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Public relations has evolved

Public Relations is not a new phenomenon. It’s been around for over two centuries, the industry has evolved at an unimaginable rate, driven primarily by the introduction of new technologies and innovations in communications. The question is how far can it still go? How can public relations professionals leverage technology to set themselves apart from the rest, and in turn meet the communication needs of the 21st century and demands of the Y Generation?

Although the industry can be dated to as far back as the 1800s, the title of ‘father’ of public relations seems to be largely attributed to Edward Bernays and Ivy Lee. In 1906, Lee was influential in driving communications for industrialist John Rockefeller and changing perceptions of his image with employees. But public relations has changed considerably since then.

Back then, press releases, company information and newsletters were distributed from companies to the media via the postman, and communications professionals had to build strategic relationships with postmen to make sure that they met the deadline for mail collection.

Today, public relations professionals have the luxury of ease of access to communication channels that enable the effective distribution of information through diverse sources.

While PR has evolved, some basic principles of the trade have not. Back in 1906, Ivy Lee stated that the ‘press and public should receive accurate and timely information regarding a company’s actions’. While there are criticisms of his work, this statement, along with many others that followed, set the tone in defining public relations as we know it today. While there are those who have diverted PR to what we popularly know as ‘spin’, the principles are and should be to provide the public with accurate information about companies and actions, and to position brands in a relevant and credible manner. Spin is something else, certainly not public relations.

Image management is about building mutually beneficial relationships between organisations or individuals and their target audiences or stakeholders, and engaging them in a manner that enables them to better understand the organisation and its actions.

The first social media network site was launched in 1995 in the United States, and was called was designed to keep learners connected and enable them to share memories even after high school. In 2004, when Facebook was launched, also intended to keep students connected, no one expected what was to come next, the age of social media and SEO. Today, over 1000 social media networks exist, providing companies and individuals with endless opportunities to engage their audiences and grow their market base.

Traditional communication campaigns encompass event coordination, crisis communication, reputation management, trade shows, sponsorship opportunities and press release distribution. Traditional platforms of communication in traditional public relations require long lead times compared to digital PR, which is driven through digital channels of communication and is almost instantaneous. Channels include: online publications, social media, Search Engine Optimisation, which presents opportunities for link building across channels on the web to create enough web traffic to build and enhance brand awareness.

The focus of digital public relations is on tactical positioning that leverages digital channels of communication to position brands online and increase their online presence through online engagement with bloggers, online publications, online journalists, and identify the best possible digital channels to position brands. Conversion rates on digital public relations are instantaneous, the Return on Investment can be measured almost immediately with GoogleAnalytics, and social media tracking tools increasingly make it easier to track convergence and traffic. This is now the future.

Digital communications channels and measurement tools are changing the game, and increasingly putting more pressure on public relations agencies and professionals. The world in which we live is demanding that agencies innovate, or they will be left behind. Those that will survive are those that can integrate traditional and digital public relations into the way in which they work. While there is still room for traditional PR, there is no promise of what the future may hold for purely traditional public relations agencies.

According to the SA Social Media Landscape Research 2017 research done by World Wide Worx in collaboration with Ornico, in South Africa in 2016 ‘no single social network has redefined the social landscape, in the way that Instagram and YouTube did in the previous two years’. Instagram grew by 32 per cent to 3.5 million users; YouTube has seen a massive increase in engagement with brands with 8.47 million users in South Africa; Facebook is now used by 14 million South Africans; Twitter is used by 7.7 million people and LinkedIn by 5.5 million.

With over 2.65 billion people using social media, the opportunities for what local and global brands can do with digital public relations are endless. We cannot dispute that the opportunities that it presents are unlimited and relevant for today’s audiences.

Digital public relations presents the opportunity to self-publish information and content without necessarily having to use traditional newspapers or broadcast channels. YouTube presents self-broadcast opportunities, LinkedIn and Facebook present self-publishing tools for the distribution of content and positioning of people and brands, Twitter is enabling organisations and individuals to drive conversations about brands and issues of audience interest, Instagram and Pinterest are providing eclectic and boundless brand positioning prospects for consumer and lifestyle brands, while WhatsApp is pushing the boundaries in the viral spread of information.

While digital channels present limitless opportunities, we have seen the devastating effects of digital communications gone really bad, including the recent surge of fake news and fake tweets, cat phishing and spam on digital channels, and its ability to ruin brands overnight.

Among some examples of digital communications gone really bad is the Outsurance 2017 Father’s Day advert, which insinuated that black men are not good fathers. The resulting Twitter nightmare clearly shows consumers must never be taken for granted and demonstrates the viral impact of social media as a powerful consumer communications channel. The outrage on social media that followed the advert influenced the wide spread of negative publicity generated across print, radio, TV and online media, and the viral impact of how quickly digital platforms can drive communication. While Outsurance has since taken down the video, content from other digital channels cannot be wiped out, therefore this is not just a dent in the company’s reputation, there may also be a dent in the company’s pocket. In the digital age, companies cannot afford to make such mistakes, they ruin brands, which is very costly. We cannot overlook the fact that social media and digital communications expose brands and people to critique, and demand brands to be more accountable for the promises they make and deliver. The power dynamics have changed, the consumer now has a voice – and a very strong one. The upside of this is that credible brands are listening to their customers or target audiences, and are engaging on issues raised, while those that don’t either, chicken out of or shy away from social media to avoid the damage that can be caused to their brands.

However, when we look back at what public relations was about in the 1900’s, and then refer to modern public relations (the provision of accurate information about a company and its actions), in following this formula the majority of public relations professionals would be able to deliver what the industry is about, instead of the ‘spin’ that we often see today.

To an extent, the digital revolution is forcing traditional public relations practitioners to adapt to digital communication. Social media networks have transcended time and space, giving those on board with digital public relations the opportunity to engage audiences 24/7 from anywhere in the world.

About Oscar Tshifure

Oscar has over ten years’ experience in public relations, reputation management, government relations and business development, which he gained while working with a number of clients in sectors such as Mining, Waste Management, Financial Services, Education, Health, Power Utility, Media, Market Research, Construction and all three spheres of Government.

He holds a BTech in Public Relations Management from the Tshwane University of Technology, Pretoria and a diploma in Public Administration from Oxbridge Academy, Cape Town. He serves as a Director at two non-profit organisations namely the South African Reading Foundation (trading as Read A Book SA) and The Sifiso Falala Foundation. Oscar is also a member of the Academic Advisory Committee for the Department of Integrated Communication at the Tshwane University of Technology. He continues to impart knowledge as a guest lecturer for the Department of Marketing Management at the University of Johannesburg.

Oscar is currently completing his MTech in Public Relations Management with the chosen topic: ‘The agenda setting role of Facebook in the 2016 South African Local Elections’ and plans to pursue his Doctoral degree in 2018.

Oscar is currently the CEO of HOSI PR & Government Relations Consultancy (Boutique agency) and Business Development & Client Liaison Director at Plus 94 Research.

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