Chatrooms, podcasts, blogs, webcasting, RSS, digital interactive TV, 3G mobile telly-phones, vidcasts, blackberry, broadband, wi-fi – the list goes on. The range of gadgets and electronic communication media that have exploded on to the scene in the past five years is having a significant impact on today’s PR practitioner, particularly in times of crisis, writes Susan Black
According to a survey of 20 UK Public Relations practitioners:
- Over 80 percent of respondents have researched and prioritised their key stakeholders
- 94 percent of respondents were involved in crisis PR and all respondents, to varying degrees, found new media technology effective in a crisis
- A well-rehearsed crisis management team was cited as the top priority, followed in joint second place by two-way dialogue with stakeholders and that staff should learn about the crisis from management
- 100 percent said they manually monitored the electronic environment, but the “holy grail” of an effective, thorough and cost-efficient e-monitoring system was still somewhat elusive
- Only 6 percent of respondents actively engaged and interacted with blogs on behalf of their organisation or agency clients PR practitioners increasingly use electronic newswires to filter messages via the traditional Press release or statement out to the media in times of crisis
- Practitioners recognised the importance of the corporate website as a tool to host regular factual updates in times of crisis
Modern PR practitioners find themselves in the precarious position where messages about a crisis, or possible crisis, can be instantly communicated worldwide. And it is thanks mainly to the power and widespread use of the internet, it can be by ordinary citizens as well as the media.
The relatively unregulated nature of the internet has provided the means for a rise in citizen journalism — and as a result, the supply-push era is moving towards a demand-pull environment. The effects of this changing climate are having a significant impact on how PR practitioners operate. But how widely are these new and innovative communication channels being adopted and what impact are they having on the contemporary Press office?
This was the dissertation subject for a small-scale research project I conducted last year for my MSc in Public Relations.
The project was split into two main phases. Phase one involved asking 20 PR practitioners in UK commercial, public sector and PR agencies whether they would complete an e-questionnaire about the impact of new media technology on crisis PR.
The e-questionnaire contained both qualitative and quantitative questions formulated from the literature review and Fern-Banks’ crisis communication best practice model. In total 16, or 80 percent, of the e-questionnaires were returned and four practitioners were then asked to participate in phase two of the project. That involved reviewing and analysing the results from the e-questionnaire and using the data to conduct four semi-structured, in-depth telephone interviews in order to give the study additional rich qualitative primary data.
The key findings indicate that interestingly, despite the rise of citizen journalism only 6 percent of respondents are actively engaged and interact with blogs. Most respondents are aware of blogs, RSS and other twoway dialogical tools but have not had cause to become engaged or involved other than to monitor issues or potential issues and incorporate the information into the organisational
Is this a missed opportunity or is it mainly down to lack of knowledge or experience of this new phenomenon? A recent report in The Guardian suggests nearly two-thirds of businesses are unaware of the threat disgruntled bloggers pose to their organisations.
Blogs, RSS, vidcasts, online forums and podcasts are relatively new electronic tools that are seen by some as being for techies, not mainstream PR practice. This could explain why only 6 percent of respondents use such channels to engage with online stakeholders in two-way dialogue.
That said, one respondent, a director with a London PR agency and an active blogger on behalf of clients, outlined how his agency managed to prevent a major crisis by monitoring and participating in an influential blog.
His client’s high-profile UK consumer product launch was threatened by inaccuracies and potentially damaging rumours on a blog and the respondent countered by blogging back with extra information that neutralised the rumours prelaunch. One reason cited why the strategy worked particularly well was that the bloggers felt they were being taken seriously enough for a significant brand to engage in a two-way dialogue with them and seek their opinions and offer extra, informative facts.
The debate on how important blogs are to brands is a topical one, which of course is being fuelled by individual and organisational experience. My research suggests that, to a degree, all respondents embrace technology as part of their crisis PR.
But this could be defined as “traditional” technology such as email, online Press offices, corporate websites and newswire functions to disseminate crisis messages to the media. The question now is whether the advent of more interactive media and citizen journalism with restricted or no gatekeeper roles could herald a new era for PR practitioners? Are practitioners missing a trick, or are corporate decision-makers just not switched on to the potential threats and benefits that blogs, podcasts and other new media channels bring?
A recent survey by the web-tracking organisation Technorati shows blogs are growing at an exponential rate, with the number doubling every five months. The trouble with new technology is the rapid speed of change, which makes it hard for PR practitioners to weigh the risk versus reward of investing time and money into developing contacts and engaging in online dialogue with virtual stakeholders.
Understanding how to get messages across using these largely unmanaged channels and integrating them into the PR strategy can be a challenge for practitioners lacking experience in this new phenomenon. Yet broadband, wi-fi and 3G technology mean consumers have never been so able to voice their opinion in a public forum.
Couple this with research from Benchmark Research Ltd, a full service market research agency (www.benchmarkresearch. co.uk) which suggests most journalists go online before writing articles about organisations and it seems these new media channels are likely to remain in one form or another.
Recent research from Factiva for PR Week suggests top executives from Lloyds TSB, BP and Vodafone all streamed interviews for investors over the internet in the past 12 months while others such as BAA have doubled the number of webcasts produced in the same period.
BBA believes Press releases or website presentations are no longer adequate for people who want access to clear, high-quality, real-time information in a format that suits them. Increasingly, consumers go online to look for information and independent views on an organisation or product and will read and be influenced by blogs, podcasts and the like. It is therefore important to monitor what is being said about your brand pre-, during and post-crisis.
We have seen how monitoring and engaging in an influential blog pre-launch, a potential crisis was avoided.
However new media channels mean PR practitioners are being faced with a global, 24/7 electronic challenge quite different from traditional media monitoring. Assessing effectively what is being said on potentially hundreds of new media channels is a massive challenge and my research suggests this type of “holy grail” monitoring is still elusive.
All respondents monitor new media channels manually, something they recognise is not ideal. It tends to be sporadic and informal, so using it for any PR or business recommendations would be subjective and open to criticism. Is the jury still out on how significant blogs and the new media mediums are to brands?
It is still relatively uncharted territory and some brands get it wrong. But some get it right and are successful so it is clear they are feeling the impact and taking the phenomenon seriously.
Will it be the case, as with the internet, that where the big brands go, others follow in their masses?
It is too early to say but we do know there is a massive rise of citizen journalism being fuelled by technology devices. In a world where consumers, disgruntled employees and other stakeholders are getting smarter at finding innovative ways to get their voices heard, contemporary practitioners operating in an ever changing PR climate will, no doubt, be keeping a very close eye on the new media technology debate.