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We are in the digital age, so what exactly is the future for public relations?
19th November 2018 By Gabriel Burrow

The ways that people communicate are forever changing. From the printing press, to the telegram and the first commercial radio broadcast, there have always been new technologies with which to communicate, and with them communicators who take it upon themselves to master these tools. Now the internet and social media have created new ways to share news, experiences, and pictures of cats - but this time the channels are two way, presenting fresh challenges and opportunities. This is a crossroads for public relations professionals, though we have been here before; from Caxton printing the first English bibles, to the Lumiere brothers making their first films. What hasn’t changed is that there have always been people who’s express responsibility is to effectively manage how information is spread from individuals or organisations to the public. Given this responsibility, there is no avoiding new tools: it is essential that PR professionals incorporate them into the ways they promote and protect clients in a digital age. Old school methodologies that governed the industry for decades need to evolve to become more agile, reciprocal, integrated and optimised to successfully capitalise on these new channels, and in the process change the way we think about PR.

Agility is increasingly cited as an essential attribute in the creative industries. When it comes to PR, the rise of Twitter has created a new way to engage with audiences and journalists alike. #JournoRequest has taken the industry by storm, with hundreds of daily tweets calling for companies and consumers to provide journalists with insight, often on tight deadlines. PR professionals need to be engaging with these platforms regularly to leverage them for clients: this means identifying opportunities, pitching in spokespeople and drafting commentary for sign-off in windows of time as short as a couple of hours. You can have a long term strategy and press grid, but to nab these easy wins PRs need to be truly agile. Likewise, in a digital world of flash trends and virality, capitalising upon public sentiment requires communications solutions to be planned and executed faster than ever before.

The rise of social media platforms has created a new front on which companies must communicate. Social media is a two way street where people will voice support, ask questions and raise concerns. Brands need to communicate with them in a way that is truly reciprocal - their reputation depends on it. This is especially important in a crisis: if a company suffers a major data breach they are now obliged to report it to the relevant authorities within 72 hours thanks to the GDPR. Companies will likely have to field serious discussions on social media not long after, a task that a PR professional with expertise in crisis communications is more suited to than a social media manager, or worse an inexperienced junior. I’ve talked to executives who are afraid to have a presence on social media for this reason; they think it leaves them vulnerable. This is true, but only if you don’t have appropriate structures in place. A PR should be prepared to communicate with people individually on social media, or at least advise on strategy, regardless of whether they manage content on a daily basis.

Increasingly content does fall within a PR professional’s scope of work. After all, delivering PR campaigns that stand out from the crowd in 2018 means being integrated. Press releases and events are mainstays when it comes to driving audience awareness and engagement, but social, video and other multimedia solutions can communicate with people in entirely new and complementary ways. We’re now living in a world where the New York Times provides cutting edge virtual reality journalism and has shipped Google Cardboard headsets to their subscribers. VR is an immersive new tool for communicators and is setting a new standard for experiential PR. But you don’t have to break the bank to find new ways to engage audiences; short slices of video content and other imagery can supplement core PR activity. For example, with one of my clients I send bespoke GIFs alongside our key press releases. The GIFs engage journalists the second they open the email and are widely circulated across digital articles and social media. It’s getting harder and harder for brands to make an impact and multimedia solutions are a great way to communicate with any audience.

With the rise of Google, digital communicators also have to keep up with the search engine’s constantly shifting algorithm to ensure their information ranks highly. Online the success of articles and other content is dictated by Google’s criteria and PR professionals need a grounding in SEO to best serve their clients online. If they are writing content, the copy should hit keywords that target audiences are searching for and be structured with both readers and search engines in mind. When it comes to digital coverage, placing links to a company’s website in an article is a great way to build up a roster of backlinks and should be encouraged where possible. Equally, successes online can also be shared across social channels to maximise their reach and help organic search performance. These approaches are especially valuable as they offer PR professionals new ways to measure success. In an industry that has moved away from AVE and towards concrete metrics that comply with the Barcelona Principles, linkthroughs, owned search and web traffic are all excellent ways to assess the value of communications.

Public relations is in essence the act of communicating with people. The way people consume information has changed and by necessity the way we approach PR is changing too. Public relations now means more than issuing press releases, writing bylined articles and meeting with journalists - these are still core elements of the discipline, but now social media, video and content have their own strategic significance and should be treated as such. Soon the widespread adoption of interactive content, augmented reality, machine learning, digital assistants and the internet of things will see new tools join them. These aren’t areas that can be left to the marketers. The definition of ‘Public Relations’ has stayed the same, but what it means in practice is forever undergoing its own revolution.

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