The below essay was the winning submission for the 2018 Reginald Watts Prize for Insight.
“In an age of a revolution in digital communications how would you define ‘Public Relations’?”
There’s nothing revolutionary in saying that technological innovation has transformed the way we interact. The birth of the internet was the Big Bang but it’s the past twenty years which has witnessed exponential change. From the rise and rise of social media to the invention of countless apps to create and share content, digital communications is about the exchange of better, faster, more. And this development in the medium of communication brings development in the mediators of communication. In today’s digital world, the way PR functions has changed.
Brands become personal
Digital communications involvesblurring the line between public and private. Customer service now means ‘@’ing brands on social media, live-streaming allows us to parachute into the middle of protests and, of course, the world’s most powerful country is run from a Twitter account. This closing of distance between public and private is physical as well as intellectual: 24/7 news alerts light up phones under our pillows at night and online interaction is only a screen-tap away. Institutions and officials step off their pedestals to mingle with the crowd.
This dissolved separation between public and private means Public Relations has to change the way it operates:Public Relations now reads as Private Incorporation. In this digital age, PR isn’t about brands broadcasting messages out, but inviting their audiences in. Consumers don’t passively absorb a company’s ad or editorial but are active participants in its brand story via comments and shares online. Engagement is the word keeping account executives up at night and well-placed Facebook posts can generate more click-through than features in top-tier publications.
And we want our brands to be human. If companies are using the same communication methods as our friends then we want them to display the same personal qualities. This includes having a moral compass. The 2017 Edelman earned brand study found that57% of consumers specifically buy or boycott brands based on social or political stance - we want businesses to share our values. CSR can no longer be a company away day; it’s a part of core messaging. The most lauded campaigns at this year’s Cannes were those with an ethical impetus, from ‘Trash Isles’ (LADbible and Plastic Oceans Foundation) to ‘The Talk’ (P&G), demonstrating that brands find success in appearing an extension of our personal conscience.
Yet digital communications has empowered individuals in more ways than one. The second, business definition of ‘incorporation’ also holds true: we are all becoming brands. Influencer marketing is reckoned at $5 billion globally, demonstrating how personal relationships have become commodified, originally private channels of communication becoming streams of revenue. But the commodification of the personalgoes beyond Instagram stars. The digital revolution has elevated individuals to the status of content producers, with no professional background needed to create and share. Though this democratisation of production is vital for representation, it’s also forcing us to define our own personal brands. The public/private incorporation works both ways: if companies are acting like people then people are acting like companies. Twitter is nowa key professional tool and in some creative industriesInstagram handles are replacing CVs.One may argue that society has always involved self-curating a public image, but the permanence and immediacy of the digital age means business and pleasure are beginning to look the same. Should we all add PR Executive to our LinkedIn?
The Counter Revolution
We’ve seen that the revolution in digital communications has reduced the distance between public and private like never before. But as with any revolution, there’s a counter-revolution and it seems to have begun. The past few weeks have revealeduser falls for Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter, precipitating dramatic share drops and leading pundits to question whether we’ve reached ‘peak social media’. Simultaneously, print advertising in UK national newspapers has increasedfor the first time in eight years, indicating we may see a resurgence in traditional media, previously regarded as failing.
What’s the reason for this fortune reversal? As experts look for answers, CNBC’s Jim Cramer suggests social media is becoming ‘less controversial’: once-private channels of communication monopolised by brands who dilute newsfeeds and drive users to private messaging apps like WhatsApp. It seems there’s such a thing as being too close and though we want our brands personable, they should know they’re not actually our friends. Ultimately we’re aware they’re selling a service and so we have different expectations and hold them to a higher level of account.
And we’re also now recognising the need for a minimum level of distance between the public and private, as we seek voices of authority. The internet is increasingly crowded and we’re looking for help sorting the digital wheat from the chaff. In this era of fake news it’s journalists at established publications who inspire trust in their reporting accuracy, and the upturn in print popularity may stem from this desire for verified expert opinion.
If social media is in retrograde, however, another form of digital communication is in the ascendant. In the balancing act between authority and intimacy it’s podcasts that are gaining attention,with UK listeners increasing by58% in the last two years. Podcasts are the perfect combinationof public and private, speaking into our ears on the daily commute but lacking real-time interaction. And with the most popular coming from subject experts, they speak with that greater level of authority.
The revolution in digital communications has seen Public Relations undergo a brand refresh: redefined as Private Incorporation as the spheres of public and private merge, with businesses taking on human characteristics and consumers understanding themselves as brands. However, as the digital age progresses we’re also experiencing a kick-back from this bringing together of public and private and doubts are gathering over social media’s longevity. Looking to the future, we should remember that though digital communications blurs the line between public and private, that line can never fully be erased.