The evolution of digital media and hyper-fast communications has completely redefined the role and function of Public Relations. Today we can exchange exceptionally large amounts of data instantaneously. In this networked society every end user is also a producer of knowledge, compelling a fundamental reconfiguration of the creator-consumer relationship. The beneficial impact of the internet, 5G and other emerging technologies on our social life and commerce has been profound. The new information regime, in turn, makes stringent demands on enterprises in acquiring consumer consent and mobilising public opinion.
Audiences are far more informed today. We are in the post-industrial knowledge era. From hypertext to rich media, from Wikipedia to blogs, from ‘how-to’ videos to infographics, audiences draw upon a surfeit of sources to enlighten themselves. Information is available at our fingertips, at any time, all the time. The information asymmetry has swung from the creator in favour of the consumer. Peer reviews and communal evaluation define merit and inform buyer choices.
How and when we consume knowledge, too, has changed. For the first time, we can carry our entertainment everywhere on our handheld devices. Data travels ceaselessly between a multitude of connected nodes, creating a perpetual source of information. The internet is always on, always listening— and it is hard to predict what will go viral. One small misstep can end careers, destroy organisations, and precipitate international crises. Not only is cyberspace unforgiving, but data is persistent, and it is hard to take back statements once uttered. It is a challenge for organisations to better manage Public Relations across numerous channels of communication.
The boundary between information and entertainment has blurred, spawning an interactive world of infotainment. The widespread and rapid adoption of digital media has triggered a massive shift from traditional media, such as print, towards newer disruptive technologies. A battery of novel user experiences is emerging, such as the metaverse— an immersive 3D virtual world, where we interact and collaborate with other actors in a lifelike representation of reality.
Empowered by accessible technologies, audiences today actively participate in the production and transmission of information. This paradigm shift has enabled the democratisation of power and a collapse of the top-down, controlled, one-way communication aimed at audiences for consumption only. The new creative culture of open participation has given rise to more egalitarian, non-hierarchical, collaborative structures. This endows the general populace with immense power to utilise digital media to sway popular perception, expose ills and weaknesses of organisations, and campaign for societal transformation. This fundamentally changes the ambit of Public Relations— a discipline tasked with managing the reputation in the eyes of the population.
One of the basic tenets of Public Relations is to know your audience. While on the one hand the digital domain paints a challenging landscape for influence building, it equally provides an opportunity to listen to signals from the audience, and respond with appropriate solutions in a more transparent, participatory, and collaborative environment. Companies can analyse consumption habits, explore new routes to market, and drive innovation to deliver extraordinary outcomes. Businesses must therefore recognise the potential of the internet and complementary digital technologies and embrace current capabilities to future-proof their Public Relations. They must venture beyond antiquated exchanges and leverage the agility of “always-on communications” to build trust and long-term relationships that evolve into business opportunities.
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These articles were published in the PRAXIS 2022 special edition print magazine of Reputation Today.