The Evolution of PR
Account Director, Tara Mulholland, reflects on how PR has changed (and hasn’t changed) over the years.
I can vividly remember my very first day of paid work as a PR graduate with an agency that was opening their doors in WA. I was not sure exactly what I was walking in to, but I was pumped to spend my days writing and pitching media releases.
In the months / years / decades that followed, I quickly learnt that “PR” can mean very different things to different people, extending well beyond media releases.
For some we are the go-to for all kinds of miscellaneous communications activities such as ‘getting media coverage’. For others PR is a strategic function linking communications activities with business objectives and for others still we serve a much more set purpose and project-based role – whether it be for media liaison, generating publicity or event coordination.
I set out to write about the changes I have seen in PR over the years – and some of the changes have certainly been dramatic in terms of how we work and how traditional PR is viewed. However, what really became clear is that no matter how much the tools and channels have evolved, the fundamentals of PR and its essential role within organisations really hasn’t changed at all.
What has changed: Where audiences are This has been one of the most obvious shifts since the 90s and early noughties. When I got my snazzy green Motorola flip-phone, I never would have dreamt that one day these devices would not only bring the news as it breaks to the palm of our hands but would be used to actually create news and public conversation.
Audience expectations (and attention spans) have changed dramatically over this time, with content shifting very much online, on demand and tailored to suit interests. Trends move quickly, algorithms deliver content to suit individual preferences and news is broken in real time. Attracting our target audiences’ attention – and keeping it long enough to leave an impression – requires thinking outside the box about the story we are telling and the channels we are using.
News headlines are working overtime to grab attention and get the click-throughs. By the time the nightly news rolls around – for those tuning in to free-to-air TV in the evening - major events and news has already broken and been circulated widely online. At the same time, we have seen a huge shift in the media landscape in WA, with far less space for community stories and promotional editorial content.
Social media was at one stage a nice to have for businesses, something many clients viewed as a daunting prospect of opening the floodgates to a public, two-way conversation with audiences. Some were extremely hesitant to venture onto social media channels at first. Fast forward to now and having a social media presence is a given.
Once the fear of being on social media passed for most organisations, it started to play a central role in communications strategies. Social media provides a way for brands to publish and promote content themselves with a reach beyond website visitors or email subscribers, generating buzz and growing their audiences without reliance purely on earned and paid media. It also creates opportunities to define audiences, customise content and track engagement.
PR and marketing activities increasingly overlap. Rather than planning and operating in silos, integrated communications strategies are the smartest way to bring paid, earned and owned media plans together to amplify campaigns, reinforce messages and deliver results.
What hasn’t changed: What connects with audiences
While PR often gets put in the ‘media relations’ box, it has always been about much more than traditional media engagement. Effective PR connects brands with its stakeholders, through community engagement, internal communications, marketing communications, media relations, event management, Government relations... and everything in between.
PR is largely about storytelling and the basis of an effective story is human connection. This can mean creating a memorable moment that evokes emotions and helps to position a brand in the minds of stakeholders. It can also mean expressing empathy or providing a rational and open response to balance a negative situation or narrative.
Ultimately, we are working in a different media landscape than the 90’s but what makes a good story has never changed, just as what connects with people hasn’t. A good story has timeliness, relevance and is relatable. A great story engages people’s emotions and imaginations.
As for those miscellaneous comms activities, there are all kinds of quirky things we end up doing in PR. Just off the top of my head I can recall wrangling 150 red balloons through the city, setting off confetti cannons inside the office, borrowing my children from school to play cricket with Adam Gilchrist and setting off an experimental electrical fire – all in the name of doing whatever it takes to create these memorable moments and tell an impactful story.
While the communications toolbox and the traditional role of PR have both continued to evolve, the role of a good communications strategy and effective storytelling remains key to engaging internal and external audiences.