PR: Sustainable or Redundant?

Many industries have come and gone. In light of the fast-paced changes in communication and the creation of new channels for the distribution of messages, the field of PR must prove that it is still relevant today.

“Group of girls puff at cigarettes as a gesture of ‘freedom’”: That was the front-page headline of the New York Times on the morning of 1 April 1929. Women smoking in public – in the late twenties a social scandal. The media coverage of this spectacle during New York’s Easter Parade on 31 March 1929 was massive. Even today, the image of these ten recruited debutantes, playing the roles of women’s rights advocates, walking up and down Fifth Avenue and smoking cigarettes, is regarded as one of the earliest and most celebrated publicity stunts. It has strongly influenced our understanding of public relations today. In short, the “Torches of Freedom” campaign is a milestone in PR history. Cigarettes as torches of freedom and power, women smoking as a gesture of emancipation and independence – Edward L. Bernays succeeded in doing what was unimaginable at the time: doubling American Tobacco’s female market. Bernays, who was Sigmund Freud’s nephew and a forerunner in the field of public relations, made cigarettes and women smoking in public socially acceptable with a single symbolic act.

Laying down the roots
Like his rival Ivy Lee, Bernays is one of the successful pioneers of modern mass persuasion techniques – a term whose meaning has changed drastically over the years. Bernays’ work still influences today’s PR industry, even though this industry has evolved significantly since his time. Especially in the past twenty years, we have seen technological advancements and innovations that have greatly influenced and altered our perception of communication – both at a personal and a professional level: “Technology may have forced change in the way organizations and individuals communicate, as well as how they access information and news, particularly in the last decade,” wrote Claudia Pritchitt in an IPRA (International Public Relations Association) Thought Leadership Essay. She is a member of IPRA and Director of Pritchitt Partners, a specialist communications and public relations consultancy operating in the financial services industry.

Nowadays, each hit of the refresh button makes new information or news available in the World Wide Web. The notifications and push-up messages of news apps or social media on our mobile devices continuously vie for our attention. This has been made possible by the almost unlimited access to the Internet, both at home and on the go. We are placed in a constant state of “information overload” because we are unable to process all the impressions and data that we are bombarded with on a daily basis. This development has had a negative impact on our attention span.

And this situation has also had a dramatic effect on the publishing and public relations industry. With a shift away from traditional print media toward the sphere of readily available online content on a multitude of different channels, there has also been a change in the ways the PR industry produces news content. Waiting times have almost been eliminated by the 24-hour news cycle that is shaped to match our fast-paced lifestyles, and we have been conditioned to expect an immediate response from companies when it comes to communicating news about their businesses. With the rise of social media and the new ways of communicating with a target audience, classic PR tools such as press releases are now drowning in a pool filled with different forms of content. On top of all that, the public has lost trust in PR and the media in general. This raises the question as to whether classic media work is still needed in today’s world of accelerated news cycles and information overload. Are PR agencies still relevant today or have they become redundant?

While it is true that the above-mentioned changes in the media landscape as well as the shifts in the demands and expectations placed on PR have been dramatic, this does not automatically mean the final demise of PR. After all, public relations encompasses competencies that go far beyond conventional press work, enabling it to remain relevant as a profession in the future.

Shifting competencies and the need to adapt
One of these competencies is the sustainable role that content plays in PR compared to the fleetingness of the channels that transport it. This will not change in the future. In our fast-moving media landscape, the relevance of communication channels may change rapidly – right now we have YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram and Snapchat. Who knows what will be the next trend? The demand for good content, however, will continue to exist. And PR companies are specialists in creating meaningful content. They help companies to achieve a credible and, above all, trustworthy identity. At the same time, professional and target-group-specific content creates added value for users and the public. To achieve all this, it is essential that content-driven communication is always based on journalistic quality criteria. Only in this way can PR agencies and their clients establish trustworthy media brands that are recognized in today’s flood of information. PR know-how and journalistic skills will be needed more than ever in the future. In times of fake news and declining public trust in PR and public media, the work of PR professionals and agencies as well as the content they produce must be transparent, trustworthy and credible.

And PR has so much to offer: “It’s no longer about simple content delivery. Rather, it’s about building strong communities. It’s about creating unforgettable brand experiences, generating product awareness and building strong contacts to our clients’ customers – in short, it’s about providing added value,” says Michael Tobias, founder of the owner-managed PR agency Michael Tobias Content Marketing and member of IPRA. In short, PR does not simply provide good content but also knows how to combine different forms of media to obtain the best possible effect.

As the saying goes: “A picture is worth a thousand words.” While there is no disputing the truth of this, it is also essential to embed that picture in the right setting to unleash its full potential. PR professionals have developed specialist know-how in this area.

Reacting to change
PR has the ability to evolve in order to remain relevant as a profession. This is its greatest strength. By reacting to the challenges of its time and the ever-changing media landscape, it can constantly expand its range of competencies and flexibly shift its focus. The role of PR is underlined by a new definition that was adopted by the IPRA Board during its meeting in Yerevan, Armenia, in September 2019 as a reaction to the modern demands placed on PR: “Public relations is a decision-making management practice tasked with building relationships and interests between organisations and their publics based on the delivery of information through trusted and ethical communication methods.”

To see just how flexible and sustainable PR is, we only need to look back at its long and varied history. The beginnings of PR go back to the Stone Age and Ancient Egypt, with cave paintings and Egyptian hieroglyphs being regarded as the earliest forms of communication. Thousands of years later, PR as a paid profession originated around 1900. The former Boston journalist and, alongside Bernays, one of the pioneers of PR, Ivy Lee, founded the first PR agency and defined the goals and tasks of PR more closely. In the 1920s, the formalization of the PR profession began: Edward Bernays wrote the first textbook on PR, taught the first course at New York University and landed a PR coup with his ’Torches of Freedom’ campaign.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the first public relations associations were created in response to the rising prominence of PR. An important goal was to establish codes of ethics and conduct to which practitioners and members committed themselves. These measures lent validity, credibility and authority to the public relations profession, and thus its rise continued. The 1970s and 1980s are regarded as the golden age of the PR industry and PR associations. In the 1990s, PR evolved significantly. The profession shifted from classic press work to conceptual work. Even to this day, PR work is increasingly focused on the planning and generation of marketing campaigns. The most recent step in the history of PR is the new definition of the industry according to IPRA which, as we have seen, emphasizes the ability of this profession to change. This flexibility can be seen, for instance, in the way PR agencies have learned to integrate the opportunities offered by the multitude of new media channels into successful campaigns for their clients. In the beginning, the newspaper was the only medium. Radio and television then followed, and today there are the almost limitless opportunities that the Internet provides.

The history of PR thus proves that the profession has always been able to adapt and evolve to contemporary times. It must use this ability in the future, too, so that it continues to remain relevant.

Why telling good stories matters
Flexibility in adapting to change, quickly reacting to new circumstances and adhering to a code of conduct are not the only reasons why PR is still around today. When comparing PR campaigns that have been successful and memorable in the past, one element becomes evident: They all tell a story and create a connection between a brand or product and the audience.

Good storytelling is what lies at the heart of each good PR strategy. And PR agencies have specialized know-how in telling good stories and creating content.

Michael Tobias says in his IPRA Thought Leadership Essay: “The rise of Content Marketing, i.e. the appreciation of professional content with added value for users, generates a strong demand for communication professionals with a keen eye for the interests and wishes of media users. To put it simply, there is a growing call for PR professionals with journalistic skills.”

And Valerie Pinto, CEO of Weber Shandwick India, writes in her IPRA Thought Leadership Essay that for a campaign to be successful it should be “delivered across many platforms but grounded by an essential focus on compelling, evocative storytelling.”

A good story evokes emotions and captures the attention of the audience. In short, it stays anchored in people’s minds. This works because we are all used to telling and listening to stories, for instance when we are together with friends and family or when we watch a movie. Stories help us to make sense of the world and store information better. A story is easier to remember than a fact.

There are different ways to communicate content. While the written word seems like the natural choice, it is not always the best option to convey information. In combination with a picture or video or as part of visual communication, it can create deeper and more lasting impressions. The form the content takes has to fit the message and suit the channel.

“This expanded PR toolbox opens the door for PR professionals to drive their messages, reach larger audi-ences, and deliver stronger results. But only with the right content. Whether engaging through print media, live streams or social channels, compelling storytelling will likely always be the key determinant of success in our industry,” continues Pinto in her Essay. “In the end, it will always be important for PR professionals to remember that focus. While communication platforms will change, audiences move and mediums evolve – the core of what we do will always be to deliver a compelling and effective story. Regardless of how technology shifts, audiences will always connect with genuine compelling, human stories.”

A never-ending story
Edward Bernays was already convinced of the longevity of public relations. In his reference book “Propaganda”, published in 1928, he reported in detail on the aspects of the PR profession, thereby laying the foundations for modern, targeted communication. Even 90 years later, his work still has great significance today, although, of course, certain terms have undergone a major change in meaning. One such term is “propaganda”, which no longer has anything in common with our current understanding of public relations and which has received a negative connotation during the course of the 20th century. Nevertheless, Bernays views remain ground-breaking in the field of PR, his words more relevant than ever: “Propaganda will never die out. Intelligent men must realize that propaganda is the modern instrument by which they can fight for productive ends and help to bring order out of chaos.”

“Public relations is a decision-making management practice tasked with building relationships and interests between organisations and their publics based on the delivery of information through trusted and ethical communication methods.“

International Public Relations Association (IPRA)