Is content creation the future of PR? – 1st

Public relations is the profession that manages reputation, practitioners using a wide variety of tools to achieve the goal of developing and sustaining this positive goodwill from their client’s target audiences. One major metric by which success in this area can be seen is exposure, Theaker going as far as to say that for some, media exposure itself is the be-all and end-all of reputation (p.277, 2013). Content creation paired with the internet and digital platforms allows for this to be generated and shared to wider audiences than previously seen in the history of public relations. This sheer volume of potential exposure, and the amount of original content being produced, would support the view presented by Flaherty (Daniels, 2015) that content creation is now “central” to the direction the public relations industry, the digital era making this a possibility. However, this need for content has always been prevalent. It can be argued that it is the nature of the content and the expectations from within the media industry has changed, rather than the need for the content itself. The transition has been drastic, Whatmough viewing the “digitisation of the world” to be both “rapid and disruptive” (p.2, 2019). Multiple factors have contributed to this need to adapt, such as new tools being available to practitioners making some tasks much more manageable and accessible, at the same time generating associated new issues for consideration. This coupled with ever-increasing time constraints & the industry-wide expectations of the 24-hour-news cycle have forced public relations and many other media industries to digitise.

While content creation has been revolutionised by the availability of digital tools, it has always been a vital aspect of the communications industry. As stated by Black, this has content creation has taken countless forms, “ranging from hieroglyphics describing new laws, and wanted posters seeking highwaymen and bandits, through to handbills, discussing new and challenging old political or social ideas” (p.7, 2014). The most traditional methods of public relations involve content creation as much as the more modern digital incarnation. While their forms and the expectations of a practitioner’s audience vary, the communication remains the same. This can be seen to tie back to some of the earliest developers of public relations practice in the 1900s, particularly Ivy Lee and P.T Barnum. Lee combined his knowledge as a working journalist with the new field in order to generate press releases that have all the aspects needed for a journalist. The press release is perhaps the most used historical tool for a public relations message, combining story leads and statistics that allow for a journalist to quickly craft news pieces. This is a vital aspect of the profession, allowing them to generate ‘Earned Media’. This third-party endorsement builds the trust between the client and their audience, creating a symbiotic relationship between journalists and public relations practitioners, many viewing public relations to be highly dependent on journalism and thus journalists (Lloyd and Toogood, p. 20, 2015). Barnum can be credited with early ‘stunt’ promotion, being seen to be the “forefront of guerrilla marketing and PR before such terms existed” (Liffreing, 2017). His large-scale stunts, for example walking his elephant through the streets to generate interest, became newsworthy in their own right, generating earned media without the need for press releases. This can be seen blatantly in 1884, where he attempted to coincide his promotion with the already newsworthy opening of the Brooklyn Bridge after 13 years of construction. Barnum suggested that he use his Elephants to test the strength of the bridge at its launch, getting permission and putting on such a display the New York Times would say it was “as if Noah’s ark were emptying itself over Long Island” (Liffreing, 2017). These stunts continue to be an element of content reaction to this very day but are now an integrated part of the content creation process, being paired with digital platforms to spread their message without the need for press traction. For example, the 2019 Amnesty campaign, where the charity set-up a family-free zone to highlight the issue of family separation among refugees (Herring, 2019). The guards tasked with enforcing the zone recorded the entire event from their jackets, allowing what would be an isolated stunt to reach over 8500 viewers, and generate content for social media, highlighting the issues and adding humour (Amnesty International UK, 2019). This demonstrates the importance of both content creation, and while the developments of digital campaigns aren’t entirely alien to the practices of the past, it outlines the direction being integration, and the meshing of techniques.

The jump to digital can be compared to that of the initial jump from print to radio and television broadcasting. This new innovation was marked to have a huge impact on the profession, being seen by some to be the “most powerful medium of all in the 20th century” (Black, p9. 2014). Bill Gates himself made the comparison to this in 1996, saying that “content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the Internet, just as it was in broadcasting” (SilkStream, 2014). The rise of online strategies can make use of the internet for both wide-reaching and targeted social engagement. While two-way communication has been a regular model of public relations since the 1980s (Grunig and Hunt, 1980), social media allows for more direct engagement and interaction than ever before. The Dietrich PESO model outlines the four different forms of media a communications expert can employ; Paid, Earned, Shared and Owned Media (Swann, p.110, 2020).  Online communication has allowed for exponential development of Owned Media, generating outreach and developing campaigns that would be impossible with traditional means. As stated by Swann; “If done right, social media use can put a human face on an organisation’s actions, educate and persuade its stakeholders, and provide true two-way conversations that can benefit both parties” (Ibid). Using tools available online they can target their content audience more specifically, user comments can be easily gathered and responded to in a direct way. This ‘media meshing’ was seen in full effect during the 2013 Wimbledon Men’s tennis final, with 1.1 million people across the world tweeting 2.6 million times, using hashtags associated with the tennis final (Black, p.141, 2014).

Digital and social media have indeed created entirely new opportunities in the realm of public relations. Influencers are very popular tool of the modern public relations agent, only made possible through the development of online content. Users and audiences can relate to a single influencer that they can identify with, far more than a stand-alone campaign image or video. Through careful selection and brand collaboration, an influencer can be a significant asset to the future of public relations. Examples of targeted use of influencers can be seen with Michael Phelps and Serena Williams, using their public platforms as athletes to become valuable assets as health-specific social media influences. PR Week would go as far as to say, “Phelps and Williams are doing more to educate and communicate to the American people about health issues than any amount of public information films or adverts on the walls of doctors’ surgeries” (Barrett, 2019). While this proved the power of pairing influences with campaigns already within their remit, influencers can also be used to bring entirely new demographics to a campaign. For example, in 2017 the Campaign Against Living Miserably charity made use of influencer Chris Hughes, a Love Island contestant with significantly large young demographic, in order to bring 1800% more 18-24-year olds to their website, raising awareness for male suicide in a new age group, as was their goal (2018).

Even for pre-existing platforms new options are being developed constantly, and early adopters manage to create cutting-edge content that users haven’t seen before. This can be seen with home decor company Wayfair, one of the earlier companies to make use of the 2018 ‘Shopping’ update to Instagram, allowing content creators to tag products in pictures. They took full advantage of this feature to create beautiful rooms, decorated only with their products, where a user can click on any piece of furniture in the picture to directly to its shop page, creating a “frictionless process the likes of which have never been seen” (O’Neill, 2019). Online campaigns also notably require less start-up investment and lighter production costs, which means clients of any size can make extensive use of these features (Theaker, p.278, 2013). Social media can be seen to be a vital tool in this process, as it “erases geographical boundaries, circumvents local media interests, and allows organizations to engage their publics directly and frequently” (Smith, p.256, 2014). 

This very open platform for feedback presents issues as well. Due to the more unfiltered nature of comments and message boards, the publics of any campaign are able to directly air their grievances and hold those responsible to account. While in some cases the damage can be mitigated, it can lead to incredible public pressure. For example, the launch of the Paramount’s trailer for the ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ movie (2019) was met with fan outcry over the design of the titular mammal. This outcry so vehement that the director announced he would remake the entire movie, stating “The message is loud and clear… you aren’t happy with the design & you want changes. It’s going to happen” (Fowler, 2019). This has resulted in the delaying of the movie from November 2019 to February 2020, some worrying that this direct fan communication was more of a hindrance than a help, asking “who’s really in charge of the film industry if internet bullies can force a company into essentially remaking a film even while it’s still being made?”(Amidi, 2019). Even in this case though, despite the costs, the positive aspects of the digital platform for public relations opportunities have been highlighted. At the launch of the controversial trailer, they quickly began trending, talented fans creating their own art to show them how ‘easy’ it would be to improve, gathering media attention from those outside the pre-existing fanbase. Following this, they went on to hire one of these artists to lead the redesign (Hesse, 2019), which upon the new trailer’s reveal has been met with mass appreciation (Park, 2019). While initially negative, this demonstrates the potential for increased reach with trending content, opening a dialogue which allowed for countless entries of user-generated Owned Media, and with careful public relations led to a much more positively received response to their second trailer. As illustrated by Whatmough; “at a time when 140 characters (or even 280) can cause share prices to plummet, the need for agile, responsive PR is pivotal.” (p.7, 2019).

Time constraints across the media industry also mark a great change in the direction that public relations will move in the coming years. Due to increasing time constraints, journalists are much more dependent upon public relation agents to provide content to them. While the traditional text of a press release is still mandatory, expectations have grown to need photos, videos and other forms of supplementary content. Without these a digital press release risk being overlooked, and a story will lack significant engagement. This increased dependency has been seen by some to lead to the rise of ‘Churnalism’. As critiqued by Davies, “churnalists working on the assembly line in the news factory construct national news stories from raw material which arrives along two primary conveyor belts … the [national news agency] Press Association and public relations” (p.74, 2008). Growing acknowledgement of this is seen in the establishment of Churnalism.com, a website that scans press releases and news stories to find similarities. Examples include a number of Travelodge press releases, “Over a third of British adults still sleep with a teddy bear” being linked to the “Third of adults ‘still take teddy to bed” article on The Telegraph website the very same day (Moore, 2011). While this can be seen to cause issues in regard to the quality of the journalism industry, this presents a notable opportunity to those practising public relations. One of the issues presented by the need for Earned Media, as opposed to that of advertising’s paid media, is a loss of control over the message when giving the story to journalists. This marked increasing dependency for engaging content for news stories decreases the time allowed for editorialisation, lessening the risk of ‘noise’ interfering with the message. It could be said that the ability for one to publish content online without dealing with journalists marks a future where practitioners might not concern themselves with the needs of the journalism industry. Social media allowing one to “create your own buzz” (Mekky, 2019), regardless of the size or budget of a company, some stating that now “Twitter is the global breaking news channel” (Black, p.148, 2014). However, much of the traditional media industry has adapted alongside that of public relations, maintaining large readerships online and providing a valuable endorsement. This can be seen in The Daily Mail‘s expansion of The Mail Online, their monthly reach online being 21,062,000 adults as of 2019, versus their print edition with 7,349,000 readers monthly (Newsworks, 2019). 

In conclusion, content can indeed be seen to be the dominating path for the foreseeable future of public relations, as suggested by Flaherty (Daniels, 2015). While press releases and stunts have been a part of the profession since its inception, they are far from becoming obsolete, instead having “a need to evolve” (Kochcomm, 2017) with this new form of digital content creation in order to become as effective as possible. This allows them either to attract the eyes of traditional media platforms or circumvent the dependency on them for direct engagement with their audiences on social media. Meshing of traditional and digital media has proven, so far, to have an effective track-record, as seen at Wimbledon (Black, p.141, 2014). While some digital-focussed practitioners would say traditional methods are ‘dead’ (Zottola, 2018) this would indicate the direction currently in public relations would continue pairing these strategies with digital tools, allowing them to “live on in other forms” (Kochcomm Staff, 2017). Though as time progresses, it can be hard to predict the state the public relations industry will find itself in. As illustrated by Whatmough; “new norms will be established, ready for disruption by the next macro shift (p.6, 2019). With ever increasing time constraints on both the journalist and in public relations, the ability to create content quickly becomes more imperative, changing the forms this content will take for years to come.

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Published by James Sumner

Writer, reviewer & journalist. BA: Multimedia Journalism. MA: PR & Digital Comms.

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