We live in exciting times. The history of Public Relations (PR) can be traced back to the 18th Century when lobbying and campaigning backed by celebrities was the norm. In the last 250 years, the art of PR has evolved. It has matured to become a strategic tool for governments, leaders, industry, businesses, social organizations, trade guilds, educational institutions, hospitals, customers, and individuals.
PR has become an exciting social science combining psychology, sociology, statistics, communication and, in some measure, technology. Today, it uses tools such as mobile communication, blogs, social media, video, podcasts, wikis, polls, widgets, RSS feeds, etc combining them with traditional tools such as press releases, photographs, events, endorsements, brand champions, and ambassadors. As a consequence, the role and purpose of PR have become more sharply defined. Today, if anything, there is a better understanding of how PR practitioners can shape and impact public thinking and help bring private and public policies closer to create harmonious societies.
PR has become deeply embedded in practically every activity. It is central to any marketing, communication and advocacy plan as it is to managing corporate reputations and brand identities. PR is no more on the periphery of social or business action. No government leader, no company CEO, no public figure, no product or brand can afford to ignore the value of PR. And that really is also the central problem of PR today: can it rise to meet growing expectations in the modern world?
Over the years, PR has become quite a misunderstood activity — a fact that is, fortunately, starting to see serious reversal. In the minds of many, PR became a surrogate for advertising, marketing, and sales promotions. But more recently, with several global crises hounding society, the role of PR is being clarified, understood and appreciated.
Therefore, has the role of PR itself changed in the modern world? Actually, one should think not. It has only expanded in scope to encompass an increasingly global world. PR must continue to create a mutual understanding within a pluralistic society. The difference is that today pluralistic society is global. You could perhaps try to think of it a little differently: the role of PR has acquired a global gravity.
In many ways, PR is in the process of making a giant, never-before transition. Communication today is more of a two-way dialogue and this has been aided by the rise of social media and the explosion of information-sharing online. The economic meltdown has put social media on steroids, with the centre of control shifting from institutions to communities of individuals.
The cornerstone of PR used to be the creation of word-of-mouth, endorsements by celebrities to create credibility, authentic user statements and so on. Fundamentally, you can see that the emphasis was on control (some may call it propaganda) of the message. If the message could be shaped before being delivered, PR had achieved its goals. Today, the scenario is somewhat different. PR professionals and plans must give up control. Instead, the focus must shift to creating trust. PR is quickly moving towards building relationships. It is focusing on two-way communication and motivating target audiences into the desired action.
If the role of PR must be examined in the modern world, it must be in the context of how it is moving from control to trust.
The manifestation of crating “trust” ranges from the obvious to the subtle. It is obvious when the PR machinery of an organization begins to influence media, bloggers, and community leaders with data and facts. A case in point is the incident around Cadbury when consumers found worms in the company’s product. Sales volumes dropped, employee morale was hit and retailers refused to display the product. The PR machinery of the company quickly moved into action, in a bid to salvage sales during the Diwali festival period that was coming up. It created an editorial outreach program with media editors across all affected cities, released facts about Cadbury in leading publications in various languages; new packaging was launched to regain consumer confidence, trade was inundated with posters and leaflets about how the incident would not be repeated, a consumer response cell was set up with a toll free number and Cadbury employees were sent regular updates by the Managing Director. In a final move, Cadbury used superstar Amitabh Bachchan as a brand ambassador. Sales returned to pre-incident levels within 8 weeks and festival sales returned to near normal. I personally think this is one of the best examples of how a company leveraged PR for regaining trust with its customers.
The emerging challenges have shaped a new understanding of what “public relations” means and the issues it needs to address. Some of them can be clearly listed. PR must, today:
- Work closely with marketing (but not be marketing) to create awareness, communicate differentiators and create visibility through events and tie-ups.
- Develop and nurture employee goodwill, uphold and strengthen an organizations reputation, keep employees, consumers, shareholders, media etc informed by creating communication programs and channels for interaction.
- Create improved financial communication for organizations and thereby counter negative perceptions, influence investors and raise stock values.
- Create goodwill for organizations within communities so that organizations continue to have a moral license to operate by supporting local community programs in the areas of art, education, urban renewal, sports etc.
- Ensure that government and political interests are maintained by communicating organizational beliefs and postures through open debates, seminars, events, etc.
- Ensure that the impact of natural disasters is minimized on organizations and communities through timely and relevant communication.
How has modern PR addressed these challenges in an increasingly complex and fast-paced global society? The jury is still out on the question — and is likely to be confused while passing judgment. This is because the role of modern PR is expanding, embracing larger societies, encompassing global institutions and values, rapidly changing policies and postures. It is difficult to anticipate the future course that the art and science of PR will take. But so much is certain: its future remains exciting because of its ability to shape the world.