Public Relations

In an age of a revolution in digital communications how would you define Public Relations?

The below is my entry to the PRCA Reginald Watts Prize 2018. Unfortunately, I wasn’t shortlisted this year. However I hope you enjoy reading it all the same.

You can also read my 2017 essay here.


Oxford English Dictionaries defines public relations as “The professional maintenance of a favourable public image by a company or other organization or a famous person.” [1]

The PRCA defines public relations as “the way organisations communicate with the public, promote themselves, and build a positive reputation and public image.[2]

The CIPR defines public relations as “the discipline which 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.”  [3]

But, in the age of digital communications, what is public relations? Digital communications have started an evolution in PR.

Revolutionising boundaries

The biggest change that digital communications have made to PR is removing boundaries. In the past, communication was often limited to stories in local, regional or national media – perhaps stretching internationally for the really big news.

Online news sites, social media and digital channels mean that news can be disseminated across the globe in a matter of seconds. Reaching an audience in a different city, county or country is, in theory, no issue.

And with digital allowing you to reach audiences online, it brings two paradoxical benefits; both the ability to reach mass audiences and the ability to reach extremely niche and targeted audiences.

With endless news sites, blogs, social media platforms and websites, reaching a mass audience is easier than it has ever been. If your objective is to reach ‘Joe Public’, thanks to digital communications, you can do that from any town or city across the world.

Equally, if your objective is to reach a targeted audience within a particular niche, you can do that just as effectively. There will be a blog, a YouTube channel and website just for that where you can reach audiences interested in your specific topic.

Digital media has allowed the PR industry to extend its reach to more and more users, to get brands in front of audiences that matter and engage with people worldwide. Long gone are the days of faxing a media release to your local paper – we’re truly in an age of multimedia, not mono-media.

Revolutionising interaction

“The emergence of digital and social media has changed the way companies interact with the public. Once again, there is an understanding that what people say about you can really build your brand – or it can do great harm. That’s what the digital world is all about. It’s changing what we do and what everyone in the market and industry does” [4] explained Amy Binder of CEO of RF|Binder Partners.

Digital communications have changed the way brands and businesses interact with their audiences. Social media allows companies to communicate with their audiences directly, and audiences with the company; this has changed the role of PR. More and more, PR encompasses social and digital media management.

This brings with it another challenge for PR professionals. Audiences are placing more and more value on the authenticity of the outlets that they read. The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer [5] showed that less than a quarter of the UK population trust social media. Furthermore, seven in ten people worldwide worry about fake news being used as a ‘weapon’. In a world of mistrust, it is more important than ever for PRs to prove their client or company’s credibility and authenticity, and digital channels can be a great way to do this.

Revolutionising workflows

Digital communications have also led to the rise in integrated communications strategies. Back in 2012, Sabrina Horn said on PR Week, “a company faced with launching a product into a market can’t implement a viral social campaign that drives people to a subpar web site; that would negate the success of its social efforts.” [6]

Digital communications now mean that PR encompasses more channels than ever before. Communications doesn’t just mean press stories, it includes everything that is said about a brand; its website, its social media, its blog, its news items, its media statements, its press interviews.

The PESO model (paid, earned, shared and owned media) is a demonstration of this and a great planning tool for PR professionals. Practitioners need to ensure that messages from paid advertorials and sponsored content, earned media in press and online, content shared by third parties and your company’s own channels are all cohesive and, for an effective presence, working in harmony to achieve the communications objectives and ultimately overall business objectives.

This also means that the role of the PR is changing to be always on. Digital media never sleeps and practitioners need to be aware of what is going on with their company or client around the clock.

When PR just meant newspaper coverage, it was easy to track, monitor and evaluate. Today, we have vast amounts of data coming from a vast range of sources meaning that PRs need to ensure their communications activity, and equally monitoring and evaluation, is responding to the integrated role communications now inhabits.

To conclude?

The revolution in digital communications has broken the boundaries of media channels and changed how PR practitioners disseminate messages. It has changed interactivity and the importance of online presence. It has redefined the skillset of the PR professional into a more multi-faceted role.

And the digital revolution is something that is set to continue. More and more, practitioners are starting to think about artificial intelligence (AI) in PR. A report by the CIPR found that 12% of a public relations practitioner’s total skills could be complemented or replaced by AI today, with a prediction that this could climb to 38% within five years.[7]

Digital channels and advancements in technology have had a considerable impact on the PR industry, the profession having changed dramatically since its conception. It’s a trend that looks set to continue and one we need to be prepared for.

[1] Oxford English Dictionaries https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/public_relations
[2] PRCA https://www.prca.org.uk/careers/what-is-pr
[3] CIPR https://www.cipr.co.uk/content/policy/careers-advice/what-pr
[4] Amy Binder of CEO of RF|Binder Partners https://www.amanet.org/training/articles/pr-in-the-digital-age.aspx
[5] Edelman Trust Barometer 2018 https://www.edelman.com/trust-barometer
[6] PR Week https://www.prweek.com/article/1279238/evolution-pr-digital-communications
[7] CIPR Artificial Intelligence https://newsroom.cipr.co.uk/humans-still-needed—research-project-reveals-impact-of-artificial-intelligence-on-public-relations/

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