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Social spin: the new world of public relations

When convicted drug smuggler Schapelle Corby was granted permission to return to Australia in May, the media was armed and ready to tell her story. But Corby, armed with public relations intelligence and the power of social media, had other ideas.

Before social media gave individuals a platform to project their messages from, mainstream media could easily find a target and pummel them from all angles offering a limited right of reply, if any at all.

But now, celebrities, politicians, convicted drug smugglers – just about anyone – can manage their personal brand through digital channels. Whether it’s a simple personal message or a corporate statement, we no longer need to rely on television, print media or radio to broadcast our messages.

But in many cases, the success or failure of these messages relies on the expertise of the public relations professionals we work with. While this shift has been useful for many individuals and organisations, it has required people working in public relations roles to adapt to changes that have come with digital technology.

Maintaining control: a picture says a thousand words

After Corby set up an Instagram account and posted a picture of her dogs, she began to communicate on her terms. Soon Corby had more than 170,000 followers to share updates with. In addition, she switched flights at the last possible moment, dodging media scrums in what was considered to be a masterful public relations move.

According to Deakin University Lecturer in Communication Ross Monaghan, it’s likely that Corby had received professional advice that enabled her to maintain control of the way the media portrayed her return to Australia. ‘The way she managed is beyond any amateur. It showed a lot of maturity,’ he says. Indeed, many high profile people now have professional publicists operating behind the scenes to help them manage their public image.

However, he points out that had Corby been a business operator selling a product rather than an individual, she would have needed to be prepared for consumer feedback. ‘Social media has given a lot of businesses the ability to talk with consumers,’ he says, but adds that it is a double edge sword for people seeking publicity. ‘Because of social media, consumers can complain back.’

A proactive approach: more than media management

According to Monaghan, the opportunities for public relations professionals are becoming increasingly broad. ‘Some organisations are doing well at engaging the community in social media channels,’ he says, citing organisations such as Telstra, which work to listen to their customer feedback and implement change.

But many public relations practitioners play a pivotal role in the direction and social voice of the organisation. For example, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, who actively advocates for marriage equality, is one of many company spokespeople who mix business with social or political issues. ‘While there’s not a direct commercial benefit, large organisations are seeing the importance of being good corporate citizens,’ Monaghan explains. In these cases it’s the role of the public relations manager to work with senior members of staff to establish the positioning of the business and the way it’s communicated to the public.

'While there’s not a direct commercial benefit, large organisations are seeing the importance of being good corporate citizens.'

Ross Monaghan,
Lecturer in Communication, Deakin University

People in these roles are also working to prevent problems before they happen, rather than arming themselves for crisis management. ‘Good PR practitioners are talking to regulators and government ministers, making sure they are on the early warning radar. They go back to boards and highlight the issues the company needs to start adapting to,’ Monaghan says.

In fact, the sky is the limit in terms of career opportunities. ‘They can be in the driver seat of an organisation and aspire to leadership roles,’ he concludes.

Interested in a communications career? Consider studying a Bachelor of Communication (Public Relations) at Deakin University

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Ross Monaghan
Ross Monaghan

Lecturer in communication, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University
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