were as follows:

1. Internal communication is inseparable from external communication. Information can no longer be quarantined, in a world in which Blackberry-wielding workers can broadcast your innermost corporate secrets from within conference walls, and news seeps seamlessly from the Twitter page to the broadcast studio.

2. There is an increased need to be able to objectively assess threats and opportunities.  PR professionals are needed more than ever, to help mine the corporate closet for “skeletons and stories” with the power to shape corporate reputations. In a crowded media landscape, PR is also becoming essential to separate genuine external threats – “the dogs that bite” – from the myriad “yappy little dogs” barking across cyberspace.

3. Control is now an illusion. The 24-hour informational chaos, and the rise of the “power of crowds” in controlling the flow of news, is weakening the power of traditional media gatekeepers; the modern organization can no longer control information, but must instead engage with its stakeholders.  In future, rising up the search rankings won’t be about manipulating algorithims, but fostering trusted human connections.The conversation age is replacing the information age, putting PR in the driving seat.

4.Securing peer approval is key. Now that social media and traditional media are converging, and the boundary between online and offline reality is rapidly disappearing, it’s important for organizations to “insert themselves” into the social media space and own the conversation at an early stage. ,

5. The core PR skills base must be complemented by appropriate professional development. Multi-disciplinary skills and knowledge of specific industry and business fundamentals is key for PR professionals to be taken seriously at the strategic and boardroom level.

6. PR needs to be able to prove its impact on business. Measurement of the business benefits, and the ROI of PR campaigns is critical. For example, the amount of “brand love” you have created or the level and strength of the human connections the campaign has built and how these translate into commercial outcomes.

7.“ PR can prove its worth through “connected data” With the rise of “connected data”, Google (and Google+) will harness the power of peer approval to drive search results, and personalize information, giving PR its greatest ever opportunity to wrestle control of search back from the SEO merchants.

As the visibility of information and organisations is increasingly determined by peer recommendation, Google will become a portal into the quality of your communications, allowing PR to return to its roots, with success measured by the lasting human connections it builds.