Issues in Public Relations – Who should we listen to?

Posted on July 7, 2010


Writing in his blog post, social media expert Seth Godin struggles to understand why everyone has not yet turned social. “How can you squander even one more day not taking advantage of the greatest shifts of our generation? he asks. How dare you settle for less when the world has made it so easy for you to be remarkable.” (Seth Godin, 2010).
A recent report entitled Digital Communications and Social Media – The challenges facing the PR industry, The Watson Helsby Report 2010, offers Godin some light as to why this is the case. “Digital media and particularly social media, has revolutionized the way in which tens of millions of individuals engage, communicate, relate and socialize… Some companies have embraced these developments along with the opportunities they create, but the majority are struggling to make sense of it and the disorder it has generated.” (Cayhill, 2010).
The main focus of the dissertation will involve an analysis of the perceptions of Public Relations practitioners, and indirectly, their clients, who are operating in different sectors of industry, as to the value they place on either or both traditional and social media in terms of their ability to successfully reach their targeted audience, thus enabling them to fulfill their client’s expectations. This subject has been chosen because with so many media experts continuously voicing their opinions as to the most effective means of communicating, the author considered it would be beneficial to examine the views of those at the frontline of the industry as to how they value the different tools available. In addition, it will seek to assess whether PR firms and their clients who have moved online have done so because they consider that there are real benefits in doing so, or if it was a pressured move due to the intense hype surrounding these new emerging digital means of communication. This is commonly known as the ‘herd instinct’ whereby people rush to move online without understanding why or how it is best utilised to their advantage.

Steve Ballmer (2010), Microsoft Chief Executive has said, “All content consumed will be digital, we can [only] debate if that may be in one, two, five or 10 years… Static content won’t cut it”. In recent years there has been a great deal of emphasis placed on the importance of social media and the wide variety of communication channels it has made available. Coupled with this, there has been a decline in the consumption rates of traditional media, principally newsprint. There is now a great deal of debate amongst many within the PR industry as to the value of either traditional or social media. In a recent interview in PR Week, Ian Monk (2010) is quoted as saying, “Blogging and social media have rightly become an important element of PR campaigns. But because of the unedited, unbranded, and often anonymous nature of the new media forums, their value is at best uncertain”. James Warren (2010), of Weber Shandwick, believes the decline in influence of traditional media is being overstated by some within the industry. “Young consumers don’t read traditional media, right? Wrong. Exactly half of UK consumers under the age of 35 believe magazines and newspapers to be influential. The myth that (traditional) media is not the best way to reach young adults in the UK must be destroyed.”
Given the state of flux in the industry it is difficult to know the direction in which it is going. As a practitioner, the ability to land a positive story in a print publication for ones client was always seen as an achievement and considered a dark art, and those with the ability to do so were valued highly, and consequently traditional media was seen as being of central importance to the industry. However, today print readership is on the decline and with most mainstream print media now producing online versions, this poses the question, is it now seen as being of less importance? “Access to the press and the public is no longer limited to the rich and powerful. Anyone with something to promote or criticize can set up a website to get their message across.” (Richard Bailey, 2009). And if this is the case, this will lead to uncertainty amongst practitioners as to what their role will be in the future. Hence the reason as to why some disagree with the views of social media experts who argue that communication in the near future will mainly be carried out through online platforms. On the other hand, it is necessary to note that although there is no doubt that social media will continue to develop and grow over the coming years, people such as Steve Ballmer and many other experts may take a biased stance when it comes to new media developments.