Defining public relations

A recent competition from the PRSA witnessed a new ‘modern’ definition of public relations, as voted for by members of PRSA and the International Association of Business Communicators. It is as follows:

‘Public relations is a strategic communications process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.’

Among anything else, it is a little vague. It doesn’t seem to reflect the true modernization of public relations today. In his blog, Harold Burson criticizes this definition for its assumption that ‘communications’ represents PR in its totality. In fact, he believes that a more accurate definition is one adapted from L.Bernays classic ‘Crystallizing Public Opinion’ in 1923:

Public relations (pub’lic re-la’shuns) n. sing. – An applied
social science that influences behavior and policy, when
communicated effectively,  motivates an individual or
group to a specific course of action by creating, changing
or reinforcing opinions and attitudes. Its ultimate objective
is persuasion that results in a certain action which, to succeed,
must serve the public interest

The use of ‘public interest’ is what is interesting here. In fact, it is what Harold Burson believes we are quickly forgetting when remembering the true function of public relations: reconciling employers goals with the public interest and effectively communicating information that reflects employers actions and behaviors. Professor Anne Gregory echoed this when she stated that PR shapes organisation values and gives them life to which people can attach. Basically, by taking an organisations values and weaving them into the messages and strategic planning that an organisation sends out, people will relate and this will create loyalty. Values shape culture and interaction and are at the heart of authenticity, risk and integrity. I like this, and I do agree that it is one element that is at the heart of successful public relations.

This type of communication could be suggested as persuasion, something which Harold believes to be the principle of public relations. For my dissertation, I am conducting an exploration into how the digital age is challenging traditional definitions and communication models of public relations – such as Grunigs four models of PR. For those who don’t know it, Grunig’s model of PR incorporates four separate models: press agentry/publicity, public information, two-way asymmetric and two-way symmetric communication. It is widely accepted that PR, especially in the digital age, has seen a shift from one-way asymmetrical communications (i.e. spin) to a transparent, two-way communication approach that listens to publics and tailors messages accordingly. However, Jim Grunig (1989) admits that the two-way model, particularly in its symmetric form which denotes a 50/50 co-orientation between organisations and their publics, is little practised and is perhaps an unrealized normative ideal. Priscilla Murphy echoes this belief and argues that most of those who advocate symmetric communication admit that it is extremely rare in practice.

The rise of the Internet has led to further criticism of the models relevancy and it has been attacked for ‘showing its age’. So what elements of the digital age are really breaking down traditional communication in public relations?

The democratisation of the media: The phenomenon of citizen journalism in the digital age has witnessed a significant disruption to the main gatekeepers of the news. This has been discussed as one of the main benefactors in the decline of print media, and is a growing trend which must be identified and acknowledged as a serious influence on the professional PR and journalism industry. Combined with the widespread growth of active users within the media, this has led to a change in democracy of the media, from the top-down approach to a bottom-down approach. Scanning the newspapers in the morning is not enough; practitioners must have the skills to effectively scan social media to find out what is at the top of the audiences agenda.

New influencers: The two-way symmetrical model creates a traditional paradigm which has led practitioners to believe that organisations can define, or even create their publics and ‘target’ them. (J. Grunig, 2009) However, the rise of the internet and new technologies has given regular individuals power and it is getting harder to control where or who the message ends up with. Gaining coverage on the right blog can now be more powerful than column inches in a relevant magazine. It is important that these influential people are considered and utilized into future PR campaigns.

Media Relations: It could be argued that the digital era has cut us out as the middle men between an organisation and its publics now that the consumer can talk directly to a brand and vice versa. I don’t agree. Whilst it is changing, I don’t think it is dead. I just think we need to get creative. Media relations isn’t changing, but the content behind it is. A fantastic example of this comes from Channel 4’s in-house PR team and the launch of Utopia. They selected a key group of journalists and sent them all a ‘warning’ video. Using personal information from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, each warning featured personal nuggets of information such as where they had been and with whom over the last week. Some shared the video, including Grace Dent and Rick Edward whom tweeted it to their 200,000 strong followers.

Content, engage, reach, measurement: Grunig has suggested that as practitioners we are simply transferring one-way communications of old and flattening it onto social media, the type of persuasive communication that was discussed above. Ultimately, PR has been criticized for not using social media not  to its full two-way potential. So how do we do this?

Engage: Knowing how to engage online is going to be your biggest weapon. It’s what the people want. Everybody is already – and will always be – talking and brands need to join the conversation.

Content: Many brands make the fatal mistake of using their Twitter or Facebook page to push out one way marketing messages. This is not engagement and it certainly isn’t the right content. News and trends travel fast on social media, so keeping up to date with this and adapting your content is key, whilst ensuring you are using conversation and engaging to peak consumers interest. A fantastic example of a fast response to the social media agenda is Oreo’s tweet during the Superbowl blackout which received 10,000 retweets in one hour:

oreo

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