5 Ways Technology Has Impacted PR for Better or Worse

The following blog post was written by AirPR’s Director of Product, Rebekah Iliff. In addition to her role at AirPR, she is a technology/startup blogger for The Huffington Post and has recently been a featured columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine’s “Young Entrepreneur.”

Here is the #1 problem with traditional PR as it stands today: no one, and this includes PR professionals, can figure out how the heck to define it as technology and the uprising of self-publication and self-distribution platforms has made the traditional role amorphous in scope.

Is it media pitching and getting a “hit” on the local news station or CNN?

Is it writing news releases and distributing them over the newswire for SEO and online brand equity building?

Is it managing social media properties and engaging various constituents in meaningful dialogue online?

Perhaps it’s managing events on behalf of clients, and pushing them out as thought leaders in a particular industry?

Or is it all of these things done to varying degrees depending on the client’s needs, wants, desires, and perceptions?

And why is it problematic to not have a clear definition of the PR role?

Well for starters, you have an industry that has always battled a reputation of being dispensable, impact incalculable, and often unprofessional in nature – with no “real” licensing board, or concrete understanding of what constitutes a publicist, versus a public relations professional, versus a communications executive. In the world of “professionals” it’s fairly understandable what an accountant does, where an attorney can be helpful, and why you need a family doctor on your call list.

But in the world of PR, communications, publicity, or whatchamacallit, the bottom line is that if PR professionals aren’t giving the clients what they think they want and need (which varies from person to person, and company to company) we can be sure we’ll be packing our bags and headed to the next train station faster than a speeding bullet.

What I’ve seen most recently are traditional PR agencies that either 1) refuse to change or 2) don’t know how they need to change. Neither fully embracing technology nor fully denying its necessity, they linger somewhere in the middle attempting to convince their clients that a media placement in the local paper is a big deal – instead of thinking creatively about how they can use that piece of content and re-purpose it, amplify it, and make it matter where most people are now “shopping” for information: the Internet.

The “PR industry,” unlike many industries, has invariably felt the hit of changing times. Not from a mere economic standpoint, but from a “role” standpoint. To use an example from before: once a doctor always a doctor. We get a weird rash in an undesirable location, freak out, call the doctor, make an appointment, and voila…2 bottles of cream later we’re cured. Not so with PR.

Because a PR pro’s job is to have a forward thinking approach, and a macro-economic outlook on their clients’ behalf, it becomes impossible for to hold onto old systems and beliefs about “how to do this” and “how to do that.”  Rather, we are better off taking a look at the progression of communication in general, so that we can understand where we came from, where we are, and where we are going.  To that end, we can then begin to understand the role of PR more clearly.

Since I was born in the 70’s we’ll start there…. because before I was born [clearly] nothing of real importance happened. #Truestory.

1. Email – Ahh, email.  What would we do without it?  In many ways, the jump from in-person and phone-based conversations to online correspondence has made our jobs and tasks much easier to manage: we can easily spread our stories more quickly to more people in a streamlined, organized fashion, and from pretty much anywhere on the planet for a very low cost.  Additionally, it’s much easier to track and delegate communication activities via email.  According to a somewhat recent study, 75% of journalists prefer email correspondence for news releases. So in many ways this particular technological advancement was a huge, positive shift that (when not abused or misused) can make everyone’s life a little more manageable.

2. Search engines  – What I really mean by search engines is “Google,” but to be fair, I’ll use the broad term. However, we all know the truth.  IMHO, search engines are what have had THE most impact on our industry to date, only to be rivaled by mobile platforms. With search engines came a seismic shift in consumer behavior: empowered by the ability to find information within seconds via a source that could organize topics based on what they (the consumer) wanted to find, NOT on how well someone had impressed them with an advertisement or sales pitch, the objective of any communications professional transformed from targeting journalists to targeting consumers as well.

The direct-to-consumer model became popularized with the search engine, and created an opportunity for those willing to understand its implications. Which are? Well, simply put: learning how to communicate in key words, and understanding your constituency well enough to understand how they search for information. I like to call it “search engine psychoanalysis.”

3. Social Networks  – Oh Sir Mark, what would we have done without your stroke of genius which essentially has taken us from being able to forget that idiot guy (or girl) we had a crush on in junior high to being able to check his status reports on a daily, hourly, and even real-time basis? We have gone from speaking in complete thoughts to a select group of loved ones, or hiding our thoughts away in a “never to be seen by anyone” journal, to essentially speaking in status updates for our entire network (and often the world if privacy settings aren’t your thing) to see, share, comment on, like….and even when one is so inclined….unlike. Ouch.

While I often straddle between feelings of acute hatred for Facebook and other social networks, to feelings of pure love – a roller coaster of emotions rivaled only by my feelings for snow – I believe that in the final analysis this phenomenon must be embraced by communicators as a very effective tool – if utilized properly.  Although it can very quickly become an albatross if not understood within the context of an entire communications strategy, no other tools (included here are Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.) have the ability to create value for any client once aligned with an overarching strategic approach.  For better or for worse, the ubiquity of social networks – like technology in general- is not going to change.

4. Self-publication platforms – Bloggers and vloggers and schnoggers oh my.  Synonymous with my feelings about social networks, self-publication platforms –which can include everything from article marketing sites (eZine, ArticleMarketer, etc) and share sites (YouTube, Scribd, DocStoc, and SlideShare) to blogging platforms like WordPress and Tumblr – can be as dangerous as they are helpful.  But again, whether we like it or not, they have changed the way we communicate and ultimately “find” and “source” information.

From a purely PR standpoint, a 2010 Cision Survey (in PR-land this can still be argued a recent study) estimated the 89% journalists begin their research for stories by looking at popular, niche blogs.  Furthermore, and relating back to the search engine discussion from above, these self-publication platforms can all be linked to key search terms for maximum exposure, thus creating an opportunity to be “found” if executed properly.

5. The mobile marketplace– “BIA/Kelsey expects U.S. mobile local advertising revenues to grow from $213 million in 2009 to $2.03 billion in 2014.”

This represents 44 percent of total U.S. mobile ad revenues from 2009, growing to 69 percent in 2014. BIA/Kelsey defines mobile local advertising as ads that are targeted based on a user’s location.

In terms of the PR landscape, this is hugely important…because bought media and earned media go hand in hand. Point being: we have to understand the impact “mobility” has on information consumption. How we communicate must be cross-platform enabled, and conducive to this particular change in behavior.

The Future of PR

Perhaps it is the “mobile” age – an age that will require ever flexible, adaptable, transparent, movable products and services.  But whatever the case, one thing is clear: professional communicators stand in the middle of creation and consumption and understanding the implications of technology is as important as the stories told on behalf of clients.

And for better or worse, there is no going back.