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Essay: The future of public relations

The public relations industry faces massive changes as media fragments and the Internet enables consumers to fundamentally redefine their relationship with an organisation. Its a hugely exciting time for the industry.

This essay is based on a speech that I gave to the European leadership team at Ketchum this week, exploring some of the key themes from Brand Anarchy, and looking to the future of the industry. You can download it in a PDF format for bedtime reading.

Changing Media Models
Since its early development as a management discipline, public relations practice has been based on a model of command and control. It’s a classical definition that places a brand at the centre of an organisational diagram surrounded by a passive audience.

Messages are broadcast from the organisation to the audience either directly or via the proxy of traditional media or well-worn marketing communication channels.

Such control is an illusion. The fragmentation of traditional media and the rise of social media have brought reputational management into sharp focus like never before. The questions that we need to be asking as public relations practitioners are what we can do about it to help our clients, and what we need to consider for our future?

Back to basics
A brand is a no more and no less than a connection between an organisation and its audience. The brand exists only in the mind of the audience through the reputation it earns by what it says, and how it acts. Brands are running scared because those connections are multiplying beyond their control and audiences have started to answer back.

I sat in an Altimeter presentation last week where an analyst made the case that there were now more than 525 messaging routes between a brand and an audience. It’s almost certainly more.

They’re everywhere: the traditional media remains in place, but it has been complemented by social two-way forms of media such as Facebook, Forums, Google+ Twitter and blogs, to name a few. It means that the relationship between brands and audiences looks really complex.

There’s no real way of telling how many marketing messages the average consumer in the developed world is now exposed to each day. The only thing for certain is that as social media gives customers greater and more direct exposure to brands the number will only grow.

It’s anarchic. Brand owners may go to bed with healthy reputations but wake-up to a disaster scenario. A global slanging match about a brand can happen during a coffee break – about your coffee and lack of tax contributions if you’re Starbucks. If a brand fails to engage immediately its reputation suffers.

Command and control in simpler times
It used to be so much simpler. Originally the role of public relations was to befriend a small handful of journalists who wrote the most influential stories, and come up with cunning ideas for both managing likely bad news and highlighting good.

Over time, as the media grew and became more sophisticated, practitioners had to get to know many more journalists, plus other influential people.

And then came the Internet. Slowly at first, then faster, and now at breakneck pace, the ability to publish immediately to anyone, anywhere has transformed the media as we knew it.

Today, for now, newsprint remains all powerful. Brands such as the The Financial Times, The New York Times, Le Monde and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung have delivered the news to us each day for more than a century.

They are a cornerstone of the media establishment. An online news site such as Storyful or The Huffington Post, often with a history of no more than a decade, always takes second place to a print article in terms of authority, however relevant to its audience.

Even a story on an online newspaper has greater social credibility than the new forms of media. It’s a generational issue tied to consumption habits but it’s also reality.

But the situation is changing, and fast. People are reading online content more widely than ever before because they can access more information on a variety of devices more quickly.

The future of public relations
So, what does all of this mean for public relations and its role in managing brand reputation?

My belief is that media fragmentation and the rise of Internet-driven communication is returning public relations to its roots as a means for an organisation and its brands to engage with the public in a two-way process. But the public relations industry for its part, is locked into systems and processes that have become industrialised over the past 60 years.

The public relations industry took a wrong turn in the 1950s or early 1960s. The leadership and vision provided by early professionals has since been squandered. In Two-Way Street, published in 1948, Eric Goldman describes the three stages of the development of corporate communication during the period from 1900 to the time of the publication of his book.

Goldman’s contention is that communication between an organisation and its audiences developed through three stages during the first half of the twentieth century:

  1. Initially spin aimed at duping the audience;
  2. Secondly publicity that aimed to build awareness through hype, and;
  3. Thirdly two-way communication aimed at building engagement.

It’s uncanny how these same stages can just as easily be applied to public relations in the second half of the 20th century and the 21st century: spin, publicity or media relations, and most recently direct audience engagement. Shortly after the publication of Goldman’s book the public relations industry became obsessed about communicating with the public via the proxy of mainstream media rather than direct public engagement.

The rise of mass media, namely television, in the 1950s, and its ability to provide a shortcut to mass audiences, brought about a fundamental change in the style of organisational communication.

60-years on, changes in consumer behaviour enabled by the Internet and the fragmentation of mainstream media are forcing organisations back to Goldman’s two-way street.

A shift to engagement
So new media is social and it is participatory. As long ago as the year 2000 The Clue Train Manifesto predicted that the Internet would enable consumers to self-organise into groups online. As public relations practitioners we can find these audiences easier than ever before. We can listen to the conversations that they are sharing. And we can figure out the most appropriate content and channels to engage.

The public relations industry is attempting to modernise and reinvent itself. Broadening its reach beyond traditional media relations as a proxy to engage with audiences will be critical to future success.

It is inevitable that as media continues to fragment because of technological change, and consumer behaviour becomes increasingly participatory, that organisations must change how they communicate.

Organisations are recognising the opportunity to communicate directly with audiences. But for many this simply involves simply dumping content on newswires, websites and Twitter feeds with little thought of engagement. It’s broadcasting.

Consumers for their part are open about their likes and dislikes and are quick to vent their frustration at brands via networks such as Facebook, Google+ and Twitter. They cannot, and should not, be ignored.

The writing is on the wall, and more than likely it is a Facebook wall. Brands that fail to engage with their audiences in these new ways are on a path to self-destruction. Any gap between a customer’s expectation of a product and its reality will drive a conversation on the social web. The evidence is scattered across the Internet for search engines to uncover.

Storytelling and content marketing
Content then, in its many forms and across many media, is the fuel of reputation. Applying it to best effect is not just about broadcasting it to whoever will listen.

Direct engagement with an audience is the first step on the journey to building reputation through modern, two-way media. It appeals to a fundamental basic human need to be social, and as media continues to evolve in ways that support sustained dialogue, then the one-way street will lose its appeal.

It’s not just because old media amounted to audiences being told rather than being engaged, but because communication that fosters strong relationships doesn’t really work that way.

No one enjoys spending time with an individual that only talks about themselves. Think about the times that you have been stuck in the corner of a room at a party with a self-obsessed person. How long did it take you to make your excuses and head to the bar? We all want to share our experiences and our needs.

Exactly the same premise applies in organisational communication. If a brand broadcasts to its audience with no effort to engage, the audience will have a very limited attention span. But if, instead, the brand makes an effort to understand the concerns of its audience, and not just entertain and inform them but even inspire, it will earn attention.

Better still, if it strikes the right chord it will be rewarded with influential recommendation through word-of-mouth endorsement, in all its modern forms.

From engagement to participation
However you go about building a relationship with your audience, it won’t be easy. But then relationships are rarely straightforward. But it is worth the effort. The benefit of truly participating with your audience is incredibly powerful for brand purposes. It is the root of fostering respect and ultimately building the right reputation, insofar as you can command it.

Is it possible for a brand to have such an intimate relationship with an audience? I think so.

Every bit of evidence points to the fact that consumers are fixated with media in its many forms, and that brands are of persistent interest to them. Social networking is now one of the biggest occupations on the web. We’ve already past the position where more people are on social networks than aren’t in the West, and still subscriber numbers continue to grow.

Modern public relations workflow
So what does this mean for the future of our industry? My belief is that the future of public relations lies in a participative relationship between a brand and its audience.

That is achieved by understanding the audience and building editorial influence across all forms of applicable media. This should start with a detailed planning exercise to identify and understand your audience, and then build an editorial content plan that forms the basis of engagement, and beyond that, participation.

Then determine the best ways to communicate with your audience. That will almost certainly involve direct engagement via social forms of media but it will almost certainly include more conventional forms of media, owned or branded media and integration with other forms of marketing.

It will require an integrated service model embracing monitoring, planning, channels, communities, content and measurement. It will also demands agile management that is capable of assembling organisational structures and skilled teams to match the challenge of each assignment.

A brand cannot control its reputation any longer, if indeed it ever could, but it can gain, or take, command. But only if it understands the media and its audience intimately, is authentic and creates the right content.

That, of course, is just the opening gambit of a conversation, and the brand must be ready to engage in dialogue rather than hiding when the going gets tough. But with clear insight, considered wisdom, sound ability to execute and an unhindered view of the desired outcome, brands have so much to gain.

It’s an incredibly exciting time for the public relations industry.

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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.