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The new generation of PR are already online

April 27, 2009

The venue for the debate on who controls online PR, organised by New Media Knowledge, was in such an intimidatingly trendy bar in Hoxton (North East London) that I thought it was bound to be full of techies come straight from their cutting-edge digital agencies to flummox us mere PRs with their jargon.

In fact, the debate was rather gentlemanly and was characterised by scrupulous politeness by each team towards the other – as well as a restrained use of jargon.

All four men of the panel (Stuart Bruce of Wolfstar, Antony Mayfield of iCrossing, James Warren of Weber Shandwick and Roger Warner of Content and Motion) described themselves as PR men. They were debating the motion:

“This house believes that the PR industry has lost its ability to lead clients in a new media landscape.”

A sizeable amount of the debate was about business models, budgets and the influence of marketing departments. (In the end everyone agreed magnanimously there was a big enough cake for everyone to share, PR and digital agencies alike.) There was a brief skirmish about whether PRs focus too much on press relations at the expense of other aspects of reputation management, but relatively little discussion about strategy.

Yet shouldn’t the people leading the clients have a strategic view of how they can thrive (or even just survive) in a new media landscape?

Online PR

When it comes down to it, online PR is just a new collection of tools, techniques and communications channels. Any tool, no matter how shiny and new, no matter how intimidating its jargon or how complex its technology, needs to be applied as part of a strategy if it is to deliver any long-term or sustainable outcome.

What’s important to PR – as the art of managing reputation and building relationships – is not so much which tool you use but how and why you use it. Who do you need to communicate with? What channels do they use? What messaging resonates with them? What conversation do you expect to have with them? And most of all, what outcomes do you want to see from that communication? The core of the PR’s skills set lies in being able to develop a strategy that addresses these questions.

A new generation of PR students, including our own at the University of Westminster, are learning how to include both online and offline tools to do just that. Many are already comfortable with online technologies. And they expect to work at a strategic level using whichever channels are best suited to manage their client or employers’ reputation.

To my mind it was James Warren of Weber Shandwick who cut to the core of the issue when he questioned whether the PR industry is being held back by the legacy of old PR, by PR dinosaurs who don’t get the significance of new media.

The space is wide open for a strategic, tech-savvy generation of PR graduates to lead their clients and employers confidently into this new media landscape.

Michaela O’Brien
Senior Lecturer,
Department of Journalism and Mass Communications
University of Westminster

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