Making sense of modern public relations

There’s never been such an exciting time to work in public relations as we shift to direct engagement with publics thanks to the internet.

I’m calling peak pain for public relations.

We’re still working with press releases and traditional media in the same way that I began my career in the early nineties.

But practice is broadening to include new forms of media including influencer relations, social media, community engagement and messaging.

Automation and artificial intelligence will be next.

The internet has disintermediated every business that it has touched since the launch of consumer and mobile broadband in the noughties.

Public relations is no different. It has forced the organisations that we serve to listen to their publics and engage in conversation unlike ever before. Shouting doesn’t work anymore.

It marks the shift from asymmetrical to symmetrical communication, in a way that James Grunig and Todd Hunt would recognise.

Grunig suggested that excellence in public relations is achieved when the relationship between an organisation and a stakeholder is symmetrical, meaning that both organisation and stakeholder has equal voice.

Today any difference between the expectation that publics have of organisations, and the reality, will quickly become a conversation on social media and amplified by mainstream media.

My day job at Ketchum is helping organisations get to grips with media change, and engage with their publics via new forms of media.

Here’s my take on the current media landscape for public relations practitioners.

Media change

25 years ago media cycles were fixed and media segmentation was straightforward.

Today the only deadline is now, content is filed direct to the internet, and media planning is a discipline in its own right.

Consumers find their own media via Google and social media newsfeeds. It includes a mix of earned, owned and paid media.

Media relations

I used to track the falling circulation figures for the UK broadsheet and tabloid media.

I gave up when it became clear that mainstream media would continue to have huge authority at least during my lifetime.

New forms of media have supplemented and become a channel for old. Modern relations practitioners must be able to work across all forms of media, and paid and earned.

Media relations is making way for influencer relations. Journalists in almost every category have been augmented by so-called influencers that have built their own networks on reputation.

Influencer relations

Influencers rival traditional media in almost every category apart from mainstream news as a powerful intermediary for engaging with publics.

Many accept pitches, and use their networks as means of raising their profile, showcasing their wares and creating business.

This is my motivation for blogging but it doesn’t suit everyone. Increasingly influencers demand a fee for working with an organisation or brand.

It puts public relations on a collision course with marketing disciplines.

Organisations as influencers and media

Organisations themselves are become influencers by creating their own media such as apps, blogs and websites. They’re engaging directly with internal and external stakeholders.

Typically content is pushed via these new channels, with limited means for engagement beyond rudimentary transactions.

You’ll experience this form of media whenever you use a travel app or website by companies such as British Airways or Virgin Trains.

Community management

Smart organisations recognise the potential of communities as a means of direct engagement with their publics.

This is arguably the most powerful form of media for both internal and external communications.

It’s an abused and overused phrase as it implies that there is a higher purpose that seeks to build social capital.

The majority of online communities are used as a means of content marketing, or rudimentary customer service.

The potential for community engagement lies in organisations engaging with publics around every aspect of organisational communication from internal communication to recruitment; and from product development to customer service.


Messaging is the final area of media change. It’s rudimentary for now but shows huge potential and may ultimately replace call centres.

Customer service instant messenger channels started to appear on retail websites at the end of the last decade. Organisations spotted the opportunity for direct conversations via apps such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.

The next opportunity lies in automation, enabling organisational information to be handled by a bot. Any form of structured data can already be delivered self-service by a bot.

I’m looking forward to joining practitioners at a CIPR Best Practice Conference at the University of Cambridge on Tuesday 23 May to explore some of these themes.

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Stephen Waddington

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


  1. An understanding of the changing, modern landscape of public relations communications channels is an important one for practitioners to understand.

    I’d say it’s even more important that this is understood at board-level too.

    Otherwise, we will still be trying to get that press release printed in the Anytown Herlad to appease the board, gaining little to no engagement, instead of directly engaging with the publics the organisation wants to reach out to.

    I’d argue that putting public relations “on a collision course” with marketing disciplines is not such a bad thing. We are, after all, aiming to integrate all available channels (earned, owned, shared AND paid) to engage with our audience.

    I believe there’s a strong argument for PR and Marketing converging more readily, trading skills and insight with each other for the benefit of shared aims.

    …but that’s for another blog post!

    • Thanks Tim. Let me know if you fancy writing that up as a guest post.

  2. Hi Stephen.

    When you talk about automation – is this a serious contender to help brands stand out and build influence? It’s just that … if I get a sniff that anything I receive is automated I ignore it. (Might be just me though) How can automation ever truly replicate the personal subjective value that brilliant conversations delver?

    Automated example: I used to think it was really clever when cookies generated personal adverts based on my recent surfing activity. But now I know how it’s done – I ignore it!

    In contrast, I received a hand written note from my milkman today and the whole family has picked it up and read it!

    I agree that messaging on apps will be crucial. But I wonder if it will be automation that is the foundation of their influence – or the micro-communities with real connected people at the heart of them?

    • Thanks Richard.

      Automation is already part of relationship with organisations from automated emails to decision trees in call centres; and from real time updates via apps or the web, to self service tills at supermarkets.

      Where it has a functional benefit I believe that it can add tremendous value. Where do you stand on you-bought-this-you-might-like algorithms? Where the purpose is to replace a human being its frustrating.

  3. Hi Stephen,
    A very concise overview of the changing field of play, thank you. Coming from the metrics and analytics side, I’m interested to know what the implications are for measuring the value of Social PR – particularly the impact of influencer/community management activity. Social provides lots of simple metrics (engagement, mentions, reach, clicks) but to really gauge value effectively it seems that more sophisticated metrics or proof of value would be required.

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