There’s no such thing as online or digital PR anymore…

That seems to be the message from Philip Young who, with David Phillips, is editing a special edition of the online journal, PRism on the topic: Beyond Online Public Relations (to be published early in 2012).

Philip claims that “Today ALL PR is Online PR” and is interested in papers that support or challenge the view that it is no longer meaningful to discuss ‘online PR’ (abstracts of up to 500 words to be emailed to philip.young(at) by July 3). The journal will feature imaginative academic papers that expand understanding of the impact of internet on PR theory and practice.

The underlying premise is that we need “a fundamental reassessment of what it means to practice the discipline of PR” as regardless of whether public relations is third party endorsement, reputation management or relationship management, it is necessarily online.

Others may feel that the focus on digital PR has gone too far, or reflects simply another communications channel.  What about the two-thirds of the world’s population who are excluded for reasons of access or ability from the online world?  Or the increasing trend towards commercialisation of cyberspace and its impact on notions that social media facilitates a dialogic form of relationship building PR?  Let alone the consequences of increasingly living life – and managing reputations – in a virtual world?  What does that do to trust, the social sphere and a sense of reality and perspective through which people traditionally view news, public and private information?

From my interest in career perspectives of public relations, I wonder whether practitioners are equipped to forge new paths in an online dominated world?  Will we be reduced to call centre operators typing out tweets and other attempts to “engage” with online communities?  How can we have a point of difference when every digital native can employ digital PR skills?  And will organizations recruit, train and develop PR practitioners of the future into strategic management roles if their entire focus in the online terrain?

Lots to ponder and I’m sure this relates to many practical case studies from those working in PR, as well as dissertations being undertaken by students and academic research initiatives.  The edition is looking for papers which:

  • Discuss the implications for organisational reputation and relationships through the lens of rich online content; internet enabled interactive communication and radical reach;  transparency and radical transparency; and institutional porosity and public exposure
  • Extend thinking about  the shape of public relations practice in 2020 and beyond, paying particular attention to the concept and PR practices affecting  the dominant coalition mediated by the semantic web;  values derived relationship paradigm and the “Internet of Things”
  • Provide case studies that show how imaginative understandings of social media can add a new dimension to understandings of relationship management
  • Articulate evolved forms of existing theory, including the Grunigian Excellence paradigm
  • Offer a roadmap for integrating what was briefly considered to be “online PR” into academic study
  • Examine the contribution of the growing number of social media gurus to practical and theoretical understandings of the discipline
  • Examine the significance of the 2010 Stockholm Accords to practice that is not mediated by internet protocols.

The resulting edition aims to “mark a coming of age of an evolved articulation of a discipline that can play a significant role in organisational activity”.  Agree or disagree?  Answers in no more than 500 words as an initial abstract as above…

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38 Replies to “There’s no such thing as online or digital PR anymore…

  1. Can I just remind everyone who has contributed to or is following this fascinating thread that it is not too late to submit an abstract for the special edition of PRism.

  2. PhiIip: on this issue I too have much more time for Habermas than for Grunig. Moreover, if Grunig’s notion of public has nothing to do with his understanding, or his definition, of the private sphere – then he really does speak bollocks. Public only has meaning as a social category in association with its counterpart: private (just like gay only has any meaning in relation to hetro…otherwise all there is sex). It is tough to talk meaningfully about what the public sphere (still tougher to define the public interest) is about or even what constitutes a particular public of a particular institution…particularly today as the two spheres converge or are at least being radically redefined….

    Judy: I have an aversion to clumsy grammatical constructions expressed by people who claim to be professional communicators. In my experience clumsy words reveal poor thinking. Insights worth having normally have some beauty and elegance to them because the writer sees things clearly.

    I look forward to reading Heather’s debate with Toni…but before we can define the public interest…let’s define the what we mean by the word public (maybe they do that, we’ll see).

    1. Good to see further flurry of discussion on this post. A few thoughts – first, the debate between public and private is perhaps becoming irrelevant as the digital world has made it harder to distinguish between the two. When individuals (including ‘public’ figures) and organizations increasing share everything online and everyone is a self-publisher and self-publicist – where are the boundaries? Maybe a threat to “public” relations – although in reality we’ve always been involved in issues involving both public and private relations (mass, mediated and personal communications and relationship building).

      Secondly, on the word “publics” and particularly targeted ones etc. I quite like the idea of talking about people – so we avoid any grammatical construct and remember that we are all simply human beings who are participating in communications. It also removes the power implications implicit in Grunig’s organizationally focused models. We (PRs and organizations) should not think of the world as revolving around us, nor that we are outside or above those with whom we wish to communicate (ie other people).

      Finally, the real shift of digital communications is that it is less a matter of who we (and our integrated colleagues) wish to engage with, but who wishes to talk about, criticise and possibly build relationships with us. There is this marvellously public reminder that other people are setting agendas which again punctures the myth that organizations (with their PR advisors) are in total control of their own destinies.

  3. It never ceases to amaze me how convoluted PRs can be: “organisational constituency”, instead of public, that’s just yuk!

    The word public is difficult to define and has historical and social roots. Its counterpart is private, a tension I recently explored in my piece on Marshall McLuhan. A preacher’s target public audience might be everybody, but equally it might be just a few people. Moreover, as the public can define itself and demonstrate its power through its opinions and politics – it is a moving target that sometimes has very little to do with real interests and stakes in the game. Moreover, there’s a cascade…the firm’s public is x…the campaigner’s might be y whose support is required to overwhelm the firm’s roots in x (so then both side’s public becomes almost everybody). The public sphere is mediated by the media which can reach virtually everybody – and do so virtually today – and influence how they perceive something. At the heart of this discussion are some of the most profound issues of all about the nature PR and, more importantly, society itself. Trite definitions of the meaning of “public” just don’t do this issue any justice…not to mention the harm done to the English language by certain PR academics.

    1. Paul

      You point would be well made – if Grunig used public in contrast to private. Unfortunately, he doesn’t, he uses it to describe and differentiate between groups of individuals who cluster around a position, usually one of opposition, and is therefore obliged to to use an oxymoronic plural, publics.

      There is a point to this ugly construction in that it interprets the outside world purely in relation to an organisation but that is a significant weakness. Neither society nor its constituent individuals exist soley in relation to organisation, but individuals do interact with each other on a whole variety of levels.

      The Grunig paradigm finds the idea that almost everything happens with little relationship to the organisation rather hard to encompass. The internet significantly strengthens the potential of individuals to interact with each other in a public sphere (I have more time for Habermas than Grunig) and it is this newly expanded interaction that underpins notions that today all PR is online.

      The claim has nothing whatsoever to do with tools!

  4. I applaud the closer, academic look at these trends, the changes as public relations evolves. For my SMB practice, it’s very much about the now. “How can we have a point of difference when every digital native can employ digital PR skills?” My stock reply is: maybe anyone can do it, but not everyone can do it well. Competent practitioners are trained, experienced and yes educated in their disciplines; PRs are communications professionals who know how to reach an audience with a targeted message.. be it a behind-the-scene lobby (per Bill’s comment) or pitch or a tweet.

    Another part of that expertise is researching and knowing the audience. You mentioned the population not online, which is just as important as those online. Should a PR initiative ignore those by going all digital? I’d like to say never.. but if the brand, business, market and key audiences are all integrated, online and social, it would be a waste of resources to not focus on digital. No I don’t think we all need to be on Facebook and Twitter, not everyone should blog, etc. As part of an integrated marcomm mix.. we’re strategists and should look at the whole field so we don’t over or under commit to one arena. For what it’s worth.

    1. Thanks Davina. Your view is welcome – although I take a wider view of PR than being part of an integrated marcomm mix and believe that as strategists we need to be thinking about all company actions (including communications) and how they impact on reputation, stakeholders/publics (audiences for me is too passive a term), etc. The latest post on PRC – Truth to Power – picks up on some of those aspects.

  5. I’d argue it’s been like this for a couple of years already. Everything PR now does is to help establish the client’s brand and increase web traffic (which ultimately means PR can be measured.)

  6. Yes, Judy, thank God there’s life without Facebook! There’s no doubt that you think and exist and are thriving.

    One of the comments above implied that before Twitter “many to one” communication was not possible. But democracy is precisely many to one, or at least many to the few communication. As Nick Clegg discovered on May 5th, election time is when the masses makes us feel the power of their opinions. Moreover, the crowd in all its forms is the many, and at West Ham United our mass anger is directed at the few. Even old-fashioned newspapers, TV and radio acted as the messengers of the many to the few, just as much as they acted as the messengers of the few to the many (speaking truth to power and all that).

    Many to one communication is as old as communication itself etc.. Let’s keep it real about Twitter, which as it happens is a medium I adore.

  7. Much as I like the idea that Bin Laden got caught ebcause he didn’t understand the privacy settings on Facebook, the more serious point is that we are not arguing that all PR has to be conducted (even if it is increasingly difficult to find examples of PR activity that does not have an online component). The assertion that all PR is online was originally part of an argument that distinguishing between PR and Online PR was largely irrelevant.

    Although we are proud of Online Public Relations we are incerasingly aware that it is almost a tautology – PR practitioners practice public relations and it is anachronistic to treat one set of channels as somehow different from the rest. Talking about online PR is like saying, tonight I will watch colour television; although there may be somebody still watching a black and white set they have had from the 1950s the exceptions are so rare that the qualifier is redundant.

    We do of course also hold that the changes brought about by online have so radically changed the nature of communications that new conceptual tools must be devloped for us to understand PR in the online age….

    1. I too love the idea that Bin Laden was caught out by the ever changing privacy settings on Facebook – best laugh this week so far.

      Actually, I agree entirely with your premise that online PR is just PR. Indeed, this was the outcome of the first Internet bubble burst when the PR world finally realised that having websites and engaging in commerce online didn’t fundamentally change what we did, just added a few more techniques and tools.

      As I concluded in the chapter I’ve written for the next edition of Theaker’s PR Handbook:

      The fast moving nature of the digital world can be seen as both an evolution and a revolution for PR theory and practice. It is something that cannot be ignored, but at the same time, it does not signal an end to everything we have ever known about working in this fascinating field.

      1. Heather, I’m late to this discussion but I’d like to weigh in as a ‘veteran’ or ‘senior’ pr – marketing – communications consultant who, by necessity and personal eagerness, has adapted (or at least tried to adapt) to the seemingly exponential technological changes that have in part transformed our day-to-day work lives (and personal lives).

        My thought is that the new social media platforms, the newest mobile apps, the trendiest iPads and PC tablets have collectively become the new tools to help us communicate with our publics. It can be – no, it is – exciting to think how far technology – and our industry – has come in 10, 15, 20 years.

        That said, the skills, creativity, strategy, and knowledge that are needed to truly crystallize a client’s, brand’s or company’s message – and then share that message with targeted publics – yet remains the needed foundation. Without this solid, clearly conceived framework, all the ‘new’ tools in the world won’t effectively hit their target. And without this baseline we could see pr, marketing, and corporate communications become an industry that plays out like the ‘feathers in the wind’ proverb.

        1. Joanne, I forever swore off of using the term “targeted publics” when I received this response (see A2) in our 2008 group interview, Engaging (and grilling) the social side of James Grunig:

          “I dislike the term “targeted” publics. This suggests that the organization should try to limit its publics to those it wants to reach because of its self interests. I believe we have to identify publics from their own perspectives.

          Publics consist of people who are affected by the consequences of an organization’s behaviour—either positively or negatively. Other publics also seek consequences from an organization that the organization might prefer not to provide—such as a pharmaceutical company producing an orphan drug that might cure a disease but is not profitable.

          The great thing about the new media is that publics are free to identify themselves rather than waiting for the organization to identify them. Obviously, therefore, we should engage all publics—at least to the extent that the organization has the resources to engage them.

          If resources are insufficient, then we should prioritize publics according to the impact the organization has on them or the impact they have on the organization. Such a prioritization requires judgement both about social responsibility and about the strategic interests of the organization. JG”

          1. Yup,I think this is right. I use organisational constituency which is also a term used by Jim Grunig a couple of years ago.

            I do, however accept Joanne’s point that the essential PR skills remain intact. But we have to be sure that they are very grounded.

            The neo-radical transparency of 2011 soon un-picks poorly understood or badly applied theory and it will become even more corrosive as time goes by.

            If we were to talk in terms of Vision, Mission, Values and Objectives in planning, for example, we will now jolly well have to know what we mean. Equally, PR led Corporate Responsibility is a challenge. There are many more areas of practice that need very deep knowledge if PR is going to retain its standing among shareholders and the people who sustain them.

    2. Philip,

      … the title of an appropriate paper would read: “The cognitive and emotional effects on the viewer from watching colour television as compared to black and white.. =:-)

      1. “And their implications for PR metatheoretical platforms.” Yes, I still have a black and white TV set I use for watching old movies. Blacks are much richer and the images much crisper.

      1. Considering I’m not on Facebook, I guess I don’t exist, Heather.

        Interestingly, I recently commented on a Sysomos blog post about how heartily tired I was of being told to go to a third-party platform to “Like” a company and get something. Has a Facebook Page Become a Necessity?

        Technological determinism, Paul….or the Sally Fieldsification of companies on Facebook? 😉

  8. Since the subject of bin Laden has come up, may I point out that OBL was running a worldwide organization without access to the Internet or even a telephone? His principal communication channel: the old-fashioned courier.

    1. Not really Bill.
      I have the idea that OBL was a terrific user of digital communication before he decided to be wary of the growing Cia’s hacking skill and, in general, islamic fudamentalism, also thanks to OBL’s expertise, has very much used online comm as well as lobbying.
      More recently OBL decided to turn to couriers who however where everything but old-fashioned. The incredible collection of usb’s found in his hideout are a total demonstration of the relevance that digital have for all those somehoew involved in social action, subversion and government of any organization.

  9. Ah, Don, too right.

    The systems are quite complex and now are part of the professional’s DNA. But is this a given? What does it mean? Is it also part of academic thought? That is why we raise the question for PRism.

  10. David,

    I do get the point about the anatomy of this breaking story transmitted over multiple platforms. Serious PR begins where the breaking story ends. Who is will come on top when it comes to managing the narrative about the aftermath of bin Laden execution. As evidenced by the various versions of the actual killing even “real-time” video account of the killing did’nt seem to help The White House in communicating what really happened. Technology and tactics their mastery should be a given. A long term strategic vision of what an organization wants to achieve while implementing its communications strategy is the domain.

    When did you last hear a stock broker announcing to the world that one has to master online trading systems and software to do their job. Systems are a given. They just do their job. Period. PR should move on and de-emphasise this fetish with delivery systems.

  11. Perhaps the story I wrote last week will help.
    Keith Urbahn would be a great intermediary in the process of lobbying Donald Rumsfeld but the cloud of interactions the story explored shows the level of internet mediation across so many media that bear upon the politician.
    To attempt to influence any politician without such knowledge would be fool hardy.
    In my days in politics, being well informed was the basis of all effective lobbying. That task now requires a consummate capability to know about and use online interaction.

  12. Philip,

    Sorry if I misinterpreted your original meaning. I however do regard Lasswell’s maxim as a generic framework and fretting over who is behind the “who”‘ while relevant in planning context, misses the macro perspective of the framework.

    The debate about the effect of new media on exisisting media has been around since papyrus, printing, silent movies, sound, radio, TV, internet.

    OK, Marshall McLuhan coined an almost equally famous adage: “The medium is the message,” but although pithy, is not as robust as Lasswell’s.

  13. I suppose it was ineviatble that if I presented the claim the “all PR is online PR” without explanation it would invite misinterpretation. Sorry!

    We would hope anyone who read Online Public Relations2nd ed and related work would recognise that David and I work hard to avoid confusing channels and discipline. At one level we would argue that such is the reach of the internet that all reputation and stakeholder relationships are infleunced by online elements; as Toni says, personal relationship are enhanced by the online environment’, and most lobbyists would use some form of internet search as part of the thorough research that defines success in this field.

    Along with many other critical theorists we argue that while observation of practice is clearly useful, it has led to an over-reliance on normative theory, exemplified by Grunigian Excellence. One of the disadvantages of the Grunigian paradigm is that is limited in its user-defined definitions of communication, and we believe that the concepts such as reach and aggregation stretch traditional concepts beyond their limitations.

    Ok, Lasswell’s framing still has relevance but it is a conception that simply could not contemplate the fundamental changes in technology of the last 20 years. It is inherent in Lasswell’s thinking that the “Who” was an organisation, and the transmission of message was via a channel of mass communication, most likely only open to those with significant financial resources. He could not have envisaged a situation in which the who was tens of thousands of individuals creating relevant content, that would be aggregated by search engines and social networks.

  14. Harold Lasswell’s maxim: “Who (says) What (to) Whom (in) What Channel (with) What Effect” is as relevant to PR as it is to communication. We sometimes tend to confuse channels, messages and the eventual effect or outcome.

    While researching channels is important it is the effect — end results that are the goal. This goal is invariably some new behaviour, behaviour change or behaviour retention.

    It is high time PR professionals moved from conscious competence to unconscious competence and finally to reflective competence. This frenzy to redefine the whole discipline seems to surface every time a new channel or variation of an old channel is introduced.

  15. I agree with Bill that there is somewhat a confusion of tool and discipline in this post, but I certainly disagree when he denies that online lobbying is not a highly delicate but important tool of lobbying and, by extension, of public affairs activity today.
    In fact online lobbying is possibly one of the more effective existing tools.
    Up close and personal relationship is very enhanced by the online environment. Most of all however it is online that you can receive instant information to decide how to better lobby offline….

  16. I guess these folks never heard of lobbying. Whether you consider lobbying to be a legitimate PR activity is another matter, but I don’t ever see lobbying being conducted in anything but and up-close and personal manner.

    As I have said before, PR is defined by its practice, similar to architecture. This makes it difficult to concoct a formal definition. If it is no longer meaningful to discuss online PR, it is probably because it wasn’t meaningful in the first place. Just a typical confusion of tools with discipline. PR is very much in need of an organizing principle, but I don’t see any academic papers about that.

  17. At a topic, this is so hot it singes your fingers.

    Lets take a completely non-internet PR activity like events management. Even today, a minimum requirement of email is needed. But what of Augmented reality to bring it to life ( or use of Kinect ( The ability to conduct simple PR events has a new dimension. In both cases there is enhanced engagement, a emotional relationship with the brand.

    The very idea that we can use many to one communication is quite new and yet we have Twitter doing it to us all the time.

    The ‘Communicative Organisation’ needs people who can understand the breadth and depth of the communication change but the PR person is now required to understand the effects of relationships.

    The millions of interactions over the Osama bin Laden killing were transacted over a vast array of media and showed how all these media can, and did, interact to feed one with another.

    At a slower pace, perhaps, and in miniature, the same effects are being played out every day for all our clients.

    This event and The Wedding that went before it, showed how powerful personal and internet channels networked relationships. Such interaction is evident at a macro level and at a micro level.

    The idea that internet technologies are embedded in and are part of the DNA of corporate activity, survival and success needs managers who can grasp the significance of living with an almost sentient technological partner.

    Who but the PR industry could provide the management capability to understand such things?

    If not PR, then whither PR?

    Who has a management responsibility for interactions, relationships, CSR, Ethics and Diversity when all affected publics and the wider constituency lives with their own and many others’ cloud of digital bits’ collected in day-to-day living in our internet mediated lives.

    Do we already live Beyond Online Public Relations or is it so much hype.

    I have a well known view but all must agree, as a subject, its hot.

  18. Thanks, Heather! You are right, there are a lot of ways into the topic and my ‘all PR is online…” claim – although true! – needs further exploration.

    Many people have been concerned with the technological implications of the online revolution but David and I strongly believe that the next few years will bring a major change in the very nature of the PR discipline. I don’t see practitioners becoming call centre tweeters but I do believe there is serious thought to be done if PR is to retain a viable territory as advertising, marketing and interpersonal communications evolve and expand.

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