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Digital Literacy in Public Relations

Published on February 20, 2023, at 4:10 p.m.
By Lauren Bingham.

It goes without saying that we live in a world that has the ability to exist both physically and digitally. The average person picks up their phone to check a notification about 96 times a day, and yet, one in three workers in America does not have basic digital skills needed in the workplace.

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What is digital literacy?

According to the American Library Association, digital literacy is best defined as “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.” It is essential in a communications world that now depends fully on technology to keep up with trends and audiences.

The public relations field looked different before we relied on cell phones and Instagram to release statements and promotions. “If you were good at placing print stories, you were a hero in corporate PR,” Xero Global Communications Advisor Mark Harris said when discussing this evolution. Earned media was the primary way of gaining public attention.

Today, any job in the communications field is focused way more on reaching audiences through digital means than through physical means. Social media is the prioritized method of reaching most audiences in the most efficient and timely manner now.

Why computer literacy is an integral component of digital literacy

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The backbone of it all depends entirely on computer literacy. No means to understanding how to reach these audiences would have been available to the public if it were not for those who took the time to learn how a computer works and how this knowledge can benefit their company.

Ladybugz Digital Agency Owner Lysa Miller compared her experiences in the workplace before and after technological advances were put in place. “It’s a lot more collaborative when working on a project now,” she said. “[Before] you couldn’t just bring something up on a big screen to show everyone; you were all huddled together over one person’s computer back then.”

A modern digital age

Harris posed the question, “If you don’t understand business operations now, and the role that digital media plays, how do you expect to engage with the business in a meaningful way?” This point emphasizes the importance of the PR professional gaining digital literacy. Those in the field who know more than just how to use a social media platform strategically already show promise. Acquiring computer skills like Microsoft Excel, Adobe Photoshop and basic computer language suggests that that they will not only do the job but also be pioneers in the ways they get the job done.

Harris added that there is an understood expectation of having more than just the baseline qualifications. The PR practitioner can “bring a new level of insight and expertise of things I won’t be good at myself.”

Making the statement that every adult should be competent in front of a computer or desktop application does not imply that every adult should know how to fully code their own website. Digital literacy assumes a level of knowledge to get a practitioner further in their career. Miller discussed that there is always a large difference between a communications professional who knows a good amount about many different types of computer applications, and a computer science professional who is an expert in those applications.

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What is understood, however, is that the employee has taken the time to learn what applications are important and how they work. Miller said it means they are “willing to adopt new technologies and innovate.”

When the topic of digital literacy is boiled down to its core, the keyword truly is innovation. The PR practitioner who has that digital literacy beyond what is expected of them has the potential to do new and exciting things for their work environment or the industry as a whole. It also sets them apart from their colleagues.

Why digital competency differentiates the practitioner

Having computer-based skills as a young person either freshly entering the PR industry or hoping to receive a promotion automatically differentiates them both on a résumé and in an interview. In a work environment with a diversity of age representation, Miller said that these differentiated individuals “will be instrumental in teaching the older people what the younger people want.” This is because there is a higher skill level required when it comes to data analytics, market research and digital mass communication methods.

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While these skills do set the practitioner apart, the industry goes further than just existing digitally. Harris gave insight into why he thinks the pendulum has swung almost too far into a world where communication is solely online.

“There’s some risk of losing sight of the value of expertise within disciplines,” he explained. “The people that can bring logic, structure and clarity to a communications program — the people who understand audiences and can say interesting things in interesting ways… that’s a skill set we can’t lose in communications. Digital skills matter, of course, but those are not the extent of high-order, high-impact communications work. You have to know what the main message is before anything else can happen, including deployment of content in social channels.”

The importance of well-roundedness

While digital literacy does set the individual apart from others, the industry needs professionals who are still well-rounded employees, Harris acknowledged. These people can use a computer and every important application within it but also remember what PR really is when it is stripped of all the online glamor and appeal. It is important to note the vitality of PR is upheld by

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memorable message and understanding of the many different audiences a certain brand possesses.

The PR practitioner is evaluated with greater scrutiny in a world that changes quickly with every new way to communicate and form a relationship with the consumer and other key publics. Furthermore, it is essential that those in the industry take the time to both acquire computer literacy and learn how the digital world is going to evolve in the next five to 10 years. It’s been made evident that education does not stop when a job offer is on the table, but instead, it continues to keep up with what the digital world has to offer.

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