Changes to the communication channel
We as a human race are born communicators. Since the beginning of time we have engaged in forms of communication. The communication channel has always been the same: the sender, the medium and the receiver. However, within the communication channel it is the medium that can vary, with the Internet in recent years bringing a revolution in how we communicate, and summoning a transformation in how Public Relations (PR) is practiced.
Advancements in technology and digitalisation brought with it a shift where we as a people are moving away from printed text to digital text for consumption of information, communication with each other and learning. The web’s medium of communication, the internet, is a faster, more diverse medium than we have ever known before and for us, as PR practitioners, it has changed the playing field of mediated communication be it micro or mass communications.
Dan Edelstein made a presentation in Stanford University in 2013 entitled ‘From Gutenburg to Zuckerburg: Social Media in the Enlightenment’ where he spoke about how networking and communication has only changed slightly since the 17th and 18th century scholars, with the medium being what has changed. Where they communicated through letter writing, we today mostly communicate online. The differences of their network to ours being in their network there were high barriers of entry, it was essentially closed to the pubic meaning that it was difficult to circulate information. Today with the connections that the web allows us, we are all part of one huge network but with the demassification of the mass media and viral diffusion it is also difficult to ensure your message reaches into the media landscape of its intended publics.
Demassification of traditional mass media
Traditionally to disseminate information to our publics we used both mass media and micro communications. Traditional mass media communicated in a mostly asymmetrical exchange, but media is costly and laborious to produce. Micro communications are more of a symmetrical exchange between PR practitioner and public, although less costly than mass media they also time consuming and laborious.
In 2005 Rupert Murdock addressed the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington DC urging them to take notice of the demassification of traditional mass media and its potential dire consequences to the professions which utilised mass media. During his speech Murdock stated, ‘newspapers as a medium for centuries enjoyed a virtual information monopoly – roughly from the birth of the printing press to the rise of radio….But those days are gone.’ Murdock made a very valid point that newspapers and traditional mass media no longer held the monopoly on how news is consumed.
It used to be the case that almost everybody in your locality would get their news from a few select newspapers, radio stations or television channels, the traditional mass media, and so we as PR practitioners knew which channels to use to reach the general public. The PR profession had mastered communicating through traditional media but the emergence of the web meant the tools and tactics we used to reach our publics had to be developed quickly or we would be left behind.
How digitalisation has changed PR
We know that we, as PR practitioners, act as the facilitator for communications between an organisation and its publics. We have had to keep up with the changes in transmission of communication in order to retain our roles. Now with the dramatically decreased cost of production and demassification of mass media choosing the right channel of communication to reach our intended publics has never been so crucial.
Through traditional media PR practitioners worked with marketing departments, directors and salesmen as the only conveyers of our organisations messages and did so without competition. However with the emergence of the voices of the public through social media, forums, blogs and citizen journalism, PR practitioners have to compete in order to ensure positivity and not negativity surrounds an organisation’s reputation. (Phillips & Young, 2009)
The web as a medium is not only defined by time and reach, it is also defined by aggregation. This has prompted huge changes in how PR is practiced as we are in the age of consumer generated content so we have to be more strategic, more aware of which online and offline platforms are appropriate for which audience and message, interactive with publics, ensure transparency especially of an organisation’s corporate social responsibility policy (CSR) and be tactical through search engine optimisation (SEO).
With the web, communications between organisations and its publics has become more two way symmetrical than ever before, which is good as it promotes respect and mutual understanding, paving the way for both parties to be develop mutually beneficial relations. In 2009 Grunig wrote ‘many practitioners are using the new media in the same way they used the old- as a means of dumping messages on the general population’. Successful PR practice in this new age of digitalization realises that the communication of information and its outcomes depends on the responses and reactions of the public, which of course means that the a different level of strategy has been adopted by PR practitioners.
Grunig also wrote that, ‘PR has long been a professional practice where fads are common’. Grunig went on to write about the social media frenzy and how some PR practitioners feel that new media is so hugely different to traditional media that their practice of PR must be completely over hauled. Clever PR practitioners have adapted to embrace the huge possibilities the web offers and have done so in their stride. They are aware that the majority of skills and tactics used are the same just the medium the messages are conveyed through are different, and only slight alterations of their practice was needed.
What is interesting to note is that new media, a term with which we are all far too familiar, is no longer new media it is current media. Today this is how public relations is practiced so PR practitioners have had their transition period and should be well adapted by now. Whether the web is a fad or not, and I think not, communications throughout the world have shifted, PR practitioners must be innovative and forward thinkers in order to stay ahead of the game embracing all new elements of the web as they gain popularity amongst their publics.
The rise of citizen journalism, micro blogging and social media pose both the possibilities of risks and benefits to any organisation. Should we use these platforms to engage with our publics by listening first and then selling there is potential to increase our reputation as an organisation who cares about its publics.
But should we not engage with our publics online, or worse not be seen to care then we are giving citizen journalists and social media user’s free reign to threaten our organisation’s reputation. For instance in the case of ‘Dell Hell’ where one angry Dell customer, Jeff Jarvis, posted a negative SEO optimised blog post which in turn created a domino effect that caused bad critiques globally and significant decline in the success of Dell. This happened in 2005 when Dell’s PR practitioners had not yet commenced significant online engagement, but this incident spurred them into action. In response Dell commenced an online campaign which included transparency projects, the creation of blogs and engagement with publics to show that they were a company that cared about its customers while trying to rebuild their reputation and learn from their mistakes.
The public interest in consuming information is as strong as ever
The emergence of the web has heralded a brave new dawn for all forms of communication not just public relations. Today the majority of people go to the web to find out information. This year HTC undertook a survey, which found that 65% of people surveyed felt they had a more rounded view of a news story because of the many online platforms, and offline traditional media that are covering news stories. 72% have an increased interest in news because it is more accessible which is positive for the PR profession as it means that the treasured press release still has a purpose, but not surprisingly only 34% of under 25s turn to traditional mass media outlets to find out news.
This poll proved that in order to remain as communication facilitators for organizations, PR practitioners need to understand and engage with publics on the web in a strategically planned manner. Worryingly for PR practitioners 55% of all people surveyed are more interested in the story than the source. This means that there is a greater potential for false information or slanderous information to be believed by publics, thereby increasing the need for positive PR.
Today’s publics have become information snackers with 52% of all people surveyed checking online for news more than once a day, reading snippets from a number of different sources. With the sheer amount of information available online and how it is constantly updated, it is no wonder that transparency, internet agency, internet porosity, content richness and content reach are the drivers of online communication now.
The web even affected corporate culture
When Ivy Lee, who created the first modern press release, the style that we are still familiar with today, issued his Declaration of Principles in 1907 he stated that ‘This is not a secret press bureau. All our work is done in the open. We aim to supply news… In brief, our plan is, on behalf of business concerns and public institutions, to supply to the press and public of the United States prompt and accurate information concerning subject which it is of value and interest to the public to know about’. PR practitioners used to have control, to a certain extent, of what information was shared with their publics. In 1907 Lee was promoting the need for transparency however, it is fair to say that he probably didn’t imagine that the corporate world would need to become so transparent.
Transparency traditionally is unfavourable by the corporate world because it can expose an organization to competitive disclosure and exposes intellectual property that may provide them with competitive advantage, but for PR practitioners we know the value of transparency; it allows publics to view organizations as open, communicative and accountable.
In 2003 Procter & Gamble (P&G) decided to move forward in business with radical transparency. P&G launched www.scienceinthebox.com which allows everyone access to information about how P&G products are produced, about how P&G are being sustainable and also which P&G product is best for the task at hand. P&G made this strategically planned move and it allowed them to gain a competitive advantage. A reputable website which published a positive article about P&G’s move towards radical transparency was www.ethicalcorp.com, this supportive article meant that P&G’s message would have filtered into ethicalcorp.com’s network allowing their message to reach further networks through positive third party endorsement. (Phillips & Young, 2009)
PR practitioners moving forward
With traditional media there was a tendency for PR practitioners to use Grunigs first model, however since the emergence of the web there is more and more opportunity for PR practitioners to use Grunigs fourth model, and engage with their publics in two way symmetrical communications, for mutual benefits.
Grunig made a point that PR practitioners must not treat the web as they treated traditional media, meaning they must be careful not to use the internet as a dumping ground. That the web creates the need for two way interaction and although as a whole is most a non-controlled medium, it has the ability to host both push and pull media.
However it is worth noting that although the web has become how we mostly communicate through mediated communication it is not only how we communicate, verbal and one-on-one communication has not died out. Communication will not die out because we as a human race are born communicators as Alastair Campbell said ‘Communication makes the world go around.’
The web brought with it the demassification of the mass media, meaning that PR has had to adapt it’s skills and tactics and adjust to the fact that the traditional mass media does not reach the masses any more, that a higher level of strategic planning must be used across multiple platforms of communication to reach it’s publics but mostly that in order to survive PR practitioners must be adaptable to change and outside the box thinkers.
Sources and references
Phillips, D and Young, P (2009) Online Public Relations. London, Kogan Page Limited