I have a story I tell college students when I am trying to illustrate the point of how far technology has come, just over the course of my own career, in helping public relations practitioners do their jobs.
I share with them that when I first started working in public relations in the mid-1990s, I would often stand in front of a fax machine for hours at a time, sending news releases to media outlets around the state.
At this point in the story, their eyes glaze over because most of them have never seen a fax machine.
Then, I tell them how our practices changed when we got email and started communicating with reporters that way. This often generates a raised eyebrow, because they can’t imagine a time when people didn’t have email.
Finally, I talk about social media and how it has changed not only the way that public relations professionals communicate with journalists, but also in the way that online communications opened the doors to enable us to take our messages directly to consumers and constituents. While we continue to work with traditional media outlets, and greatly value those relationships, we also have new vehicles, avenues and devices through which to speak directly to our intended audiences.
At this point in the story, the students often perk up a little bit, because now I am speaking their language.
As a profession, public relations has evolved significantly over the course of my 20-year career – most substantially in just the past five years. While media relations remains an important component of our work, it is but one tool in a very broad toolbox of communications strategies and tactics that we use to develop effective programs and campaigns for the organizations that we represent.
It is important to note that it’s not only the tools themselves that have changed. Indeed, we live in a fast-paced and “always-on” world in which a photo, a video or a story can be seen by thousands of people in a matter of seconds. While that may be a positive step when one is proactively promoting a brand or organization, it also creates challenge and anxiety when an organization is thrown into a negative spotlight.
It is incumbent upon public relations professionals to manage brands, issues and reputations using a wide variety of strategies and tactics. Whether online or offline, brand communicators must constantly monitor conversations and issues, and evaluate all of the ways that their marketing messages could be construed. As the traditional gatekeepers of organizational reputation, public relations practitioners must be deeply involved in the development of brand and message strategy as well as ongoing, day-to-day reputation management both online and off.
One doesn’t have to look far to find very recent examples of brands that have been thrust into the spotlight either through their own actions or the actions of others. With their reputations on the line, the manner in which they responded to these crises, and whether or not the response considered and incorporated all facets of their communications and marketing, will ultimately determine whether or not the brand’s image will recover.
It is not unusual for clients – and even communications professionals themselves – to view public relations as a “traditional” and “offline” discipline. However, public relations must be viewed and practiced as a fully integrated brand and reputation management function. This begins with strategic planning that underpins the brand’s core identity and messaging, followed by continuous brand monitoring and management across multiple marketing disciplines using a variety of online tools.
Companies must anticipate, plan and rehearse every imaginable scenario that could cause damage or undue attention, and they must ensure that multi-disciplinary teams are represented when communications plans and tools are developed. Public relations practitioners are key players at the table when those decisions are made.
Even if they still rely on the good old fax machine.