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PRCA Reginald Watts Prize entry - Thomas Roden

The below essay was a shortlisted submission for the 2018 Reginald Watts Prize for Insight. 

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

70 years ago, American academic Eric Goldman stated in his book, Two-Way Street: The Emergence of the Public Relations Counsel (1948), that any dictionary definition of public relations would inevitably be “disputed by both practitioners and critics in the field”. This remains as true today as it did in 1948. As the tools, technology and tactics have evolved, public relations (PR) has become even harder to define and no two practitioners will practice it in the same way.

In Managing Public Relations (1984), Grunig and Hunt traced the origins of PR practice back to the United States’ Creel Committee, a propaganda agency active during the First World War. 100 years of reputation management later, PR practitioners have actively sought to distance the practice from the ethically dubious realms of political propaganda and spin. This shift brings us to today, where PR is beginning to become a core business function, implicitly responsible for capturing, captivating, converting and catering to audiences to achieve an objective.

This change is predominately being driven by the developing digital communications and technology landscape, in which it’s not enough to simply say the right message; companies must now embody their brand in as many ways as possible.

It’s unlikely anybody needs convincing of the popularity or function of social media, but the statistics are still interesting to look at. According to the Digital in 2018 report by We Are Social, 3.196 billion people — or 42 percent of the world’s population — are active users of social media. These platforms operate as public spaces, allowing a company’s every action and interaction to be scrutinised by both advocates and detractors. The mass media boom of the twentieth century gave businesses and PR teams a medium through which to broadcast to the public. Now social media gives the public a forum in which to engage in conversation and debate.

Unsurprisingly, the statistics show that this is exactly how most people use social media. In a 2016 survey by StarTek, 77 percent of consumers said they found it easy to communicate with businesses via social media. In addition, Sprout Social’s Q3 2017 survey showed that 81 percent of consumers believed social media made brands more accountable.

This is particularly interesting because Sprout analysed how consumers felt brands were now accountable, with 80 percent believing social media helped uncover unfair treatment, 75 percent feeling that social platforms gave consumers power and 70 percent saying that the accessibility of social media encouraged brand transparency. IT company HSO also conducted a survey in 2017 that found 36 percent of consumers currently use social media to complain about products and services.

Until the digital communications revolution, customer complaints and enquiries would have been the responsibility of customer service personnel. However, as Jay Baer, author of digital customer service book Hug Your Haters, says, “When customer service becomes public it becomes a spectator sport. If you are really good at public customer service, then your social care can become a new form of marketing”.

While Baer uses this to underline the growing importance of customer service, it is equally indicative of how the responsibilities of customer service and PR practitioners are beginning to overlap. When customer service is public, handling it effectively and with an on-brand message becomes a matter of public relations.

As well as customer service, modern PR also stands at the intersection of human resources (HR) and marketing. With the public statistically eager to air grievances online, it stands to reason that a happy workforce will be less inclined to create a social media storm by voicing dissatisfaction with a business. There are various ways to improve employee happiness and engagement, but for larger businesses this will involve more intensive internal communications campaigns.

SHRM’s 2015 job satisfaction and engagement survey cited clear and open communication as a key contributing factor to employee engagement, so it’s not too surprising that the CIPR’s annual State of the Profession report has found that, for the past two years, PR practitioners spend roughly 50 percent of their time undertaking internal communications work (50 percent in 2017 and 48 percent in 2018).

Better internal communication means a more engaged workforce, which in turn results in a more positive online profile for a company as fewer employees will be inclined to air problems on social media profiles or sites like Glassdoor.

The last point of overlap is marketing. PR and marketing have had a very closely linked relationship for many years, but digital media has transformed how interconnected the activity of both is. This is particularly true for search engine optimisation (SEO) activity, where PR provides an effective means of generating inbound links with a carefully crafted marketing message.

As media outlets increasingly invest in their websites and digital presence, media relations will become increasingly synonymous with content marketing. Likewise, the growth of the smart device market and voice-controlled digital assistants will lead PR practitioners to incorporate Speakable schema markup — as announced on Google’s webmaster blog in August 2018 — to help a company’s site and coverage rank well for virtual assistant search results.

Today, the fundamental principles of SEO can be considered public relations, affecting how a page and website rank for keywords, which in turn affects how (or if) members of the public view the company.

With all of this in mind, how can we define modern public relations in the digital age?

PR now is an umbrella term for strategic and functional activities that affect, change or influence audience perception of a brand. This incorporates HR, marketing, media relations, advertising, customer service and even business strategy, which could soon lead to more board-level PR practitioners that help foster a company culture reflective of brand values. This would be an affirmation of PR’s place as a profession, which is a debate still dividing PR practitioners as seen in the PRCA’s PR and Communications Census 2018.

Irrespective of its dictionary definition, or the subjective interpretations of practitioners and critics that Goldman noted in 1948, PR as a practice is unquestionably becoming an integral part of business strategy. Public relations has become what it should truly always have been, the management all of an organisation’s stakeholders or publics — irrespective of the medium.