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What the PR practitioner of the future needs to know

If the mention of public relations conjures up images of long lunches, press releases and ‘spin’, you might want to update your perceptions of the industry.

Like many other fields, including the media, digital disruption has hit PR in a big way – changing the way practitioners not only get their messages out, but the way in which others interact online with those messages.

‘If you think back to the days of face-to-face or legacy media (such as newspapers), you had more control over the environment and the context, but of course social media changed that,’ says Deirdre Quinn-Allan, a senior lecturer in communications at Deakin.

Social media, the gatekeeper bypass

Public relations is no longer about simply about getting your story to a journalist and generating as much positive press as possible, Quinn-Allan says.

‘We would say that’s a very unsophisticated view of public relations, and we’re not saying that doesn’t happen, but that’s not what we teach and that’s not what we advocate.’

PR practitioners now have multiple channels to share their messages, including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Then there’s different technologies to consider, such as the various sized screens people are reading on – plus the fact that social media, and plenty of other media, runs 24/7.

‘These are all things that our students are going to have to engage with and think about,’ Quinn-Allan says.

‘But (the advent of social media) also means you can bypass the gatekeeper – if we think of the journalist as the gatekeeper. Now we have that more sort of direct relationship.’

Less control, more conversation

It’s now widely accepted that PR people don’t control the message. Rather, they’re just part of a wider conversation, Quinn-Allan says.

‘There are contexts where you do stay on brand… but it’s got to be appropriate for the task. If you try to impose your rules on to certain platforms, you don’t own them, and then it just seems like that kind of cynical, PR spin speak.’

Quinn-Allan says the approach to mediating a PR message on Facebook, for instance, will depend on the type of business or organisation.

For example, on a Facebook page for a not-for-profit that provides counselling or support to people experiencing trauma, conversations will likely need to be mediated or monitored to prevent inappropriate comments.

‘Whereas if you’re a PR person or a marketing communications person working in customer service or it might be a comms role, say for Telstra or a big brand, you don’t want to be seen to be controlling or mediating; it’s a different type of relationship,’ Quinn-Allan says.

'The advent of social media also means you can bypass the gatekeeper – if we think of the journalist as the gatekeeper. Now we have that more sort of direct relationship.'

Deirdre Quinn-Allan,
Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

Blurred lines between roles

PR is no longer a one-way, or even a two-way conversation. Likewise, the lines between, say, a PR practitioner and a marketer have also become less clear.

‘We use the word public relations and it’s really an umbrella catch-all for a multitude of communications roles,’ Quinn-Allan says.

PR students often also study subjects in journalism and digital media. They should also learn to understand marketing terms, concepts and approaches, as many are likely to end up in marketing roles – especially if starting out in a smaller organisation where the two roles are blurred.

How to futureproof yourself

So how can PR students not only keep up with the changes already happening, but futureproof themselves in an uncertain environment?

Quinn-Allan says one of the most important strategies is to simply stay curious, and be prepared to keep learning. Networking and having the guts to make mistakes are also critical.

She says more graduates are going it alone – not just as freelancers, but actually setting up their own agencies.

The new tech skills you’ll need

As technology continues to rapidly evolve, PR people will need to know how to use different platforms and technologies.

Artificial intelligence, virtual reality and augmented reality are all likely to impact on the PR industry – for example through virtual events, headsets or 3D worlds. Then there’s haptics: technology that uses the sense of touch to enable various tasks.

In the PR industry, the use of such technology will eventually only be limited by imagination, Quinn-Allan says.

Being able to evaluate metrics will also be a larger part of PR in the future, she says.

‘Simple vanity metrics such as likes and followers, well that’s great, but that doesn’t actually tell you much about what’s going on inside the heads of the people who are following.  So how do you translate that into something meaningful and how do you measure that?’

With an onslaught of new information, including big data, PR practitioners will also need to be mindful of being good citizens, says Quinn-Allan.

‘They are going into a complex world and when you’re working in the persuasion industry, you have a duty of care, a moral duty – so you need to be thinking about your behaviour and your actions.’

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Deirdre Quinn-Allan
Deirdre Quinn-Allan

Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

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