iQ Interview Series: John Onoda on the Future of PR

With the start of a new year come new ideas, new insights, new directions for our industry. We’re asking leaders in our network to share their experiences, expertise and thoughts for the future, starting with industry titan and 2016 PRWeek Hall of Fame inductee, John Onoda.



With nearly four decades of corporate communications experience under his belt, John has represented some of the most influential organizations in the world, including General Motors, Visa and Charles Schwab. He’s weathered PR crises and counseled companies through massive shifts in the way they communicate with their stakeholders. In 2014, John was honored with the Arthur W. Page Society Distinguished Service Award for his many contributions to the PR industry.

Currently, John is a senior consultant with Gagen MacDonald, a strategy execution firm that helps clients turn high-level planning into new ways of working and assists organizations seeking to transform themselves to become more competitive.


How long have you been in PR? What was your first PR job?

I’ve been in the public relations/corporate communications field for nearly 40 years. My first job (after working as a newspaper reporter) was for Mitchell Energy & Development, an oil and gas company in the Houston area. This was the company that invented the fracking process which has transformed America’s energy landscape by unlocking vast amounts of natural gas, which is cheaper and cleaner than oil.


What do you think has been the most significant shift or trend to affect PR in the last 10 years?

Billions of people gaining access to the internet with cell phones. Beyond mere communication, their ability to shop, access data, and make their opinions known is reshaping civilization.

This connectivity is creating new industries, new jobs and new kinds of relationships. Most businesses are being transformed by this technology. It also is creating new dangers and enabling some of mankind’s worst behaviors.


We are in a profession that must always be at the cutting edge of social and technological change.


With the rise of pay-to-play sponsored content and the decline of traditional media, do you think PR is becoming less relevant? What, if anything, is taking its place?

There are many, many factors changing the public relations field, and among the most important are those related to technology. Traditional public relations is less relevant, but cutting-edge public relations is more important and powerful than ever.

We are in a profession that must always be at the cutting edge of social and technological change. It’s incredibly challenging to keep up but there’s no alternative, as far as I’m concerned.


How would you define PR now? How does that differ from 10 years ago, and how do you see that definition changing in the next 5–10 years?

Public relations is all about aligning behaviors and messaging to achieve a desired outcome. Inside corporations, it is increasingly about shaping the culture and helping people change.

Artificial intelligence, machine learning and robots are going to dramatically alter how work is conducted by many businesses. Getting a workforce to adapt to these new ways of working will be management’s greatest challenge.

Similarly, helping companies make the business and public policy decisions that will allow them to achieve their goals while minimizing problems, will be more important than churning our press releases or staging events.


What can PR professionals do to prepare for the inevitable changes in our industry?

PR professionals need to spend several hours every week either networking with people who have different skills and perspectives; or taking in information about key social, technological, political, economic and cultural trends around the world.

And don’t make the mistake of thinking everything important is happening inside the United States. We’re in a global/virtual world now and everything is increasingly connected.


What skills or tools are most important for a PR professional today?

There are dozens of new skills that are important. Probably understanding data analytics is near the top of the list.

Figuring out how to connect with target stakeholders experientially is also going to be key. People don’t read much at all nowadays and they don’t believe what they hear. Increasingly, they don’t even believe what they see. What’s left is belief in what they experience.

If engaging people is the most effective public relations approach, how can we do this at scale with thousands or even millions of people? Studying political campaigns at the national level is usually very instructive in this regard.