New media and the PR practice: An overview

Image source: NMC Commission on Standards and Excellence

With drastic changes in technology in the past few decades, human interaction, too, has changed to adapt. Communication possibilities, persuasion strategies, and the exercise of power have shifted from what they used to be. Now, there is connectivity and interactivity on a global scale as the media through which we communicate becomes fragmented and networked as never before. Millions more people now have access to endless new communication channels across the world wide web.

This shift in how humans interact with one another gives impetus to the practice of public relations to follow suit. The field of PR must adapt and utilize emerging media because their publics are already onboard and expecting to get information from their search engine, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, wikis, and more. If a PR practitioner isn’t proactive in adapting their strategies to these media, their organization’s public outreach goals will not be met.

The concepts of mass communications and micro-communications are important when looking at the shift in public outreach. Once, the only way to push a message to a broad audience was to go through the channels of the newspaper or radio stations, these being the only available means of mass communication. An organization’s message was crafted and sent through the print or airwaves, a process which took time and resources. Because of the inflexibility of these forms of media, an organization’s message was static and one-sided, unresponsive to public needs and concerns.

Micro-communications, on the other hand, “are infinitely more flexible, in terms of timescale, reach and influence” (Phillips and Young). Micro-communications can be anything from a phone call, to a meeting, to an instant message. These communications are intended for only small groups to give and receive information as well as deliver feedback.

Now, in the age of social media domination, micro-communication outlets can serve a much more powerful purpose. An organization’s Facebook page, Twitter feed, webpage, and blog are avenues for two-sided communication, where a PR practitioner can send and receive messages to and from various publics. This is important for managing an organization’s image. PR practitioners can search the web for complaints about a service or product and address the issue directly; they can also be responsive to questions and concerns consumers may have.

In this way, emerging media have made the practice of PR audience-dominated, where the publics are more than mere recipients of a message but are instead active participants in engaging in such media and creating the meaning behind the communication. Through these new and fast channels, PR practitioners can exchange information and ideas with publics in a way that builds a relationship with them, also termed “relationship optimization” by Phillip and Young.

This makes communication both powerful and dangerous. Through online communication, one can build or break down an organization’s reputation, image, and relationship with the public. While organizations can communicate more freely with publics, they no longer have the sole ability to control their message; organization managers are no longer the “gatekeepers” of meaning. Once a message is online, it can be used, transformed, and reinterpreted by anyone who has access to a computer or mobile phone. This is known as the “writable web.” Online communication naturally becomes porous as, according to Phillips and Young, “the boundaries and distinctions between audience and producer are vanishing.”

This also means that power dynamics have shifted. To communicate is to exercise power. As people gain access to the myriad channels of communication, we see average people increasingly engaging in dialogue, and by engaging in dialogue, they are constructors of meaning in the messages they send and receive. Where once communication was a top-down push of information to the audience, there is instead an interconnected web of communicative possibility, where anyone in the chain of power has access to creating and interpreting messages. The power of media itself no longer resides in circulation size, but rather in the interconnectedness of channels through which one communicates.

However, traditional methods of communication and PR practice are not wholly irrelevant. Rather, traditional PR and online PR help each other build and reaffirm an organization’s presence and purpose. Though PR strategy necessarily adopts emerging media, it does not totally replace traditional media or PR practice.

Research for this topic was primarily found in Online Public Relations by David Phillips and Philip Young.