This article was originally published for the International Association of Business Communicator’s CW online.
There’s no doubt that the role of a public relations professional has evolved more in the past five years than in the previous several decades. Technology and social media have revolutionized how we receive information—and allow us to control what information we receive and from whom.
As people in the public relations field move through their careers, it is more important than ever to stay on top of what’s required to be the best in the business. In speaking with PR leaders, a few themes have emerged that will continue to reshape the PR industry.
Influencers are the messenger
Gone are the days when the news media was your primary messenger. With social media, every company has the opportunity to go directly to their audience, whether it’s a consumer, business customer or another specific target audience. And there is less distinction between news and social media because what is reported through a news outlet is echoed on social media channels—and what gets a lot of social media attention becomes a story for the traditional news.
But with that direct connection there must be a willingness to create a dialogue—your audience has a voice and they will use it. According to JP Schuerman, executive vice president and general manager of MWW Group in Los Angeles, “Never before have practitioners been required to shift their strategic thinking in such a drastic manner. It’s no longer a ‘push message’ environment. PR practitioners must create discoverable programming that allows Millennials [and other audiences] to put their own brand stamp on it. We must identify the influencer sets and empower them as torchbearers of the brand of corporate message—a far cry from the days of message control.”
Giving up message control and creating an open dialogue with key influencers can seem downright frightening, but there are plenty of case studies that demonstrate how to do it successfully (think Domino’s Pizza and Dove). In fact, social media conversations practically provide a built-in focus group of sorts to give you real-time feedback on how your company and its products or services are doing.
The power of influencers
In the world of social media, not everyone who is “reporting” a story is a journalist committed to getting the story right before they publish online. So today’s PR professional must also understand how to monitor and respond to inaccuracies by influencers.
Debra Jack, executive vice president at Edelman in San Francisco, shared a story of a client facing a challenge with a story that had broken. “The mainstream media had taken an objective approach to covering the news, but one blogger caused quite an uproar,” she said. “He had the ear of the stakeholders who mattered most to the company—much more so than the mainstream media. Neutralizing him became our highest priority, and the toughest part of the assignment.”
Speed and accuracy
The 24-hour news cycle has been around for a while, but thanks to digital communications, a story can go global in a matter of minutes. For the PR professional, this means there are more opportunities for coverage given the vast number of new media vehicles available that rely on content, ranging from the written word to photos and videos. But this also means more pressure than ever to get the story out promptly—and accurately.
“What has not changed is the pursuit of and commitment to accuracy,” said Jane Crawford, director of strategic communications at Pfizer. “No reporter wants to be the one who tweets the headline first only to learn that his facts are inaccurate.”
All of this, of course, ties to transparency. While good news travels quickly, bad news travels faster, so PR practitioners have an obligation to strive to get information to their intended audiences quickly and without manipulation of the truth. Ensure crisis communication plans are current and incorporate the best communication channels for reaching all audiences, from employees to media to consumers. Know your brand and be prepared to respond to your target audience when issues arise.
“We must be consistent in our messaging and that messaging must be true,” said Jon Harris, senior vice president of global communications for the Sara Lee Corp. Because social media bring a new way of getting information to the intended audience, he added, “The ‘how’ might be different, but the ‘what’ is the same.”
Writing still matters
The ability to write a simple yet impactful and engaging message that can be delivered in different sizes is one of the most critical skills for today’s PR practitioner. George Stenitzer, vice president of marketing and corporate communications at Tellabs uses message mapping to help his team hone their PR writing.
“First you have to write for a tweet, a headline or a sound bite—something that is deliverable in about seven seconds,” he said. “Then you open that like an accordion and create the two-minute message for a news release or blog.” If you get people interested in one of those two short message deliveries, your intended audience is likely to listen to (or watch) a five-minute, or even 20-minute message in the form of a full article, video presentation or white paper. But the key to success is to keep it simple, using language that a global audience can absorb.
Understanding business operations
Good PR people have always played a critical role in building and protecting the reputation of a brand. Today, more professionals in both agency and in-house roles are finding that their expertise is wanted at the earliest stages of business planning, as communication is seen as an essential business function. As PR plays a more vital role in business development, respect for the industry grows. More and more often, senior communicators are a part of the executive leadership team, and this requires strong business acumen and thought leadership on how PR can positively influence business goals. PR practitioners need to have a deep understanding of their company, from operations to human resources to marketing.
With social media, the conversation has simply expanded. It’s more important than ever that PR practitioners continue to tell the story as it evolves, create dialogue with key influencers, and be authentic and transparent, with speed and accuracy.