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Modern day PR

Challenges of Modern Day PR Pros Versus Those of Decades Past

Michelle Garrett

Feb 7, 2020

It used to be that one of the biggest challenges PR pros faced was faxing a press release to 100 reporters—one at a time. (Yes, some of us remember those days.)

Today, everyone is online 24/7, creating a completely different environment for those of us who communicate for a living. While the Internet has made many facets of our jobs so much easier—like getting those press releases out—it’s also created an entirely new set of challenges.

Here, we take a look at how the digital world has changed some of our challenges as PR pros.

Crisis Communications – No Longer the Luxury of Time to Plan a Course of Action

Gone are the days when you had the time to prepare a statement in the event of a crisis.

John Thompson, founder, and principal of Critical Communications and assistant professor at Southwestern University just north of Austin, has worked with some of the biggest tech companies in the world, including Intel, Dell and Motorola. He was at ground zero in one of the first Internet-driven scandals, the Pentium processor crisis at Intel in the 1990s.

“In those days, we had hours we could work with in getting back to the media. Today, time is compressed to minutes, and that puts a premium on both truthfulness and reasoning that isn’t necessarily understood,” Thompson says.

A crisis communications plan is imperative for businesses to have prepared in advance. It takes forethought to have a framework in place for communicating in any crisis, be it fake news, an accident or a social media misstep. And, brands often don’t get a second chance to make it right—with social media, judgment by consumers can be swift—and at times, harsh.

Cameron Craig, head of global corporate communications at Polycom who spent ten years on Apple’s PR team and is also a speaker and consultant, cites Zappos as an example of how to handle bad news well. When Zappos announced extensive layoffs, they did something unique. The company put all its internal messaging on its external site.  

“While layoffs are never good news, the way they handled it strengthened their brand over time,” says Craig. “People appreciated their transparency.”

Keeping News “Under Wraps”

Craig also points out that in the Internet age, it’s tougher to keep secrets—if you can keep them at all.

In his days at Apple, Craig says they’d plan big launch events to unveil new technology. In most instances, the team was able to keep the news a secret until the big unveil.

“Today, when you have products that take a long time to develop, it’s much harder to keep them under wraps,” Craig explains.

In these cases, he suggested it may be better to “embrace the leak.” Yes, some brands will release information internally, expecting that it will leak.

An example Craig cites occurred when Tim Cook of Apple recently shared some news first on the employee intranet. It was then leaked, ending up on TechCrunch and other online publications—but the information was written in a way that seemed as if Apple understood there’d be a leak.

Craig suggests this may be a wiser way to approach situations such as these.

“If you understand that the wall between internal and external communications is coming down, you can communicate differently,” he says.

What About the Ethical Dilemmas PR Pros Face—Do They Differ Today?

When it comes to ethical dilemmas, how have times changed? Not as much as one might think.

“PR people have always dealt with issues of defending controversial positions, or finding a way of delivering a position they disagree with after losing an internal battle,” Thompson says.

Craig adds, “While it’s changed in some ways, it’s still kind of the same. On any given day, reporters are coming to companies asking us for our opinion on politics, scandals and so on. We’ve always had to look at each case and consider the ramifications for our brand.”

“Those issues still exist, but they now take place in a world that is described as ‘post-truth’ or ‘post-fact’ where the social underpinnings of reality appear to be open to debate,” Thompson continued. “That isn’t a PR person’s dream—it’s a nightmare.”

Thompson believes that PR pros have to step up to enforce ethics more than ever before. “Given their unique position in understanding the implications of corporate initiatives and possessing the communication skills that corporations need to win in a fast-changing marketplace where driving transitions are everything, PR pros have an opportunity here.”

The Internet Has Made It Easier to Self-Publish

While the Internet may have created new challenges for the modern-day PR pro, it’s also created its share of advantages. Self-publishing is one both Craig and Thompson cited.

“It’s easier than ever to self-publish through platforms like LinkedIn, Medium and the Huffington Post,” says Craig. “By using them properly, you can reach a pre-existing audience, rather than build one from scratch.”  

Thompson says a lot of enterprises are still working to connect the ability to self-publish with their corporate strategy.

“There’s a tendency among many to devolve the strategy to counting clicks rather than building a position in the marketplace,” he cautions. “If you post pictures of the latest Marvel superheroes, you will likely get clicks. You will not get a position in the marketplace.”

And so, the role of the PR practitioner is evolving.

“Today’s PR pro is responsible for striking the right journalistic tone in the content produced by a firm so that someone truly wants to read a blog or contributed article in an executive’s name and will find something compelling about it beyond a product pitch,” Thompson says.

Sure, the evolution of technology creates new dilemmas—but it also helps us move in valuable new directions.

Ultimately, being a modern PR pro requires learning new lessons—and sometimes it requires unlearning old ones. To keep up on the skills needed, download our ebook, 11 Lessons That PR Professionals Need to Learn in a Digital World.