Posted At: April 20, 2011 1:32 PM
by Amanda Coppock
In every field, an evolution in the way business is conducted occurs. A shift in culture, an advance in technology or an economic change can impact how a field adjusts over time. Although public relations is a relatively new field in comparison to many, it has not been exempt from this evolution. Whereas journalism has existed since as early as the 16th century, public relations is a relatively new field, with PRSA founded as recently as 1947. Within the past 40 years, the field has essentially evolved from a branch-off of journalism to the complex entity that exists today.
“The old days”
Bob Hope, president of Atlanta-based public relations firm Hope-Beckham Inc., has seen a new face on the field of public relations every decade that he has worked in the profession. He began his career in the 1970s, after receiving what he described as primarily a journalistic education with one PR course on publicity, which was the norm at the time.
“All the public relations people were former newspaper writers,” Hope explained. “PR was not very well established.”
The main skills needed to work in public relations in the early years centered around the ability to write.
“The field of public relations used to be strictly dealing with the media, mostly newspaper writing, and also putting on events that were generally stunts to get publicity for products,” Hope said.
The press release was the main tactic used in PR in what Hope calls “the old days.” He said he used to call the AP or UPI, read his press release to them and they would simply put the story out on the wire.
The rise of crisis communication
According to Hope, “In the 80s, issues management and public affairs became more important.” Cases such as the Tylenol crisis and Exxon Valdez are as well known in the PR field today as they were at the time. Hope said cases like these made CEOs high profile.
“Big public companies realized that their leaders could influence perception of their companies and stock price if they were known to be decisive and respected,” Hope said. “This was a time when CEOs like Jack Welch of GE . . . Robert Goizueta of Coca-Cola, Donald Trump . . . and others became the rock stars of business.”
With so much attention drawn to CEOs at this time, they began to make public relations a part of top management, Hope said. Media relations was still the center of public relations, but Hope said speech writing and media training for company leaders increased in importance.
A shift away from simply tactical
In the 1990’s Hope saw a shift in how the role of public relations practitioner was perceived.
“In the 1990s, the public relations role grew from being mostly tactical to PR people being viewed more as strategic counselors who participated in major corporate decisions and monitored public response,” Hope said.
From a monologue to a dialogue
With the dawn of a new century, technology became a major aspect of everyone’s lives. The field of public relations felt the effects of this technology boom as well.
“Starting in 2000, the world turned dramatically when technology started [to] allow every consumer to talk back,” Hope said. “The media was formerly a monologue with messages going out. With email and now various forms of social media, communication is a dialogue.”
For the PR world this meant that instead of placing positive stories in the media, the practitioner had to establish a conversation with the public to harbor trust in a company.
“The role of the PR professional has always been to craft the right message and craft it well,” Hope explained. “Now the pressure is on because the message is king and where the power starts.”
A few key differences
Over the years, public relations has evolved into a relatively well-defined field. Many trends have come and gone; certain tactics have changed from givens to passé. But the one thing Hope does not believe will change about public relations: “The ability to tell a story well is the basis of PR and will never change.”
In order to be a well-rounded public relations practitioner, it is important to understand the changes the field has undergone throughout its history. “There will always be something new,” Hope claimed of trends in the field, but knowing what aspects of PR have shaped the field helps a practitioner to thrive. Some of the changes Hope noted included the following:
- The purpose of a news release: “The press release was king in the old days,” Hope said. “Today, a press release is only a reference document.”
- What the media does with a news release: “You could call AP or UPI and read a press release to them and they would put the story out on the wire as you read it to them. No more,” Hope said.
- The importance of monitoring the news: “Because news is now immediate and spreads so quickly, the monitoring and reaction of negative news stories is more important than in the past,” Hope said.
- The relationship with the media: “Personal relationships are more important today in dealing with media because you typically have to give exclusives to get a major story out initially,” Hope said.
- Client use of PR: “Clients use far more PR than in the past,” Hope said. “They know the value of it.”
Looking to the future
While understanding the changes that occurred in public relations over the years is important, anticipating what the future holds and remaining true to the foundation of the field are key. Ike Pigott, a public relations practitioner in Birmingham, Ala., and former broadcast reporter, believes the basis of public relations is the relationship factor.
“Ultimately, public relationships is about people, and it’s about the relationships you manage,” Pigott said.
Technology has created many new ways of relating to the publics a practitioner tries to reach. Pigott mentioned how technology has caused many practitioners to blast information out in a way that he feels could be perceived as spam.
“I would say the trend of relevance is the one I would watch for over the next few years,” Pigott said. He forsees this move back to relevance in making sure the information the practitioner presents reaches a smaller group for which the information holds value.
Pigott believes that technology has allowed word of mouth to become a greater force than it was before the age of the Internet and blogging.
“I’d say that technology [i.e., social media] has really changed the game in PR because everybody is a publisher now and it’s changed the expectations,” Pigott said. He believes this technology makes it important for the practitioner to know who to reach and to take online opinion leaders into account.
One thing Pigott believes may benefit the public relations practitioner as time progresses is using statistics and return on investment more accurately. He believes that numbers are often too arbitrary and that truly measuring things like social mediaROI can help practitioners succeed in the future.
Pigott spoke to the digital nature of the field as well. “Look at everything else beside the news release that public relations practitioners do and you’ll find that they’re going to be doing it online, including publishing a lot of their own content and hoping it finds a place,” Pigott said. Items such as the social news release and even a website rather than a business card were some of the examples he listed of how the field is adapting to the digital age.
The field of public relations is comprised of many different facets. Understanding the past, present and future of public relations allows the practitioner to know which tactics are best to pursue for any given client. Since the “old days,” many changes have shaped the field into what it is today. The trends that exist now are likely to have an equally important impact on the future. Learning from practitioners who have been in the field for many years gives a unique insight into the changes that have occurred and are likely to occur in the future.