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Pressing matters: is influencing the new public relations?

#overheardinaPRagency. The recent conversation went something like this:

Senior agency type: Changes in the media are really affecting our relationship with journalists.

Interested former journalist: How?

Senior agency type: If I was to launch a new product now I wouldn’t fly a bunch of journalists to Sydney for an event. I’d reach out to a bunch of influencers and put them on a boat on the harbour for the event. We’re much more likely to get the response and impact we’re after, without the pain.

While the principles of influencing aren’t new ­­– focussing on the people who influence an audience rather than targeting that audience directly – the industry behind it has developed rapidly with the prominence of social media.

Many influencers you will have heard of or even follow; Rebecca Judd, vlogger Wengie, Troye Sivan or fitspo types @basebodybabes. Others are lower profile, but with just as big a reach, such as Ethan of Ozzy Man Reviews, or Australian twins RackaRacka.

Traditionally influencers were journalists or public figures who could shape opinion. But in the digital world, influencers have taken on a wider, more commercial meaning where brands, companies and products buy those with large social media followings and media cut-through to promote products or provide with free products to promote.

'It’s one thing to say something to somebody that is somewhat influential, but what influences people is that they see organisations do the right thing.'

Ross Monaghan,
Lecturer, Deakin University

Influencing agency Tribe, which connects influencers to brands, boasts on its website that is has paid more than $4 million to ‘everyday creators for promoting the brands they love’. The marketing and advertising industry now segments influencers into types such as micro and macro influencers.

So has influencing become the new public relations?

Deakin University public relations and communications lecturer Ross Monaghan says influencing has always been public relations. Good communicators have always understood it’s really important to get the right message to your target public so they take notice and take action, he says.

When new students come in, Monaghan explains, they often think public relations is a very narrow vocational area. The opposite is the case. One of the things he tells those students is that high profile public relations is seen as marketing communications and media relations. But most public relations within large organisations and government is actually involved in making things not happen. Public relations is all about influencing – through communication, through policy and through doing the right thing.

‘A lot of public relations practitioners are influencing organisations from within making sure that they are good corporate citizens, so the best public relations for an organisation is to just do what the community expects,’ Monaghan says.

A matter of influence

Writing for GQ magazine in the UK, marketing and advertising expert Tom Goodwin says outside of Instagram, influence is more about thought leadership. If you are influential (as opposed to being an influencer) your influence comes from trust and credibility and from being an impartial advisor.

‘Online influencers are generally only influential about online,’ Goodwin says. ‘They’ve mastered the art of follow-backs, buying likes, retweets, giveaways, Photoshop and using bots. People with real influence – like, say, a senior executive at Apple or trend leading artists, or the fashion bloggers that actually matter, would never dream of this.’

With the rise and rise of Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and LinkedIn there has never been more ways to target and reach audiences. Social media is just the latest channel says Monaghan.

And from day one of public relations, organisations have been giving people like celebrities things from dresses, clothes, runners, so that those celebrities are seen to be users of these products. ‘Anyone who wants to influence others will look to directly influencing people and look for key opinion leaders, sometimes that’s through high profile people, people who are influential,’ Monaghan says.

Cutting through the noise: The biggest challenges facing public relations

Social media is the main point of difference Monaghan sees in modern public relations, as individuals, brands and organisations understand they can be their own media outlet. ‘This can make the job of communicating sometimes more difficult because anyone can have a voice or express an opinion on a product or service or a social issue,’ he says.

As the media landscape changes, and outlets contract, people and organisations can bypass ‘traditional’ media to target audiences, Monaghan argues, and that can make it harder to get traditional media coverage.

He sees the changing nature of media and consumers as the biggest challenge to public relations;  trying to keep up to date with the latest technology, understanding how people are consuming news and information, how they want it delivered.

Most of the influencing that public relations practitioners do is through their organisations and the way their organisation actually behaves. ‘It’s one thing to say something to somebody, “that is somewhat influential” but what influences people is that they see organisations do the right thing,’ he says.

Interested in how the media and communication work? Find out more about studying a degree in communications at Deakin University. 

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Ross Monaghan
Ross Monaghan

Lecturer in public relations, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

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