Tracks to the Future for PR and Communications

The Changing Communications Business. The communications business is a tough one these days, although every aspect of business also seems challenged in many many ways.  For communicators its not just about the change, but also about all the news and noise.  The media landscape is askew from almost any angle you choose to assess it –the traditional business of print, radio and broadcast are intermingled; the traditional news outlets are challenged by all kinds of newcomers; publishing models are in turmoil; readership and viewer metrics are being completely overhauled. The emergence of paid, owned and earned media working in tandem with the the growing developments of native advertising and concept of “brands as publishers” further changes concepts around traditional media relations.  Examining how media is found and digested in social media also changes how we think about the value of stories we placed in publications.

Beyond the who and what of media relations, the communications business is also being changed because delivering that “corporate message” is no longer easily controlled through scripted performances at events or that well-placed media story. The concept of controlling and managing a few corporate spokespeople is considered out-dated, not to mention just plain unworkable.  A speech at a conference can be tweeted about with subjective commentary. That media placement will get shared online with both positive and negative commentary by anyone and everyone. The noise level and fragmentation of how people find and digest information makes it impossible to control and garner sustained attention for those traditional “corporate messages.”

Stakeholder groups are no longer loosely organized.  They are using online tools to be more connected with like-minded organizations, globally.   They also use social media to drive more public awareness of their views and perceptions. The very definition of who is an “influencer” is undergoing change to include individuals beyond those traditionally considered business influencers. And, identifying who those newly minted individual influencers are and figuring out a way to build a relationship with them requires a whole new tools set and new kinds of considerations by the communications pro.

Traditional PR crisis management plans, often focused on communicating with employees and then the public via media in a controlled manner (which can still  have its role) runs the risk of being overrun by the vast volume and speed of online commentary.  Worth pointing out too that the inappropriate use of social media by someone in a business can lead to its own crisis.  The traditional concept of crisis management is upended by the need to communicate more immediately and in an ongoing way to keep issues from flaming out of control.

This list about changes impacting communications could go on, and there are “solutions,”or at least interesting paths forward, to all the challenges noted above.  However, if the response from communicators to these kinds of challenges is merely,“oh yes we have incorporated social media into our Communications plans (ie we tweet our news; we have some bloggers invited to the media event; we are incorporating the relevant online media into our media efforts, we tweet events and speeches),” then you might want to dig a little deeper.   The changes are more far reaching and have bigger stakes than that.

The bolting on of some social media tactics to the usual PR efforts is really not good enough to deal with the onslaught of digital and social changes coming at the communications profession and businesses that we work for.  Several stories struck me this week. They include:

  1. PR and Adoption of Technology: PR firms are missing a vital component in their operations notes Tom Foremski in a ZDnet story this week.  In “The technologies of public relations are on their way“, Tom says: “Public relations has been pulled into the modern world  (complaining about the extra work of social) but not much has really changed. It’s still very much a hand-crafted, artisanal business, its use of technology is a Twitter hashtag and a dashboard of likes and shares. But without a significant tech component PR is at a big disadvantage because it can’t scale, it can’t grow without growing more people.” He goes on to suggest that in addition to more and better technology inside PR operations, the public relations business has an opportunity to help lead their clients/business in the new field of “brand as publishers” – given the professional expertise related to media relations.
  2. PR’s Next Big Challenge: Tooling Up For The War With Ad Agencies was another post this week in which Tom Foremski makes a similar argument about technology and automation in public relations, especially as it relates to competing with the advertising marketers.   My views is forget the advertising/PR family feud or competition or cooperation perspective.  The real fundamental issue here is the need of professional communicators (agencies and in-house people) to work hard to get their heads around a whole new way of approaching what we do and the things we deliver. Certainly as Tom points out this involves the more rapid adoption of technology as a tool.  However, I believe that is just a starting point.
  3. Advertising Facing Challenges; They Talk about New Landscaping or Gutting The House and Rebuilding — Perhaps that applies to PR Too? To Tom’s point about the importance of technological change, and challenges in the advertising industry, advertisers are taking these changes seriously. Just as communications agencies and professionals should.  This week in “Let’s Tear Down the Advertising – Industrial Complex and Rebuild for a Digital Age, three new rules to break from your fathers media plan”  Bryan Weiner writes, “The fact is, the future is already here, and it’s being driven by consumer behavior that is disrupting the marketing model. Like it or not, we’re in an attention economy – and have been for more than a decade, mind you – where consumers are increasingly in control of media they consume and how brands are perceived. Yet our industry is operating at its core much the same as it was in the pre-digital era. Sure there have been changes, but it’s more like a paint job or landscaping, rather than a gutting of the house that is so badly needed.” His solutions include a completely fresh look at budgets and allocations; re-architecting success metrics; and real and right time marketing of nimble and integrated teams.
  4. But Digital and Social Media is not considered among the Most Important PR Skills: In another piece of news, according to the PR News’ 2014 Salary Survey, “mastering traditional disciplines such as written communications and media relations remain the top two ways to advance in PR.” They were cited by about 52% of respondents.  No one disputes the importance or value of those two skills. I am certainly not suggesting we downgrade good writing and solid media relations.  They are pre-requisites in my mind.  While progress is being made, Digital/social media was only cited by just more than a third of respondents (38%) as one of the most important skills needed to get ahead.  Only 18% of the respondents cited measurement as the most important skill in PR.  Yet in today’s online social media environment, metrics and measurement is a strategic advantage and a business plus for delivering PR programs.
  5. The Future of Digital/Social Business, Can We Get There? If those numbers raise questions about the PR professions interest in getting ahead of the social and digital communications curve, a recent Forrester study suggests Executives are equally skeptical of all aspects of their business getting in front of digital and social change.  According to Forrester’s recent “The Future of Business is Digital” only a third of the executives surveyed said they believe their company’s approach to digital is the right one. Even fewer (21 percent) said they believe that they have the right people working on their digital strategy in the first place. A paltry one in six executives believes their company even has the skills and ability to execute these digital strategies in the first place.

The Opportunities for Communications to Push Ahead: Wouldn’t it be sweet if the Communicators and PR teams could actually prove executives wrong and get ahead of the game?  Imagine informed social and digital strategies from Communicators that actually take advantage of social media, and the related new technologies, to deliver more effective and targeted communications programs.  I know some agencies, individuals and teams are well on the way.  But what might it take for all of us in the communications business? Here are a few thoughts of some opportunities:

  • Technology: Tom is right.  Automation, software, new technologies and tools will be important.  We should experiment, apply technology where we can and keep this moving forward. Beta test new efforts and lets be curious about what we can use and how to do it…both to automate and that help us get better at other tasks that make us more successful in our relationships.
  • Social media should be a strategic consideration, not a simple add-on to communications efforts. We need to add new strategies and tactical implementations that make use of social media, not simply bolt social efforts on to traditional PR strategies that rely on “third party” events and media. Instead, use social media as a way to focus (and deliver and measure very precisely) direct relationships and engagement with business stakeholders/influencers.  And, in this regard, conversations, not messages are what build relationships
  • Direct and meaningful engagement with business stakeholders: That means driving new and innovative initiatives that connect directly, and establish relationships with people who matter to our business.  Laser focus on connecting with your stakeholders get you out of the avalanche of information and makes your business special.  This is not a broadcast medium so take it for something different and apply new thinking to it.  In our social efforts, it should be “we had message pull through because event X had our target audience in attendance” or “we reached X thousand through out Twitter account.”  Lets get real.  It should be something like “we engaged with people who matter to our business” and “are establishing relationships that are a priority for our success.”
  • Social and Traditional PR has to work in tandem and it will deliver even more bang for the buck.  Just to be clear, this post is not in any way advocating that we throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Keep the baby. We are adding new bathwater to do even better things for business. I’m a huge proponent of traditional and social pr working in tandem
  • Katie-Delahaye-Paine-6-steps-to-standard-compliant-measurement-Lundquist-Breakfast-Meeting_-wideData, metrics and measurement: They are at our disposal, more than ever before and are tremendous assets for communicators.  Access them and use them for research about what stakeholders care about, and who they are.  Plans informed by, built and implemented around data can be measured and positive outcomes demonstrated.   And by the way, give solid thought to what you measure and why.  Because its about a whole lot more than “likes” and clicks. Check this Time article out about measurement, clicks and how to find real value in your efforts.  We had a great time last fall at the European Digital Leadership “conclave” using Katie Paine’s model here and applying it to CSR and IR matters.
  • Internal Communications efforts.  Are you thinking about how to make internal communications more social, behind the firewall.  What about opportunities outside the Firewall, but related to your team of employees.  For example, LinkedIn Groups or how you use your own LinkedIn page updates—these can be ways to keep employees informed.
  • Media Relations in the social news environment:  I had shared some thoughts on this earlier, here.
  • Your Corporate Website and the Corporate communications newsroom. Do they meet the needs of today and has it been re-envisaged for the social web?  For example, where does visual communications play in your current corporate newsroom or corporate Website? Related: Facebook is screwing with your brand and what does that mean for your own Website and future plans.  Mack Collier has thoughts for you about this – and I think he is right.  How strong is your home base on the Web.
  • Evolve your Corporate Communications “media” training to “social training” (and revisit policies and procedures about corporate spokespeople, mentioned above).  Things you might also consider in this respect are: how to spot a crises in social media; what teams across business should do about it (to contain it and get the right people involved).
  • Employee Advocacy efforts: Communications should be leading efforts on this front to incorporate these efforts into the broader communications programs for business.  Social Training is important to move forward with sharing the expertise of your employees and driving additional value to business.  Afterall, they are among the most trusted.  More on employee advocacy here.
  • From an Executive Communications perspective, should the business leadership team be involved in social media? According to a recent report by, 68% of Fortune 500 CEOs have no social media presence whatsoever.  If you, as the Communications Counsellor, think the Executives should be using social media, what is the plan and purpose; what can your team do to support that – and I don’t mean ghost write the tweets or posts.  You could support with recommendations about followers and following, so it makes sense; deliver the analytics to show status of progress on purpose. Articulate the communications strategy behind that Executive presence and suggest the kinds of things that make sense to be used to bring these efforts to life
  • Some additional thoughts about social communications are here
  • Have you thought about the skills you need to forge ahead.  For example, is it time to have someone with deep Social Web analytics join the Communications team? Do you have the visual expertise, as the Web becomes more visual. If you need assistance in that regard, I am thrilled to team with Shel Holtz and Mark Dollins for our SME² (Social Media Excellence x Expertise)offering.
  • Work Together and Explore: Give each other time to learn and experiment.  Share best practices and conundrums.  Do some brainstorming about how social media opens new doors to communicating for business.  Are there technologies you need or access to services that would help you create and deliver better communications programs. For example using is a way to identify and track people who generate really great content around specific topics.  With its daily reports you can find ways to engage with these people and stay abreast of what they are sharing and who they impact.  Get creative about finding something new on the Web and applying it to your job as communicators.

Help each other build social communications skills that enhance our ability to do things effectively and efficiently.  At the same time, lets use all the wonderful opportunities in front of us to achieve new and even better relationships with the publics for the businesses and organizations we work for.   The tracks are wide open to move forward and be better at what we do….all of us in communications and PR should be moving forward together because it is about succeeding and driving into a bright new future for our businesses.  What are your ideas about things we can do to move ahead?

17 thoughts on “Tracks to the Future for PR and Communications

    1. Thanks for that Jeremiah. I really appreciate that. The other posts I referenced got me going…So sad about only 38% of PR people believe social media is key to future. Makes me real sad.
      And of course on the ideas going forward, I could have added more thought that was enough :-). You, of course, could have added at least 10 others too I am sure.

  1. Well put Richard and I agree on what you’re saying. Here in Toronto I noticed a few PR agencies embrace digital over the year with enthusiasm and essentially rebrand themselves as integrated communication shops. Others however, regardless of sector are still, how can I phrase, not comfortable with embracing digital as a core strategy, in fact at a recent IABC Toronto networking event I was talking with a few students and they don’t even feel social media is a serious option for campaigns. From what I gather from my conversations, it’s still pretty much media relations being pushed at the diploma level in Ontario.

    1. Bill, Agree with you about the need to include social media in education programs. I think both business i.e marketing) and communications education programs should both begin deeper dives on topics related to social media use in business. Hard to get my head around something being called “public relations” does not see the huge upside in actually doing relations with the public, rather than always working through third parties. Thanks for the comment

  2. Some thought provoking material here – lets hope adoption happens. Amazing there is still such reluctance to measure. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    1. Hi Tamsin, thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment.
      You mention being amazed about the reluctance to “measure.” I agree.Social media is throwing off a wealth of information for communicators. Some work still needs to be done on how you sift through it all….but it is virtual treasure trove (especially when combined with traditional research). All this data on what the public thinks and cares about, as well as how they respond to things could constantly inform our communications strategies and how we deliver them. Thanks again Tamsin.

  3. Great article! I want to point out that the movement toward “social employees” has more than begun with some leading brands like IBM, AT&T, Cisco, Dell, Adobe and Southwest Airlines leading the way, as described in my book, The Social Employee. Indeed, it is about a movement … a revolution for brands from 4 to 400K employees, creating true brand ambassadors — the voice of their brand. People don’t want to talk to a logo — they want to talk to a person.

    1. Mark, really appreciate the comment. You are correct the employee voice and connection is very very important — from almost any way you look at it. In fact, back in 2006 when I first started responding to blogs about Dell (around 4000 mentions/day) thats when I realized this would not scale/nor be timely…unless employees were involved.
      That was part of the rationale behind, and why I was a part of, the original Dell training efforts in that regard.
      You might also be interested in this post: You are correct — the companies headed in this direction had tremendous advantages

  4. Hi Richard, very thorough blog post. Technology is definitely a big issue – I don’t think any industry out there has a more outdated workflow than PR. We developed a tool ( to simplifiy media relations and the number 1 feedback we get from anyone – agencies and corporations alike – is that they’re using some kind of combination of Excel and Outlook. You have to have a serious love for CTRL+C/CTRL+V to stick to that kind of outdated process.

    I think PR people are a bit like journalists in this respect: they just don’t like tech very much, maybe to emphasise that PR (and journalism) is not about platforms and tech, but about personal connections and relationships. This manifests itself in something very close to a Luddite worldview. You observe it in little things – I remember, as a young reporter, sending a “meeting request” via Outlook to one of my senior colleagues. He didn’t know how to open the meeting request, and told me quite sternly never to send him such nonsense again. But it’s also in big things, as in: it’s not like media groups have figured the internet out yet.

    To be fair: it’s an area where a lot of ad agencies are struggling just as much as PR. And I think that this new, messier way of communication is one where PR agencies can ultimately thrive. As an industry, nobody is more used to chaotic conditions, after all.

    1. Raf, thanks for coming by and for the comment. Ill have to check out Sounds interesting for sure. Certainly modernizing beyond outlook and excel are important steps, but only one of the many and critical steps forward for the industry as a whole, I think. Agree advertising also faces similar issues (See familyfeud post here and a post about real innovation in marketing). When you think about it, no relationship is an algorithm, so it is bound to be a tad messy :-). Appreciate the comment. Oh and you keep those bosses on their toes using tech too 🙂

  5. Interesting post, Richard (I’ll be sharing it via the @PRConversations Twitter account.)

    I am bothered, though, at the use of the words “employee advocate” or “employee brand” in social, particularly when there’s an expectation it will be done via personal (rather than corporate) social media accounts. (That’s the focus of my most-recent post.)

    Employee engagement and contentment that manifests itself in organic social media updates are a different story than some “program” to “encourage” staff to do that. Many will push back against the blurring of the professional and personal, particularly in their own time and on their own accounts.

    1. Hi Judy, thanks for the comment. What you raise is subject of a much larger discussion.
      In my mind, employee advocate programs (not necessarily organic employee involvement) are not something to be done on peoples own time, rather it is where social media becomes a component of their job. Often this is underpinned by two matters: 1) People trust employees perspective (see Edelman’s trust survey) 2) Involving companies “subject matter experts” talking with customers about relevant matters related to their job provides the employee with stronger customer connections and insights. It also gives customers/people asking questions access to what once was a “nameless faceless corporation” in a way that delivers relevant expertise/answers to what people were seeking information about.
      The blurring of professional and personal is a big issue, for some, just as technology raises all kinds of privacy issues. I dont disagree that some find this challenging. In cases where an employee is hesitant, that hesitancy should be given serious consideration. Perhaps they are not the right person to engage with customers online.
      But lets also remember social is about a more customer connected business to be better business — and that means people connecting with people in various business functions and departments in new ways.
      Branded accounts are often the company message–not necessarily the relevant experts.
      I must say, I have few “meaningful” interactions with branded accounts. I have lots of meaningful social interactions with people who work in companies through personal accounts.

      1. Same here, Richard. (I think of the wonderful Marina behind the Steam Whistle account as an example. And I learned at a Social Media Week Toronto panel session that Steam Whistle actually measures/attributes a significant amount of its sales to social media. And this weekend I met the young woman who handles the Canadian Opera Company’s Twitter account–I was resubscribing for next year, said my surname and she responded, “Oh, of course! I know you through Twitter!”

        BUT…and this is a very big BUT…the interactions with staff (on behalf of the organization) are with those who work–who were HIRED to work–in a public-facing role, such as communications, marketing or customer service. I’m a big believer in socializing employees WHO WANT TO ALSO BE EXTERNALLY FACING to share their “championing” or stories about the company they work for, regardless of role. IBM is a perfect example of this.

        But. That is a very different story from expecting ALL STAFF to be socializing the organization, particularly on their personal social media accounts and during their own (non-work) time. I predict companies who try to “force” or “suggest” this practice will be grieved through labour boards and/or be taken to court.

        1. Judy, I think the definition of public facing role is rapidly changing. In addition, Jobs and responsibilities can change over time. Hired or not in a public role, social media requires business to look deeper. And, business can no longer limit itself by thinking only about what were once “public roles”…Roles change. For example, a product group can be public facing, and can benefit as much if not more than marketing by being both public facing and more deeply connected to customers and potential customers.

          1. “All marketing is communication, but not all communication is marketing,” per my colleague and friend, Sean Williams.

            The other thing you need to remember, Richard, is that not all communication is transactional in nature and that “customers” are not the only public (or stakeholder) for many organizations.

            In his recent guest post (on PR Conversations), Sean wrote:

            “But it is also a somewhat reductivist point of view, turning all interactions with anyone into a transaction, a relationship based on exchange—I give you money, you give me stuff. This is the root of the integrated marketing thinking—in the end, it’s all about selling stuff, and anything that we can’t link directly to selling stuff is not valuable.”

            Contemplating the non-marketing relationships

            We know, however, thanks to work by…that there are many valuable relationships with stakeholders that aren’t based on the exchange relationship.

            There are activities that address these non-marketing relationships—issues management, reputation management, investor relations, employee communications, community relations, government relations—that have intrinsic and extrinsic value to organizations. The impact of these relationships, while complicated and frequently expensive to measure quantitatively, can be demonstrated.

            This is especially important in employee communication, and as I commented on Gombita’s Social sniff test post, requiring employees to function as an extension of the sales force, even to the extent of being an “employee brand” activist, deepens the exchange relationship between employer and employee.

            But that’s a problem because the relationship should be communal—to paraphrase Herb Kelleher, the former CEO of Southwest Airlines, “If we take good care of our employees, they’ll take good care of our customers and we won’t have to worry about shareholders.” Taking good care of employees includes fostering a sense of identification with the organization and building a team that feels inspired by the mission and values of the organization.”

          2. Judy, Yes I agree. Far be it from me to suggest the only stakeholder is customers or that is the only relevant opportunity in social media. It is not!!!!
            I started my time in this space from a corporate reputation perspective that was far broader than customers alone of business transactions.
            Here I was using the customer interaction and connection (which is not necessarily always transactional either by the way) for simplicity and to illustrate the value of a connected business, not merely a public facing department.
            Coming from my public affairs and corp comm roots, clearly social media is tremendous opportunity to engage and connect with all stakeholder groups to a business (investors/employees-suppliers/customers/relevant “communities). Its my roots

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