The Meaning of Public Relations in the Digital Age

September 11, 2019 Public Relations 4 comments

Digital Public Relations

Is Public Relations (or PR) still relevant today? How do almost instantaneous social media networks influence the art and science of PR?

That is the million dollar question. One which many organisations struggle with in the social and digital age.

While any individual can reach out to corporate investors, reporters, and members of the public directly using Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, savvy CEOs know that most aren’t equipped to deal with the complexities and nuances of corporate communication.

Major organisations still need a PR, public affairs or corporate communications team to manage their corporate identities. However, the way in which PR specialists now do so differs significantly from the past.

Today, news and information can travel at the speed of light. Spurred by rapid changes in communication platforms and digital technologies, human behaviours online and offline have also evolved.

Before we delve into the individual components of PR in a digital-first world, let us first establish what it is.

What Is Digital Public Relations?

Digital Public Relations or Digital PR can be defined as the management of the online reputation and brand identity of an organisation through the purposeful use of digital and social technologies.

These technologies may include social media platforms like blogs, forums and bulletin boards. They may also include social networks like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, YouTube and Pinterest, as well as instant messaging platforms like WhatsApp, WeChat, and Messenger.

While the ultimate goals of digital PR and traditional PR are similar, their means differ. This is largely due to how digital and mobile technologies shift the balance of power between your organisation and your different “publics” or stakeholders.

How Online News Spreads

In most organisations, PR professionals are charged with generating free publicity. Also known as media relations, it normally involves a couple of things:

  • Cultivating positive relations with the media
  • Brainstorming news angles that would capture media interest
  • Writing and disseminating media invites, media advisories and press releases
  • Pitching a story to a media partner, via an email, message or phone call
  • Preparing fact sheets and FAQs to brief principals for interviews
  • Calling or emailing the media to check on their interest in writing a news story

While these norms still apply in most PR contexts, the way in which news spreads has now changed.

Today, the first place for you to read the news is likely to be your smartphone. Such news is shared by your friends, a prominent thought leader, or an influencer on social media channels like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

What this means is that the news which generates the most visibility isn’t necessary what you find on page one of the newspaper or on the top fold of a news website. Rather, it will be the news pieces that triggers the most virality and shares.

From Gatekeepers to Community Builders

As the balance of power shifts towards citizen journalists/marketers, your goal as a PR professional lies in fostering positive relations with your online communities.

This differs radically from the old days. Back then, PR folks act like gatekeepers (or door bitches) to the C-suite of any organisation.

“Wish to speak to my CEO? Send me your list of questions first!”

Well, those days are well and truly over.

The better way forward is to build and grow a supportive online community. To do that, you need to consider the following:

  1. What are the needs, passions and interests of your community?
  2. How do you add value to their personal or professional lives?
  3. What types of content would best meet their needs?
  4. How can you cultivate trust, improve likability, and build your reputation?

(Read my article here to learn 10 ways to build a thriving online community.)

From Earned to Owned Media

Traditionally, PR practitioners are rewarded based on their abilities to generate media coverage. Also known as Earned Media, they may include a newspaper or magazine article, interview on a radio talk show, or a news report on TV news.

This is determined by the quaint method of measuring the size or length of a news feature (column inches or seconds of broadcast time) multiplied by the advertising costs of that media channel and further multiplied by a factor of 3.

(The rationale behind the multiplication by 3 is that editorial coverage is 3 times more valuable than an advertisement.)

With the rise of Content Marketing, however, digital PR managers need to focus first on building your own channels (aka Owned Media) before trying to seed and spread the news.

This is crucial because your website is often the first port-of-call for online readers of any information about your company.

Social Brand Storytellers

In a social and digital first world, your publics are likely to view, read, or hear about you on a screen.

They could be scrolling through their Facebook newsfeeds, browsing YouTube channels, or chatting with their friends on WhatsApp.

What tends to get shared most are stories. Cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner suggested that stories are 22 times more memorable than pure facts alone.

To tell winning stories on social media, consider these steps:

  • Identify the Whys of your organisation and its founder
  • Study your audiences and cater to their values, beliefs and interests
  • Write about the people behind your organisation, your customers, or your partners
  • Inject some drama into your brand stories. Narrate a conflict or challenge which your customer may have faced, and how they’ve managed to resolve it with your organisation’s products or services.

(Learn more about social brand storytelling here.)

Guest Authoring and Blogging

Every single day, I get 2 to 3 email requests from strangers wanting to provide a sponsored post or contribute a guest article.

Their reason for doing so is simple: they wish to build a link from my website to their website (or page) in order to improve the visibility of their website on search engines like Google.

Beyond link building for SEO purposes, there are other reasons why you should pitch for guest authoring opportunities on influential websites:

  • Tap on the shrinking of newsrooms in media houses which leads to more publications accepting contributed articles
  • Establish thought leadership and credibility for your brand
  • Increase publicity mileage beyond regular media coverage
  • Foster positive relations by helping media channels with a unique perspective

Note, however, that your guest article should never be a shill piece for your brand. Editors of such pages are usually pretty vigilant about the quality of contributed pieces.

Engaging Influencers & Thought Leaders

In the online space, influencers may come in different shades and hues.

They may include celebrities, political figures, thought leaders, ordinary folks with a sizable following (aka micro-influencers), and the media of course.

While traditional PR practitioners tend to lavish more love and attention on editors and journalists (especially those covering their beat), we digital PR specialists need to cast our nets wider.

Doing so helps us to increase our reach beyond traditional media channels, improve the likelihood of our content being spread further and wider, and strengthen our foothold in the market.

Having a wide network of friends also acts as a form of insurance should calamity (touch wood!) ever befall us. Which brings me to my final point about digital PR.

Online versus Offline Crisis Comms

Nobody likes crises – especially when they happen online!

Given the speed in which online news may spread as well as the connectivity of digital denizens, any corporate misdemeanor, loss of lives, or industrial accident can trigger a Facebook maelstrom.

As a digital PR expert, your role isn’t to vehemently deny that the incident did not happen. Doing that could be fatal, given how the truth often gets uncovered by digital vigilantes.

Regardless of the intensity of your crises, you should put in place frameworks and SOPs for managing online crises BEFORE they occur.

Here are some good practices to consider:

  1. Form online alliances with your community members as well as with influencers
  2. Identify the chain-of-command in times of crises, and have all their contact nos (mobiles, emails) handy
  3. Craft some holding statements and prepared FAQs for spokespersons. Include shorter versions that are suited for sharing on social media as Tweets, Facebook updates, and instant messages.
  4. Be the first to come up with the bad news, and always provide the most comprehensive and reliable updates on the crisis. Push this up on your blog and website, and use social media channels to disseminate it. This allows you to control the news with your own official version of the events that took place.

In deftly managing online communications after a disastrous airline accident, AirAsia’s CEO Tony Fernandes managed to quickly rebuild the reputation of his company.

Contrast what he did with the ill-prepared antics of United Airlines which resulted in the company going viral for the wrong reasons.


In reply to my question about whether PR still has a future, the answer is a most definite “YES!”

While social media technology and channels have greatly democratized influence, organisations still need to protect and preserve their corporate reputations online.

Knowing how quickly negative news can spread and go viral, it pays to have a trusted guardian of your corporate brand to screen through what goes out to the public.

The chief difference, however, lies in the speed in which news travels online, the expectations of an always online public, and the challenge of generating publicity in a content-cluttered age.

By applying the above best practices in Digital PR, you can strengthen your organisation’s brand identity, improve its digital reputation, and reduce the damaging effects of crises.

What are your thoughts on this topic? If you’re a PR practitioner, how has the onset of social and digital media changed your work?

By Walter
Founder of Cooler Insights, I am a geek marketer with almost 24 years of senior management experience in marketing, public relations and strategic planning. Since becoming an entrepreneur 5 years ago, my team and I have helped 58 companies and over 2,200 trainees in digital marketing, focusing on content, social media and brand storytelling.


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