What was not long ago known as new media has become everyday media. Public relations practitioners today are putting themselves abreast to the wide range of digital media channels to perform their daily tasks of communication.
As Nicholas Negroponte (1996) wrote in Being Digital: “As one industry after another looks at itself in the mirror and asks about its future in a digital world, that future is driven almost 100 per cent by the ability of that company’s product or services to be rendered in digital form.” (1996, p.196)
However communications professionals are also technologically savvy in monitoring as well as using such media: on the one hand, public relations is an industry that is more empowered than ever before with new communication tools, but so too are the individuals and publics it works with, or is in opposition to. According to Hallahan (2004), “the internet has dramatically changed the way public relations practitioners distribute information, interact with key publics, deal with crises, and manage issues.”(2004, p.255)
Indeed, our roles within society – either as corporate or political players, individuals, small community groups or large NGOs – are about involvement and engagement. The days of sending messages out and ignoring the consequences are well behind us. In an age where even schoolchildren have Smartphones, social networks are growing in high popularity.
Changes in the world of convergent media are well summed up by Henry Jenkins (2006), who focuses on the relationship among three forces facilitated by the internet: Media Convergence, Participatory Culture and Collective Intelligence.
Convergence, according to Jerkins (2006), is about culture more than technology. The culture of the wide consumer classes around the world today is one which pursues vast selections of content that race from one media system to another all over the world in different media economies – content that is available in nearly endless combinations and permutations of media channels and sources.
Participatory culture, he says, is the role of consumer alongside producer. Not only can consumers obtain information, they can reshape content created by organisations and they can create their own original intellectual property. In so doing, they are able to respond to subtle shifts in culture in a way that larger, more bureaucratic and conservative organisations cannot. The result is dramatic shifts in consumer tastes and trends that are hard to monitor, let alone shape, by large organisations.
Finally, Collective Intelligence has evolved out of the way participatory culture synthesises ideas. Jerkins (2006) argues that because publics feel inadequately informed individually, they increasingly depend on knowledge pooled co-dependently. This final level, then, is about how the internet and being digital bring knowledge together because of the democratised space that they provide.
Evolution of Social Media
Today social media has become a big part of Web 2.0. Back to history, social networking had certainly hit its stride in the year 2002 with the launch of Friendster, with an objective to emphasise friendship and discover new people. A year later in 2003, LinkedIn was introduced in a more serious and sober approach to connect businesspeople with other professionals. But the real wave of the social networking boom came with the introduction of MySpace in 2003, and Facebook in 2004, which connected people from across the globe (Goble, 2012).
Leaving behind MySpace, Facebook took the lead as the most popular social networking site by shifting to a wider public rather than only connecting college students. Later, YouTube entered the market as the second social media wave, where the public could watch, as well as post, a huge number of free videos online.The most recent website that managed to stand firm in this rough digital environment is Twitter. Twitter has opted for a micro-blogging approach of 140 characters or less, thus allowing the public to post texts, images and links.
Interesting facts about social networking sites:
- Social media has surpassed porn as Number One web activity. (Qualman, 2011)
- 1 million new blogs are created online every week. (Jones, 2013)
- Facebook signed up over 280 million users from 2011 to 2012 – an audience which radio, television and newspaper would take decades to reach. (Statistic Brain, 2013)
- More than 5 million images are uploaded to Instagram every day. (Jones, 2013)
- The number of Twitter search engine queries is 2.1 billion per day. (Statistic Brain, 2013)
- Almost 12 years’ worth of footage is uploaded on YouTube every day. (Jones, 2013)
Although most of social media engagement comes from consumer-facing companies, the online platforms have not left behind celebrities and company executives. Jones(2013) reports that 30% of individual users on Twitter receive an income of more than $100,000. Online communications has reached a level of maturity by going beyond the connecting people approach (Bulmer, 2010).
Digital technology and message delivery
Digital technologies have huge advantages in message delivery, enabling virtually instant global distribution of information. The internet is an extremely effective tool when the subject matter is of high interest to an audience that will actively seek out information. It has the added advantage of encouraging users to explore other parts of an organisation’s website, achieving greater opportunity for an organisation to get other messages across. (Craig, 2002)
Internet sites are now virtually incorporated into all other communication vehicles to provide further, or more detailed, information on a topic after other, more directly targeted, vehicles reach an audience. For example, an advertisement may provide scant information on a particular community initiative, with the website providing more in-depth details, site maps, 3D visuals, contact details, Q&As, chat rooms, feedback forms and so on. In this case, the website may even be used to develop rapport with a target audience, allowing vital feedback and data to be collected – the latter taking privacy laws into account(Johnston & Zawawi, 2010, pp.210-11).
The internet can also be a public relations practitioner’s ultimate nightmare, as it is now often used by adversaries to spread their negative messages far and wide instantly (Peters, 2013). These often damaging and misleading messages sometimes have more appeal than those being portrayed by the public relations professional. Moreover, their sources are often hard to trace and there may be little that can be done to control or balance them, or to remove them from the internet (Bailey, 2009).
One of the greatest mistakes on the internet has been the tendency to post information that is not tailored to the medium, such as brochure ware. The internet requires short, sharp information that is user friendly, interactive and engaging. Websites with poor navigation and slow download times are also extremely frustrating, often turning off a potential user who may then seek their information from a range of other more user-friendly sources (Svetoslav, 2012). Ultimately, the web is a live tool with the most successful sites being dynamic, intuitive to use and evolving almost daily to suit the needs of an organisation and their targeted audiences.
Centre of self: Social media culture
Social media platforms have spawned a new wave of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) that have changed the way organisations operate and function. Traditional media like print, television and radio are highly centralised, with editors acting as gatekeepers, selecting and signifying the messages that reach the public sphere. However, social media is characterised by two-way communication, interactivity, transmission efficiency and decentralisation of power. This finally leads to an opportunity to table alternative views, thus promoting interaction, discussion and networking. (Scott, 2010, pp.9-10)
Dealing with pressure from social media has forced multinationals to change policy. Whether LGBT or a Labour Day meeting is the subject of interest, social media platforms can bring together activists to empower and connect individuals all over the world. Social networks such as Facebook provide options to create events, mass e-invitation, sharing, and calendars which streamline communication and facilitate rapid responses to mobilisation. One example was the protests which were rapidly staged in many countries around the world to stop the commitment of troops to the war in Iraq (IVAW, 2004).
Social uses of technology such as blogs have been generally appealed to one clearly defined special – interest audience actively seeking information on one particular topic, individual or organisation – have increased enormously in popularity(Scott, 2010, p.67). There are millions of sires providing commentary on politics, local issues or even personal online diaries, which may have entries spanning back years. They have been used to disseminate news in a crisis, to uncover scandal and to general global word-of-mouth publicity.