Relationship building & reputation management is the core purpose of Public Relations. The chartered Institute of public relations (CIPR) describes it as “The result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you. Public Relations is the discipline that looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics”.
It’s almost impossible to comprehend a world in which PR Professionals could perform their function without the use of digital media. It feels unnatural in this day and age to not be able to communicate at the touch of a button, to share, to like and to comment. Public Relations has been used for several years in efforts to influence decision-making and change people’s attitudes and actions, so how did PR professionals create strategies and deliver them in such a way that the general public would not miss without the use of today’s digital platforms?
The strategy has not changed, just the delivery mechanism and messaging. Ensure you match the audience with the media they enjoy and then make sure the news story sits nicely in that space, in a way that inspires people to start conversations and act.
For hundreds of years the newspaper was the most prolific way to deliver your communication. The bigger the news story, the nearer the front page and more likely it became the main headline. The more hard-hitting and/or salacious the news, the wider it spread from one media to another.
Max Clifford, a famous PR ‘guru’ responsible for some of the largest and most controversial PR stunts in Britain’s history throughout the 80s and 90s, has represented huge names including OJ Simpson, Simon Cowell, Jade Goody and Freddie Starr. During the peak of his career, Clifford would have been mainly relying on newspapers to spread his (sometimes proven to be fabricated) stories.
A headline for the Sun newspaper ‘Freddie Starr ate my hamster’ (a story Clifford created to promote his then client, Starr) was voted by the BBC in 2006 to be one of the most familiar newspaper headlines of the past century.
Would this have had the same result if the headline was published in 2014? Absolutely not. According to the Guardian (2014), the Sun’s print copy readership declined by 9.7% in 2013 (just one year alone), providing proof that the attention a print newspaper gets is decreasing . A PR stunt like this would be unlikely to generate the mass hysteria and shock that it did some 20 years ago. A quote from Sarah Hazen’s: Exploring strategic communication in a changed media landscape says: “The decline in printed newspaper circulations began to accelerate in 2003 and has since only declined further and faster. In 2009, figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations revealed that 24 out of the top 25 newspapers in America had declined in circulation while newspaper websites attracted more than 73 million unique visitors on average each month.”Arango (2009)
So many people these days get their news in bites and snippets from Twitter or Facebook that far less people go out of their way to see the front page headline of a print newspaper. In a survey undertaken by myself for a university module, I asked 10 peers how they source their news. An astounding 9/10 said either via online magazines and papers or Twitter.
Graduates coming into the work place today have grown up in the digital age and newspapers are rarely consumed by them as they are by those born before the 60s and 70s. In fact, you could say the printed newspaper is still only in existence for the convenience of the older generation. As Rob Brown states in Share This Too: “print wont disappear in a single generation, but it will be consumed by an ever decreasing demographic.” (Brown, 2012)
However, even stories trending on social media can make their way into the printed press and therefore finally reach the older target. In 2004 there was a social media storm when an Argos customer set to twitter to convey his dissatisfaction that there were no PS4 consoles in stock and the sales assistant was rude. Argos decided to respond in kind, tweeting: ‘Safe badman, we getting sum more PS4 tings in wivin da week y’get me’. Then added: Soz bout da attitude, probz avin a bad day yo’. Both messages went viral with the firms response was re-tweeted 1500 times in a two hours and hundreds of people favourited both messages. The story made its way into the Daily Mail (2014) generating free positive PR for Argos whilst reaching the older generation.
Before the digital age, PR professionals looking to promote a product or person or event would sometimes use stunts and fabrications to create desired emotions within their target audience, whether that was shock, envy, astonishment or compassion. If the stunt was big enough or interesting enough the results would be picked up by the press, radio and TV and recorded and read in the hope that it was promoted. But the rise in digital platforms like social media has meant that PR professionals have had to become completely transparent in their approach as they have become unable to manipulate thoughts and impressions. The biggest issue people in the industry face in today’s age is their lack of control over a situation. Some 20 years ago it would be much harder to trace a lie, as access to the web and social sharing sites wasn’t as prevalent, therefore your ability to control and manipulate the minds of the masses was almost easy. These days, with the ability to delve deeply into the World Wide Web, almost anyone with the time, interest and patience can uncover a lie, spot a publicity stunt and flip PR on its head.
No longer can tardy, tatty hotels hire a PR team to generate interest alluding to 5* surroundings and experiences. Opinions will be concluded by reviewing web sites such as Trip Advisor and Holiday Check – the online version of ‘word of mouth’ – and it is this opinion that will override any self-promotion of the brand. People believe people and consumers are able to see though lies and will share their experiences with whoever is willing to listen (read) which is why transparency is not only important in promoting a brand, but imperative if you are not going to destroy it. If you say you’re the best, but 1000 people disagree – you have generated negative PR all by yourself.
Public Relations specialists have had to adapt to the digital media landscape, aware that all they promote can be investigated and uncovered with the results shared by the masses. With people going straight to Facebook and Twitter for news and entertainment, blogs for advice and reviews and over 300 million people visiting Instagram per month (Instagram, 2015) it’s clear that ‘going social’ is the only way.
A once traditional media PR company M&C Saatchi PR quickly adapted to the digital landscape in 2012 when they delivered the EE 4G launch event at Battersea Power Station. Along with traditional Ad spend they also paid Twitter for the hashtag #4GEE and displayed live tweets on Nicole Sherzinger’s dress throughout a spectacular light show. The dress could have displayed negative tweets at any time, which could have been disastrous for the public relations of EE – but due to their see-through strategy and honesty this was clearly not something they felt the need to worry about. This campaign and the use of the ‘Twitter dress’ in particular is a good example of a truly transparent strategy that successfully promoted their product and developed consumer’s belief and trust in the product all in one hit.
There have been many ground-breaking new discoveries and experiments in the world of digital technology, with 4D projection used by M&C Saatchi above. However, the rise in digital is at its most spectacular height yet. In their January 2015 print edition, Wired magazine released the first ever interactive print advert. The Moto X Motorola phone advert involves three LED lights, a square of Plexiglas, four batteries and various buttons, which allow you to customise and test-drive the 11 different colours of the phone. Amazing, right?
Digital media is growing in capabilities day by day and PR professionals have got to move as quickly as it grows. Now, not only do they have to promote and protect a brand, they have to be greatly prepared for the fall out if something goes wrong with the digital technology. What would happen if the Moto X print ad sent out 40,000 of it’s 150,000 exclusive copies with faulty batteries? This would be deemed as a PR crisis on the behalf of the Motorola brand, and subsequently their bad reputation would proceed them before anyone even purchases the product. The incorporation of digital in day-to-day life can leave PR professionals on edge. They have to readjust daily to new technology, greater ideas on a grander scale, keeping up to date at all times.
PR is seen as a useful tool in the workplace. Digital media is essential in communicating to a large expanse of employees. Companies like Osborne Clarke, EDF Energy and Abercrombie & Fitch all use digital internal newsletters and Intranet systems as a platform to share articles, information and achievements. This works effectively for the company’s public relations because employees are essentially brand ambassadors, and keeping them in the loop and proud of their work is a great method of spreading good PR. I recently interned at an international law firm, Osborne Clarke. Working closely with their PR and communications team, I gained a first-hand insight into how they have tried to adapt and embrace digital media. The main thing that showcased this was the fact that they recruited an intern to refresh their internal comms newsletter with a ‘Generation Y’ approach to the content. Though they have a large Twitter presence and are in no way ‘afraid’ of social media, they clearly felt it would benefit them to have some input from a generation who’s second language is digital. Instead of continuing to produce content that they feared may be slightly stuffy or disengaging, they took a risk by giving me control of some internal editorial.
For any PR professional, an essential tool is a strong network. Social Media has allowed public relations professionals to create and build strong networks and relationships with other professionals that they may not have even met. It allows them to source information, and spread it to a wider audience than just their own. According to Metcalfe’s law: the value of a network grows in proportion to the number of connections (quadratic growth) so, for example, a small network of 5 members has 10 connections, whereas a network with 10 numbers has 45 connections and so on. A large network is a platform to start and join in on conversations, to promote yourself and your clients and to gain industry advice.
“Public relations is the management of mutually influential relationships within a web of constituency relationships.” Coombs & Holladay (2010)
Whilst Twitter is good for building relationships and conversations, LinkedIn is renowned for allowing professionals to connect with people in the same field of work allowing you to approach people you wouldn’t otherwise be able to, in a professional manner.
Without the use of networking tools like social media, public relations people will have had to befriend journalists and sources and will have had to maintain a personal relationship with them. They would have had to arrange to meet up regularly to share their information in the hope that they’d see them in time for their news to be still ‘new’. Nowadays, PR people have adapted and can reach their network by email, text and social media. This is a great benefit as they can get their stories and facts out as soon as they come in, meaning most PR is now up to the minute news.
All photos taken from Google images.
Arango, Anon. (2009) p.g 10. PR: Exploring strategic communication in a changed media landscape. Available from: http://www.simonwakeman.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/PR-Exploring-Strategic-Communication-in-a-Changed-Media-Landscape-1.pdf [Accessed 12 January 2015].
Brown, R. (2012) Share this too. London: Wiley.
Chartered Institute of Public Relations. (2014) www.cipr.co.uk. Available from: http://www.cipr.co.uk/content/careers-cpd/careers-advice-and-case-studies/what-pr [Accessed 11 January 2015].
Coombs, W & Holladay, S. (2010). The handbook of crisis communication. London: Wiley.
Hills, S (2014). The Daily Mail. Available from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2577610/Safe-gettin-sum-PS4-tings-Argos-customer-care-team-respond-Twitter-user-named-Badman-little-street-slang-own.html [Acessed 2 January 2015].
Instagram (2015) Instagram. Available from: http://instagram.com/press/ [Accessed 11 January 2015].
Plunkett, J. (2014) The Guardian. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/may/09/one-direction-coverage-boosts-sun-on-sunday-sales [Accessed 12 January 2015].