There are two answers to this question, both of which are equally valid; not a lot, and loads. It is certainly true that PR has gone through a transition / new awakening in the last few years, particularly with regards to how it capitalizes on social media. However I would also argue that the fundamentals of PR – communicating a message to a stakeholder to influence their behavior – have not changed. Fundamentally PR is the same as it always has been. It is for that very reason that we don’t position ourselves as a digital PR agency – there’s no such thing!
It is also worth bearing in mind when reading this that my time in the PR industry has always been ‘digital’. Unlike my more learned colleagues I have never fundamentally had to change the way I work to fit into a new ‘digital age’. I have never sent out a press release with a fax machine, or heaven forbid via post, and the 24-hour news cycle and online newspapers have always been my playground. I’ve always worked in the technology sector too, so I’ve probably embraced the digital lifestyle a little more than, if not perhaps earlier, than most (when I worked for Cisco for example sharing my PC’s screen on Webex was practically a daily occurrence). I also love technology so am always looking for ways in which it can help me work more efficiently and live more enjoyably.
So with that caveat in mind, here’s my double view on how digital has, and hasn’t, changed PR:
PR is the same as it’s always been
As I’ve already stated, PR is fundamentally about influencing stakeholders. This will always be the case. The only difference is where you go to influence these stakeholders. In the past, PR was predominantly focused on the media as they were the gatekeepers to your stakeholders. While the sales and marketing team would go to potential customers directly, PR would use the media to build authority, credibility and advocacy for your brand/service/products etc. You needed the media’s endorsement to be credible. Media relations was one of the many feathers in your marketing cap. There are arguably more opportunities now for brands to communicate directly to their stakeholders in a credible way, particularly with well written blogs and/or social media. This does not change the fundamentals of PR however – PR is still about engaging and influencing with these stakeholders.
Digital has changed PR a lot
The new media landscape
Firstly, the media has changed a fair bit over the last decade. The media no longer has the monopoly on opinion and news it once had. Everyone can publish their views on a blog, and anyone with a smartphone in the right place at the right time can be a reporter (setting aside the fact they still need a venue with lots of eyes to send their story to i.e. a media site). This has implications for PR. It isn’t as easy to know who the influencers are now. In most cases it is still the established media, but there may be a few influential bloggers that should be nurtured too, or LinkedIn groups that should be monitored and, if appropriate, contributed to. The key to PR today is knowing where to spend your limited resources to exert the greatest influence. Any ‘digital agency’ could spend your marketing budget building up great relationships with a group on Facebook, but if they’re not influential what’s the point?
Blurring the lines between PR and marketing (and increasing cooperation)
Digital has blurred the lines between PR and marketing more than ever before. At the cusp of the social media revolution, when Facebook first opened itself to the general public (before you had to be a university undergraduate) and the BBC started to mention Twitter handles during its programming, PR and marketing agencies were fighting it out for their share of the social media pie. It was the next big thing and there was serious money to be made by those who could pitch a good social media campaign. But who should own it? PR said it naturally belonged to them because they are the vanguards of their clients’ reputations. PR is sensitive to the news agenda, it knows what is topical and knows how to have conversations and do the ‘soft sell’. Don’t give it to marketing because they’ll just bombard customers with product messages which will turn them away. Marketing on the other hand saw it as a natural extension of their remit – online is marketing’s realm, as is digital content. Since social media is just another digital channel, marketing should own it. The fight was bloody, and while both sides delivered some real value to their clients with some very creative campaigns, social media has ended up straddling the divide. Both sides now work together to add their respective value (at least they should in a best practice scenario). That is a big change from ten years ago.
Making PR more accountable
The transition to a more digital media has enabled PR to be more accountable than ever too. Website analytics can now track inbound links from major news sites so you can really see the impact that PR can have on behaviour. Campaigns can be formulated to drive traffic to a specific URL with a data capture element, so PR can now even track sales leads. This is a huge boost for PR. But it has also highlighted the intangible nature of PR more than ever. Not every campaign or press article can link to a trackable URL. In a world where practically everything can be measured, PR’s inability to consistently measure a change in someone’s mindset or opinion sticks out more than ever. With so many statistics and facts available at our fingertips, PR requires a little more faith than perhaps it used to.
So there you have it. Digital has, and hasn’t changed PR
So what do you think? While this doesn’t cover everything, it’s a good start. Would you say the fundamentals of PR have changed? Should a company not only enlist the help of marketing and PR agencies, but also digital and maybe social media agencies too? Are they now separate disciplines in their own right?