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How the “public” is being put back into PR

14th March 2013

Once PR focused on media relations, but now the word “public” is being put back into PR. The 24-hour online world and social media has meant the power and importance of PR is growing.

Stephen Waddington, European digital and social media director at PR firm Ketchum, describes how the rise of mass media in the 1950s, and its ability to provide a shortcut to mass audiences, brought about a fundamental change in style of organisational communications. Public relations needed to focus on getting content in the mass media. But it’s all change now. Waddington says: “Sixty years on, changes in consumer behaviour enabled by the internet and the fragmentation of mainstream media, means organisations recognise the opportunity of engaging directly with their audiences again. The future of communication between an organisation and its audiences must be participative. Thanks to the internet the audience is empowered. It is open about its likes and dislikes and quick to vent its frustration at brands via networks. It cannot and should not be ignored.”

Discussing how this has changed what “public relations” means these days, Graham Goodkind, group CEO and founder of agency Frank PR, says: “"The 'public' bit of PR is still as relevant as ever, although I'm not sure the 'relations' bit is! I think today our role is about how we stimulate 'reactions' in consumers. PR is about coming up with ideas, content and platforms for our clients that create a buzz, get people talking, blogging, tweeting, forwarding on stuff etc, etc. That's the stuff of 'public reactions' and that's what makes a difference to our clients and their businesses."

The power of mass media hasn’t gone away, however. There may have been a decline in the power of print media, but broadcast remains a force to be reckoned with. Edward Cyster, managing director of broadcast agency 4mediarelations, argues the case for the power of TV and radio: “With the rise in online and social media the decline of print is often talked about. One area which has remained steadfast in the media landscape is broadcast PR. With 89.8 per cent of the UK population tuning into a radio station every week and 79.6 per cent watching TV, broadcast channels are still the go-to outlet for people to catch up on the latest news. With broadcast PR, companies can ensure their spokesperson is getting the message out to millions of viewers and listeners across the country.”

However, Cyster admits that the internet has changed what people are watching, and companies should not focus on media relations alone, but adapt their PR to make sure they are reaching their key audiences: “For example, more people are watching video content on the internet and so brands are coming to us to make and seed out informative video content which helps drive traffic to social media and websites. We recognise that in a tough economic climate it’s become imperative for companies to use rich, multimedia assets to accompany the traditional press release.”

Is PR moving back to its “roots”?

Kourtney Shaw, consultant at PR agency Calacus: “Public relations is not moving back to its roots, it’s moving forward in exciting and dynamic ways and we must harness this. Finding ways to measure our value is an ongoing challenge. PR is evolving faster than ever before. Media relations remains an integral part of our offering, but with journalists using social media, stories are moving much faster. It means we have to react more quickly, liaise directly with customers and provide an even greater level of strategic guidance.“

Julia Ruane, director of agency ChiCho Marketing: “PR's 'roots' tended to be an old boys’ network where a little black book of contacts in the main publishing houses ensured a company's messages and prominence were correctly secured. Although there is still some of this around, with the influence of the media shifting and fragmenting to many different outlets, the whole scene of PR has changed dramatically. The importance of PR is growing, but only when transparency and ethics go hand in hand with it. It’s better to be seen admitting to mistakes and fixing issues than to pretend they were never there in the first place. It's about humanising communication.”

Written by Daney Parker

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