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  • Subject area(s): Marketing
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  • Published on: 14th September 2019
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The definition of Public Relations has changed a great deal in the last 20 years. From a discipline that focuses on propaganda, PR now, is vastly concerned with the public opinions and entails a greater participation from the publics. Earlier, information flow was mostly one way and involved minimum participation from the publics. Now, organisations have realised that the ideas and opinions of the public are not latent. In order to have a greater engagement with the public, it is important to include them in the communication and to have a two-way dialogue. The digital era and various new media techniques have enabled two-way communication.

In the early days of PR, propaganda was a method used to get the attention of the public. According to Jowett and O'Donnell (1992), “Propaganda is ‘The deliberate and systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions and direct behaviour to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist'”. In terms of Grunig & Hunt's theories - the Press Agentry & Public Information theories prevailed. Press Agentry model is a one-way communication model where no dialogue with the intended audience is required and the main objective is to put forward one particular view of the world through the media and other channels. In broader terms, it is often referred to as propaganda. Almost all books on Public Relations mention the works of P.T. Barnum as a major contributor to this model. P.T. Barnum was an American Businessman, Politician and a Showman who used sensational show business tactics and attracted the attention of both media and publics. For example, in 1835 he purchased rights to a slave Joice Heth who was allegedly one hundred and sixty years old and was previously George Washington's nurse. Barnum took her on a tour throughout New York and New England and she was a hit with the media. Public and media both, from various parts of the city came to see her. This particular appearance was widely covered in the media. Various biographers of Barnum have argued whether Heth was authentic or just a sham. Either way, Barnum successfully exhibited Heth to the world. It is clear from this example that Press Agentry model was basically propaganda of a particular idea with no participation from public.

Another model that focuses on one way communication is the Public Information model where although the flow of information is unidirectional, the information that is disseminated is authentic.  Even today, many organisations rely on this model to disseminate information in the form of press releases, news releases, video releases or statements made by the spokespersons. The main idea is to showcase the developments happening in the company and highlight them to the public.  This model is applicable in industries where the communication is highly regulated, for example, Government, Financial institutions or internal communication.

But on a wider look, Press Agentry and Public Information models are not enough to persuade the public. In today's age, various new media have emerged and have completely changed the landscape of communication. Back in 1900s, participation from the public was almost an unimaginable and rather impossible task. The task of the organisation was to influence the opinions of the publics either through propaganda or persuasion. Edward Bernays, often referred to as the ‘Father or public relations' has a major contribution in persuading the public. In the late 1920s, Lucky Strike cigarettes found out that women resisted smoking cigarettes because at that time, smoking was a taboo among women. Bernays changed this perception and positioned cigarettes as ‘Torches of Freedom' persuading women to smoke as a symbol of their freedom. The idea behind this campaign was to increase sales for the company and that wouldn't have been possible without persuading women (1/2 of the entire population) to smoke. This task would have been easier to accomplish had digital media prevailed then. Persuasion is an important aspect of PR. David Wragg (Bland et al. 1996) argues that the role of PR is not just to issue press releases or handle media relations, the real purpose of PR is to enhance the reputation of an organisation and to influence the target audience.

Since the beginning of 2000s, digital media and internet have completely transformed the way organisations communicate with their target media. According to Global media report 2016 by McKinsey & Company, the digital consumer spending has more than tripled over the last five years and is expected to double over the next five years. The same report also says that digital advertising is expected to outpace TV as the largest global advertising category by 2017 and grow to be one-third larger than TV advertising by 2020.  The pool of consumer information available on internet has made it easy to create and target digital ads in a better and effective way. With the help of ‘cookies', the algorithms find out the user's interest areas and show them only those ads which are relevant to them. Global brands effectively communicate with the publics in order to redress complaints or actively seek their participation regarding any new campaign or even business ideas. The concept of word-of-mouth (W-O-M) has now taken its electronic form as e-W-O-M. With the increasing number of people reviewing products on blogs, and channels like YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, the organisations are now vary of the fact that it is important to maintain close relationships with the publics.

Not just the media landscape, even the values and objectives of organisations have evolved over time. More participation from the target group has been seen over the years. Rather than just propagating information, businesses are actively seeking participation from their target audiences. The target market has grown too. Unlike before, the main aim of organisations is not only to make short term profits but to maintain a long term goodwill with the customers and other stakeholders (employees, investors, partners, etc). "There has been a shift away from the idea of the organisation as an autonomous monolith accountable to no one but its shareholders towards the notion of organisations as stakeholding communities” (Tench & Yeomans, 2009, p24).

Another shift is the focus from creating “Push products” (sales intensive) to “Pull products” (demand intensive). In order to make this shift, it is essential to have a dialogue with the target audiences. Apart from consumers, many organisations are seeking feedback and views of its employees in order to better their processes and increase their business share. Organisations are constantly trying to have a real time dialogue with the customers. Unlike before, the  TAT (Turn around Time) has been reduced both from the organisation and customer's end. And that is because of digital media. Now, companies involve in the following steps to ensure they have a real time connection with their target group.

Presale - whether it is asking for opinions for a new product or directing the marketing campaigns, the time gap between the companies and their target audience has reduced due to the increasing use of digital media.

Immediate Postsale - As soon as the products are sold or a service is rendered to the customers, feedback can be taken from them immediately.

Ready to receive - Feedback can be taken on an ongoing basis from the customers using the products or even potential customers.

Problem resolution & crisis communication - Any issue relating to a product or service is usually easier to put up on the internet either via mails or social media platforms. Many organisations have now adopted a strategy to keep a keen eye on social media platforms and to remedy any crisis arising from this.

Brands are taking measures to ensure they are differentiated in the competitive market with increasing number of companies catering to the same target market. Every organisation, small or big, aims to create a recall value in the minds of the customers. It is important to differentiate your brand by having a unique ‘brand persona'. A brand persona is the articulated form of a brand's character and personality. Every brand tells a story and persona-focused storytelling is essential to branding. (The essential brand persona: storytelling and branding, Stephen Herskovitz and Malcolm Crystal) Almost 79% of adults in UK think it is a good idea for brands to tell stories. If they like the brand story, 55% of them are likely to buy the product in the future, 44% would share the story and 15% will buy the product immediately. In order to get noticed, brands are now developing campaigns that go ‘viral' and social media has drastically changed the way users respond to marketing. (Shu-Chuan Chu, Journal of Interactive Advertising, 2011). Viral Marketing is often described as an array of online word-of-mouth strategies to encourage communication about a particular product (Petya Eckler & Shelly Rodgers, Viral Marketing on the internet, 2010). Due to its reduced promotional costs and high credibility, viral marketing has proved to be advantageous to many organisations.

Digital media allows a real time dialogue between the consumers and their favourite brands. The various social media platforms allow loyal and potential customers to follow their brands and keep themselves abreast with the ongoing activities. Various organisations are exploiting this opportunity and seeking help of the customers. This technique is referred to as ‘Crowdsourcing'. The term ‘Crowdsourcing' was coined by Jeff Howe, a magazine editor in 2006 (A Guide to Open Innovation and Crowdsourcing, 2011). There are many definitions of Crowdsourcing but it essentially means sourcing from the crowd. By contributing ideas to their favourite brands, the users feel more connected to that brand.

Airbnb is an online hospitality service provider that allows people to rent out their properties to the guests on a short term basis. Airbnb is merely a broker and does not own any property of its own. It has over 3,000,000 listings in 65,000 cities across 191 countries with over 2,000,000,000 guests. Airbnb's entire business model is based on crowdsourcing where the owner's of the properties from various parts of the world collaborate on one single platform to provide a home-like experience to its guests. The users have a choice of browsing through hundreds of listings that suit their preferences. Alternatively, you can become a host just by submitting few details about your property. Another successful example of crowdsourcing is the ‘Idea Page' by Starbucks. This strategy was adopted by Starbucks in March 2008. The “My Starbucks Idea” page allows users from all over the world to contribute their ideas to the Starbucks brand. Apart from the company website, various social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google Plus and YouTube can also be used. The ideas may range from coffee drinks to merchandise to bigger ones like global ideas. The contributors are required to fill in their details and a 500 word write up elaborating their idea. In the first year of implementing this, Starbucks received a staggering number of 70,000 ideas. As of 2014, they had received 1,50,000 ideas out of which they have implemented 277 ideas.

The above arguments and examples evaluate the benefits of two-way symmetric communication from the consumer's point of view. If we evaluate the same from the business point of view, the digital media has made businesses cost-effective too. Since the last 163 years, P&G's corporate culture was very secretive and every task was done in-house. However, in mid 2000s, the company's growth slumped and the ability to make new innovative products also stagnated. Between January and June, 2006 - the company lost 50% of its stock value. Soon, the board headed by the CEO, A. G. Lafley came up with the idea of ‘Opening up'. So they no longer resorted to the secrecy and began breaking down the walls that separated various departments. They opened the gates for ideas on the internet. By doing this, P&G reached out to 1.5 million researchers and gathered their opinions to grow the company. This helped the company grow its net profits to $10 Billion in 2007 and the stock price surpassed its former highs.

There has been a steep rise in ‘social media influencers' and their popularity across platforms. According to Philip Kotler (Principles of Marketing, 2010), Influencers are those parties that can exert influence on our purchase process. They are usually third party bloggers with a considerable amount of followers who are likely to get influenced by their opinion about a certain product of service. Marketers are increasingly engaging with these influencers as a way to promote ‘conversational marketing' and a two-way flow of communication. Many organisations host events targeted towards these influencers with the aim of understanding their opinions about the products (or services) they offer. These days many big brands also indulge in surveys and feedback regarding their products, customer service, new products, etc. They reach out to millions of existing customers or potential customers via mails, SMSes, social media groups, etc in order to understand the customer experience with their brands.

After looking at all these successful examples of digital media (including social media) and its uses, we can say that there is a greater communication symmetry and balance now. The advent of digital media has definitely given organisations a tool to enhance interaction and goodwill with its publics, thereby benefiting both. Firstly, by interacting with their favourite brands on social media, the consumers feel a sense of belonging to the brand. When organisations acknowledge their ideas and implement them, they feel accomplished. Even for businesses, it is far more cost-effective than to employ hundreds of researchers and R&D experts. Secondly, more and more brands are using social media to reach out to their target audience and differentiate themselves in the existing competitive market through viral campaigns. Finally, organisations are much more open in terms of getting feedback. They know they can no longer ‘Push' the product by giving discounts. They know it is essential to include the public in their marketing campaigns in order to make them successful. Also the changing face of ‘influencer marketing' has made internet an open forum for these influencers to post their opinions about a company and its products. Thereby, pushing the organisations to indulge with them. Grunig and Hunt's Two-Way symmetric communication model is quite practical now. Geographical boundaries are no longer constraints for organisations to engage with the public. We have reached a point in time when bidirectional flow of information is easy and cost effective. With the click of a button, one can know the the events occurring in the other parts of the world.

However, behind any dialogic motive, organisations still have a persuasive upper hand. According to Theunissen & Rahman (2011), dialogue in public relations is practiced with a particular result in mind. Many theorists do criticise the model in terms of its practicality and often call it a utopian or at best a normative model (Laskin, 2012). There are still many industries where this model does not fit completely. An organisation working in the coal segment might not be able to engage with its audience as an FMCG company might. However, digital media has bridged the gap between the ideal concept of Two-way symmetrical communication and participation of the audience with the organisations making it easier to have a dialogic form of communication.

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