Your audience with the public

Your audience with the public

An essay about the impact of the internet on corporate communication, marketing and public relations over the past 20 years.

The global population of the world is 7.7 billion people. 5.1 billion are connected by mobile phone. 4.4 billion have access to the internet and 3.4 billion use social media. This is data from We Are Social’s Digital 2019 Global Digital report.

It’s 20 years since the internet went mainstream in Western Europe. This is when telecom operators such as BT started to offer broadband to consumer users, and wireless networks appeared in public spaces.

People joined the internet at the rate of one million per day during 2018 according to We Are Social but universal access will take another decade in developing markets as internet access reaches countries such as Africa and India, and hard to reach areas of mature markets.

There are still areas of the UK such as Cornwall and Northumberland where you can’t get 2G mobile data access and broadband speeds are sub-2MB per second when 4G mobile and 40MBps broadband are typical in the UK.

The internet is a conversation

The internet provides a means for people to connect and communicate with each other, irrespective of location. It disintermediates all previous forms of media enabling anyone to become a publisher; and it creates the opportunity for communities to form around an organisation, topic or issue, creating communities and markets. As traditional media has fragmented, individuals have created their own media on almost every form of social network.

The social media ecosystem around the world is maturing with mergers and acquisitions the norm rather than new launches.

Facebook has a strong and growing platform of services including Instagram and WhatsApp. Meanwhile Google+ has fallen by the wayside.

LinkedIn, now owned by Microsoft, is pursuing an advocacy, content and learning strategy. Pinterest has posted strong growth in visual imaging.

SnapChat has nailed visual messaging and is becoming a strong channel, widening its appeal to an older demographic.

Twitter continues to have significant influence on the news media and is used by politicians, journalists and activists.

We increasingly understand the demographic and behaviour of people on each of these networks. Native planning tools enable us to identify audiences and target messages. The shifting media landscape has provided an opportunity for brands, like individuals, to create their own media. This is happening in almost every business and consumer category. Savvy brands are creating their own newsroom environments, creating content often in partnership with traditional media publishers, and publishing it via paid, earned, owned and social media channels. The benefit is a direct and sustained relationship with publics.

Conversations: let’s talk

Organisations have access to the same media and networks to build relationships as you and me. It’s wonderfully democratic but it's not going as well as it might. Here's the issue: most organisations communicate in a way that would be more appropriate for a Roman Emperor almost 2000 years ago than the modern internet. It remains top down command and control with very little listening, information trickles down an organisation and is broadcast via increasing numbers of branded owned and shared channels.

Organisations have struggled to get to grips with the change of tone required to engage with people on the internet. Much corporate marketing and public relations remains focused on the organisation rather than the intended public. It’s frequently broadcasted with no effort to listen or engage. The result is pointless at best and a reputational issue at worst.

Here are some examples of awkward organisational conversations on the internet. Each one spotlights a challenge for organisations in adapting their communication to the internet era.


Like needy friends, organisations want to be part of our conversations on the internet. Watch out for any key date on the calendar.


Listening and adding an interesting comment makes for good conversations. It’s what we do with friends and colleagues every day. Organisations can do this very effectively as well but only if they’re relevant.


Organisations that manage their social media channels in isolation from the rest of the organisation are frequently called out.


Media such as LinkedIn, Medium and WordPress has democratised the ability to share thoughts and ideas but there isn’t an event or news story happens without an about the implications for a market or sector. Content must be authentic.


Technology is useful to make sense of data and create content for the internet, but you can’t and shouldn’t ever automate a conversation.

There’s another issue: organisations often aren’t very good at conversation because they want to talk about themselves all the time. Instead of listening like a good friend they shout about their latest products or services. Industrialised marketing techniques have been retrofitted on the internet. It’s a poor basis for a conversation and it plainly doesn’t work.

You can build beautiful websites and apps, you can publish gorgeous branded content via Facebook and Instagram but if you fail to meet the expectation of your public you’ll face reputational issues. We shouldn’t be surprised. The Cluetrain Manifesto published in 1999 when the internet was still in its infancy predicted the challenge that organisations would face in adapting to the shift in communication. It’s a book that I return to every couple of years.

How PR and marketing work together

Arguably all forms of organisational communication contribute to the reputation of an organisation, however communication typically falls into two areas, namely corporate reputation and contribution to the organisation success such as HR, marketing and sales. Stakeholder mapping is the process of plotting out an organisation’s audiences and their relationship with the organisation. These include shareholders, media, staff, suppliers, customers, and the local community.

Each set of stakeholders represents a different conversation between the organisation and its audiences. While each conversation should be rooted in the same purpose and values, the area of the organisation engaging in conversation, and the stories that are told will be different.

As digital technologies and social forms of media rampage through organisations the lines between corporate communications, marketing, and PR are turning grey, if they haven’t faded completely. These lines are the root of the debate between different forms of communication, and which department owns which functional aspect of communication such as search engine optimisation and social media.

In my view debates over which discipline owns which area are irrelevant. None has a widely acknowledged professional competency framework and so it’s all up for grabs. PR missed out on search engine optimisation and is crying shy on paid media. Marketing has turned its back on two-way engagement in social media. New areas of practice are emerging, and marketing and PR are encroaching on each other’s space.

It's both exciting and scary to work in any of these disciplines because of the lack of formal frameworks and the pace of change but it means the opportunities are great if you capitalise on them. So how do we transform our agency, communication or marketing team to engage with these new forms of media?

The challenge, as with any business transformation is tackling organisational changes while limiting the impact in terms of organisational or financial performance. I created a model five years ago as part of my work for the CIPR as President to describe the shift we need to move through as we tackle the new opportunities that the internet offers our business. Each stage of this evolution builds on the past and provides new opportunities for the agency, communication or marketing team. It’s stood the test of time.

#1 Media relations

The first area of transformation to consider is where traditional media relations programmes can be modernised. This doesn’t require radical change to the workflow, systems or processes within an agency or communication team. Instead technology is used to enable practitioners to work smarter and offer new services. I’d urge teams to breakdown media relations workflow and consider how each area can be modernised.

Use search tools for basic research, Twitter for journalist research, optimise press releases for search and social sharing, use new forms of media and networks to create content and pitch journalists, and analytics to track results. At this basic level of modernisation the investment requirement is often low. A growing third-party market has emerged in every area of this supply chain. There are new technology-led solutions for almost every aspect of traditional media relations from planning and contact management to content development and publishing.

#2 Influencer relations

Media relations is a form of influencer relations whereby we persuade journalists to write favourable articles about our clients and organisations. The output is third party validation via the journalist’s media outlet. The intended outcome is to influence a far greater audience than we are able to engage alone. In a fragmented media environment influencer aren’t just journalists anymore, they can be anyone with a network or community of their own; so an individual with a blog, or on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter or YouTube.

Organisations seek to engage with these new influencers and secure their third-party endorsement and the reach of their network. The content and channel may be new but an influencer relations campaign is effectively media relations for the modern age. The skills required for influencer relations are more sophisticated than traditional media relations as we make use of the data and insights available via the Internet. Where influencer relations can differ from media relations is when influencers expect payment either because they recognise the value of their community or to create content.

Planning tools are required to identify influencers in a given market, and you need to be able to convey your message and story using different forms of media and content. Like all areas of developing PR practice, it also benefits from a growing third-party tools market although in most cases they remain relatively crude.

Blogging, Instagram, and YouTube are the most sophisticated for influencer identification and management, whereas other networks are at an earlier stage of development. The development of content in images and video rather than words requires an investment in skills. Typically agencies or in-house teams will buy in design or production expertise until they have sufficient demand for a full time resource.

#3 Community

The development of communities around an organisation in a two-way form of engagement is the most significant opportunity for modern marketing and PR practice that we’ve had in more than a generation. In this way an organisation seeks to build reputation and engagement not only through third-party influence but also directly via its own media and social forms of media. This is an increasingly competitive space as other disciplines such as advertising, digital and creative all vie for budget and work.

PR practitioners have an opportunity to assert their role within organisations. In my view, two-way dialogue, or conversation to use the modern parlance, is firmly the domain of PR. The typical approach to incorporating new forms of media into PR campaigns is to bolt it on as an additional channel; a Facebook page or Twitter account is added to a programme in the belief that this makes it social. This misses a fundamental opportunity. The application of social media in PR needs to start from a more basic position.

We have access, unlike ever before, to data from social forms of media to help us identify the media where publics are engaged and understand their motivation. The social web is often described as the largest market research exercise that no one ever commissioned. Increasingly third-party tools are available to cut data sets down to size and draw insights, and media choices, to inform campaign planning. Planning is increasingly an important function in PR to enable insights to be drawn from data to inform campaign strategies that are aligned to organisational objectives. It also enables rigorous measurement criteria to be set to evaluate and measure campaign activity.

Social media has become a paid activity for organisations that seek to use it as a means of marketing. The newsfeed algorithms of platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are biased against organic reach, instead organisation must pay to promote content and takes PR into the domain of media budgets. There are exceptions where an organisation provides public service information as in the case of emergency services or local councils or uses the internet for customer service.

The shift to an organisation participating in a community is the biggest communication change that organisations face in the coming decade, as they seek to modernise their communication teams and engagement with PR agencies. It requires teams to be reorganised and aligned with the planning and demands new skills to be added to existing teams.

#4 Social business

Whenever an organisation creates a new channel it will very quickly be discovered by publics or audiences as a means to engage with the organisation. Promotional social channels very quickly become hijacked by customers wanting to call out customer service woe. Any gap between the expectation of a product or service, and the reality, will generate a conversation on the social web.

Organisations are moving beyond the tactical use of social media, to embed social technologies into their business processes that enable communication, collaboration and insight into customer, employee, supplier and partner behaviour.

Business transformation

I’ve explored the requirements for new skills in each of the areas that I have outlined above, and the changes that need to be made to modernise. There are three ways to transform a PR agency or communication team around digital, depending on the scale and the appetite for investment.

#1 Training

Upskill existing staff to address the opportunities that digital media provides. Having set a strategy for modernising a team everyone’s learning and development and key performance indicators should be aligned. This is ultimately the only way to transform an agency or communication team.

#2 Embed

Hire new staff with the skills that your organisation lacks to plug the gaps and work alongside existing staff. This is a disruptive approach but is often essential to kick start change and can only ever be a short-term strategy. In time everyone in the team must become digital.

#3 Build or acquire

This is a combination of the first two approaches whereby a team of domain experts is hired to speed change through training and practice. This process can be accelerated through acquisition but that raises an additional set of challenges in terms of integrating the new team. One thing is for sure: communication teams and PR agencies in the future will look a lot different to how they have in the past.

You'll get ahead in marketing and PR by being open to innovation and willing to fail. A positive attitude to learning also goes a long way. Societal and organisational change is slow, really slow. The impact of the Internet on society and organisations is going to takes generations to work through. In the scheme of things 20 years is only a modern generation. There are plenty of organisations that have recognised the opportunity that the internet provides for meaningful conversation. They are using it to build relationships and reputation.

The internet is a conversation with a potential 4.4 billion people taking part. It’s a beautiful and powerful thing. They’ll be close to five billion by the end of decade, and the whole world will be connected by 2030. We all have a role in communicating on behalf of organisations. Dare to be useful and communicate in a human way.

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