In Part 1 of this two-part series, we delved into the history of Public Relations and which methods were effective during the 20th century. Not surprisingly, the definition of authority figures has quickly evolved due to the widespread use of the Internet – as have the methods employed for the distribution of information to a large global audience. In this article, we will go into detail on the recent changes in PR strategies, and how the invention of social media has shaped the 21st century in terms of public perception.
The World Goes Online
Admittedly, I had some idea that real time online media would pave the way to the future – even back in the early 1990s when very few people were aware of the Internet. I experienced something similar to a shock when I transitioned from a local radio disc jockey in the early 90s to programming content for a satellite based radio station. Before that time, I had just assumed that all these celebrity recording artists were popping in to a nearby radio station and that its programming was vastly superior to what our staff of 15 could muster. It wasn’t until I got into the satellite based radio business that I fully came to comprehend how communication networks function. By entering our local news programs and other content into a computer’s hard drive, I could personally designate at what time a broadcast interjected with a headquarter’s feed as well as how it would be perceived by our listening audience. It was evident at that time that the future would soon be online, in real time, and shared by a massive audience.
To some, the Internet has been around and in full use for about 20 years, but that isn’t actually true if you compare 1994 virtual traffic to 2014 – not by a long shot. The old dial-up service of the 90s can’t hold its own against DSL and broadband connections of today; which zip data back and forth in less time that it takes someone to enter a search query.
The result of that has been a gradual (yet relatively quick) transfer of public relations strategy that has come with its share of headaches from an industry perspective. After all, those with a PR background grew accustomed to controlling all information related to the controversial topic of the moment and shaping overall views by a wide variety of tactics ranging from social pressures to outright dumbing down of a message to push forth its principal goal of providing the public with as little information as possible which could be reasonably squeezed into soundbites. Although those methods are still commonly used today, they have become a prime example of diminishing returns due to how diversified opinions now are – and how they can be absorbed in real time by millions worldwide who are connected to the Internet.
More and more, the release of information is controlled by no one and anyone. Mass media outlets such as television networks, syndicated newspapers and radio stations still wield quite a bit of influence, yet that influence has been severely trumped by the everyday blogger on the Internet who can often publish content online just as efficiently (if not more so) than his or her counterpart. Add the WordPress platform and its premium themes to the mix, and any person can boast a professional website with all the bells and whistles for about $100 per year plus any expenses that deal directly with the uploading of content, news stories, etc.
Social Media Amalgamation – Collectivism Versus Individuality
Social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and so forth changed the landscape of public relations in the mid 2000s, yet many in the PR business have been slow to adapt and are just now getting around to using these outlets for their own benefit. Even so, the methodology used by many in regards to posting content on these websites is also sorely outdated in my opinion. Perhaps five years ago it would have been justifiable (from a profit based standpoint) to spam these services with a massive marketing campaign that published glowing reviews of a particular product. That’s not really a practical use of a PR rep’s time anymore in the vast majority of cases however. Just take a few moments to read the comments pasted below five random news stories or promotional posts on sites such as Twitter. You’ll quickly notice that they are often highly negative.
Everything from the release of a new video game to the pedaling of a new product of a well known brand goes through the proverbial clothes wringer when it comes to social media; making it vital to respond to feedback with something other than canned tidbits. Even then, you’ll see a large number of retracting views, but the chances of building a positive brand image revolve 100% around replying to those who disagree with you or the brand you represent in a timely, polite, and customer service oriented manner. Anything less can be more costly than paying for the effort to customize your responses either personally or via a third party.
Regardless of your stance on collectivism versus individuality (there are pros and cons to both for sure), contradicting opinions are here to stay at least in the short term. PR reps can no more control the release of information than they can control the average Internet user who is informed – something that is becoming more commonplace thanks to the encyclopedia-like nature of the online realm. Practically anyone with an Internet connection can access more information that they could possibly process in several lifetimes; and it’s all at their fingertips in real time. To illustrate this point, take a few moments to enter the term Prescription Drugs into the Google search engine and you’ll see what I mean. Sure, you’ll find a number of websites that define the term , another couple that are government related and yet others that dedicate their efforts toward their sale – but you’ll also see a number of stories that are negative and offer an opinion that would have been unthinkable on a global scale just a short decade ago. This is today’s reality. Even if – as a PR rep – you come up with some fancy new term to define something that is receiving bad press, you’ll still be inevitably faced with the presence of dissenting opinions for that term in practically no time at all.
So what is the future of social media promotion? Is it based on collectivism or individuality? Will controlled bits of information and a majority opinion rule the roost or are the individual views (even if they happen to disagree) poised to make the overall difference? This is a question that is unlikely to be answered for at least a few years, yet currently there is quite a bit of weight tugging away from snappy soundbites and other pre-programmed responses that offer something that closely resembles a press release. Remember, the perception of authority on any topic still remains vitally important, and that perception is going the way of the individual – provided he or she is capable of expressing thoughts and ideas in a sensible manner that can be related to.
Paving The Way For PR Efforts In The Future
That leaves us with adapting to the real time reality of information, and dealing with data in ways we couldn’t have dreamed 20 years ago. No longer are PR reps restricted to the canned response boundaries of the 1990s and early 2000s, they must now adapt to the virtual realities of dissenting opinions and provide more personalized information if they wish to succeed at brand positioning. Large database personalization now makes it possible for websites such as Facebook and others to be highly specific when targeting its audience with relevant advertisements, and this will only become more prevalent for the remainder of this decade. If you happen to find that your social media account is being barraged by negative publicity, it may not be too long before your ad campaign loses traction since the banners won’t pop up as often as they would otherwise.
Of course, there are still ways for ad-driven websites to get around this and force feed their users ads that are irrelevant to their desires, yet this won’t affect the advertiser’s bottom line one bit – it will only serve as a short term method for websites to increase revenue.
The future of Public Relations will require creativity, patience, and a knack for gauging online perception more than ever before. Although challenging, there’s simply too much information at the disposal of your everyday reader to rely solely on outdated methods and philosophies that are based on the control of information. That’s no longer possible at all with so many highly ranking (search engine wise) websites out there.
Now more than ever, those of us who work in Reputation Management must seek out new ways to be innovative while taking into consideration how educated the general audience has become. This is a good thing in my opinion, as it finally shifts the bulk of PR efforts away from control and actively upon engagement and communication – where it should have been all along!
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