How digital communications is impacting the PR discipline

A few years ago the main discussion among PR professionals during happy hour was if the newspapers’ online versions would replace the printed version and if we should consider it twice in the clipping report or just once since it was the same article. At the time, we could not imagine the magnitude of change we would be facing nowadays.

The media scenario has completely changed, now society shares and consumes information more quickly and openly. The democratization of information empowered each of us to easily produce and publish content, opinions and experiences without any editorial control.

I know that sounds almost like a PR nightmare. Overnight the number of media and journalists to manage has increased thousand times, our deadlines have shrank from days to minutes,  managers and clients believes that we have to cover social media with the same old budget claiming that, after all, the Internet is free. In addition, the eternal PR dilemma prevails, there is no consensus regarding measurement and ROI.

However, this is the right time for PR professionals to embrace the change and explore the opportunities that are emerging by taking ownership of digital communications strategy. Even though there are some overlaps in the digital activities performed by PR and other marketing disciplines, I believe that’s a logical progression for PR to contribute with their experience of dealing with a broad range of audiences and adding value in a more complex scenario.

According to recent research published by Watson Helsby in the UK (executive search company), two of the key issues that are inhibiting the adoption of digital communications in organizations are the rules of engagement and loss of control. Companies can no longer control how, when and where their external messages are published and are not confident of how to engage with this “lawless” environment.

Still, wasn’t it in this impartial environment that PR stood out? In this environment we learned that more important than controlling the message is to engaging people to advocate on your behalf, the value of endorsement and how to influence and persuade audiences, that was once through the press and nowadays is also through so called new media and social media.

Prepare spokespeople to properly talk publicly, develop key messages to be conveyed to broad audiences, deal with tight deadlines and manage relationships with key audiences, and yet  with the risk of not having total control of the outcomes. The abilities required are the same; we only need to get used to the new format and speed. So, why are some PR professionals so afraid?

The Watson Helsby research, which interviewed 40 senior communications professionals (in-house and agency) in the UK as well as a number of authors and academics, also listed as the key issues inhibiting the adoption of digital communications into their functions and organizations:

  1. Lack of understanding of the space / skepticism = in general the in-house professionals have to face the lack of understanding and skepticism prevailing among the senior management about adopting this new model of engagement, in particular if they are from industries with specific issues around privacy and security (banking, defense, pharmaceuticals).  Although those companies whose customers and stakeholders are already active online are more likely to embrace digital PR.
  2. Loss of control = this fear of loss – or perceived loss – of control and that communicators can no longer control the news.
  3. Demographic apartheid = the “digital natives” are under 30 years old and has instinctive understanding of digital environment. However, the senior management and senior communications professionals are “digital immigrants” and struggling to adapt.
  4. Fragmentation of the media = the vast variety of media outlets and multiplicity of audiences brings new challenges. Often the organizations are asking how to define a target and what is the best way to engage with this new audience.
  5. Speed of change and speed of response = the speed of response in digital media does not match the current internal need of procedures and approvals to disclose sensitive information, increasing litigation and corporate risk.
  6. Rules of engagement = for the majority of organizations interviewed the introduction of internal digital guidelines or training are up till now “work in progress”.
  7. Privacy and corporate security = concerns regarding regulatory implications of employees inadvertently disclosing sensitive information or generating data leaks or viral computer infections caused by staff interacting with social media networks.
  8. Lack of effective metrics =  the current ROI reports are focused on numeric data rather than insightful information
  9. Ownership of digital activities = the lack of a clear delineation between communications and other disciplines results in digital activities now being handled by a number of different functions causing confusion in terms of responsibility and accountability.

In spite of all these fears, many companies are taking advantage of this new form of engagement to be closer to their key audiences and learning on the fly how to do it. There is no definite recipe yet, so all of us need to be open to the possibility of failure. A recent edition of Harvard Business Review (July-August 2010) featured a very interesting article called Empowered that alleges that “in a world where one angry tweet can torpedo a brand, corporations need to unleash their employees to fight back”.

I could not agree more with this statement and I believe that preparation is the key to doing this safely. PR professionals should be aware that the new “media training” is now the “digital training” and that any crisis management plan has to be able to respond to any crisis in the first hour and not in 24 hours anymore.

All companies should start having full training and guidelines in digital media, a digital communications policy should be published and all management should be encouraged to use this as a communication tool internally and externally. But more than that, all companies should have a digital communication strategy integrated with their regular communication plan.

Each company has an army of employees willing to advocate on behalf of the company and its products. The secret is to apply the same PR techniques used to empower spokespeople to talk to the press and educate employees in the “do’s and dont’s” and how to use the technology.

A good example of empowerment mentioned in the Harvard Business Review article is the Best Buy case. The company created the Twelpforce, a system that enables 2,500 voluntary employees to see Best Buy related problems posted by customers on Twitter and respond to them. A real example of the efficacy of the program was what happed when a client bought an iPhone with an insurance plan in a store in Chicago. When the mobile stopped working the store staff offered him a Blackberry as a replacement. He wasn’t happy with the solution offered and tweeted about it. A member of Twelpforce saw it on twitter over the weekend, quickly responded and by the next day arranged for him to get a replacement. The client and his wife were so pleased with the response that both began to tweet about how great the Best Buy service was for their more than 3000 twitter followers.

It’s important to note that social media is a more “human” form of communication and needs real people from the company to tweet or write blogs in order to create closeness and generate authenticity. The good news is that influencing audiences though third party endorsements is a PR specialty.

So if you are a PR professional and haven’t started using these new tools yet it’s time to begin. After all if a company is looking for a cutting edge PR agency or professional to run their communication strategy, they will check out whether you are using it yourself. Remember, they may “google” you, follow you on Twitter, check your references on Linkedin and how knows ask to be your friend on Facebook or Orkut.

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3 Responses to How digital communications is impacting the PR discipline

  1. Great article, Michelle. The current and future impact of digital and social media on PR is undeniable. I’m puzzled and somewhat surprised when new mediums are not embraced by PR practitioners and businesses. After all, it’s about communicating and getting and receiving messages however they are being communicated.

    Fear of losing control of the message (and traditional strategy) is a thin veil for not being interested in truly engaging. A big factor in this new and evolving form of engagement is the fact that by getting immediate, raw feedback and digital coverage, we as practitioners now know, TRULY know, the response to our messaging and how to respond in order to reach people and ultimately positively affect the bottom line. Why anyone would choose not to embrace this is beyond me.

    Lysa Fitzhugh

  2. The content is becoming a commodity. The challenge is to be able to treat it and present a unique perspective. The insights drwan and the patterns recognised in the dots will be the key to have readers follow you.

  3. Pingback: PR firms and social media – what’s the story?

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