Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

From Influencers to AI

Published in Nov-Dec 2023

Zohare Ali Shariff examines the changes that have affected PR in the last 25 years.

Let’s first briefly talk about the concept of change itself. Change is commonly understood as an act or process through which something (or someone) becomes different. The difference which change begets may be minimal, even imperceptible, or it may be substantial, even a total replacement of the existing by something entirely different. Change can be for better or for worse, a smooth transition, or, as is frequently the case with political change, cataclysmic. It can be temporary or permanent, coming about very fast, even overnight, or take eons. And while all these facets of change are relevant to varying degrees of how PR has changed in the past 25 years or so, two other aspects of change are more pertinent to PR. First, change may be brought about proactively by design, or it may be a reactive response to external factors. Second, change invariably spawns both challenges and opportunities.

The practice of PR by businesses is at best about 150 years old. However, the use by others (politicians for example) of what can also be called public relations, dates back thousands of years. In ancient Greece, PR techniques were used to communicate with the citizens and the general public about government affairs – in 50 B.C., Julius Caesar promoted himself with Romans as the best person to be the head of state, by publicising his military successes. Thus, from ancient times PR has principally been about publicity and creating a positive image.

The means to do so was given a tremendous boost as far back as the year 1400, with the invention of the printing press, a ‘revolutionary’ invention at that time, which enabled publicists to disseminate publicity and propaganda materials like pamphlets, flyers and even books, much more widely and to a much larger number of people. Following this, as the means of communication continued to evolve and expand, so did the propagation of messaging by people in the business of creating publicity.

For a century or more before the current millennium commenced, print media, and sometime later, broadcast media – were the only – or at least the predominant – means of mass communication. The next major change was triggered directly or indirectly by the biggest information and communication technology revolution the world has been witness to, since the end of the last century. The advent of the Digital Age came with the birth of the internet in 1969; the World Wide Web becoming available publicly in 1991 and Hotmail becoming the first web-based email system in 1996. It was in 1999, that bloggers first appeared, putting up content on Blogger, the world’s first free blogging platform. For the profession of PR, this was the start of what has since become a significant shift from the use of traditional mass media to communicating in the digital space. Facebook then came in 2004 and Twitter in 2006.

Digital and social media soon proved to be a double-edged sword for PR. While it exponentially enhanced the reach of PR messaging, enabling engagement with audiences in real-time, it also opened up a Pandora’s Box of new issues. Whereas the traditional mass media was essentially a one-way communication, social media made communication a two-way street, with audiences free to respond or comment with whatever they wished, be it agreement or constructive criticism, or outright rejection and condemnation. In this new age, PR suddenly found itself confronted with a new challenge of engaging with audiences who would often berate you, more to seek attention than for any real reason.

The high speed of digital communications also meant that PR practitioners found themselves involved in issue and crisis management a lot more than previously. Bad news travels fast, they say, and social media platforms started proving this amply. The problem was not just that news of a crisis was widely shared within minutes of its occurrence, but also, each crisis generated an immediate conversation on social media, with no limit to the number of people expressing ‘expert’ opinions and being judgemental, with very few ascertaining the authenticity of the news, or the real facts, before sharing the unauthenticated news immediately in order to be amongst the first, if not the first, to ‘break’ the news. Thus, while PR fundamentally remained a business function for reputation management, in the space of a generation, it was confronted with a slew of new digital age challenges, like fake news, disinformation and polarisation.

At the same time PR had to adapt to two other developments; change in societal values and the public’s media consumption habits. Rising global concern about issues like climate change has significantly increased calls for greater transparency and accountability by governments and businesses alike. For the practice of PR, pursuing its core tasks of image-building and reputation management, this has meant that the function now has to focus much more on ESG and DEI issues, creating awareness of the positives, constantly removing misperceptions and managing issues and crises. There is also now more emphasis on research, planning and reporting, as well as greater stakeholder engagement than before, targeting a more diverse audience, to include both previously less attended to stakeholders (like employees) the supply chain and academia, and newer audiences growing in importance like social media influencers and other third-party endorsers.

Not unrelated to the change in societal values has been a change in the public’s media consumption habits, requiring PR to rethink how to influence the perception of the target audiences. While traditional media – print and broadcast – may have witnessed a fall in consumption (much more for print than for broadcast), it is by no means totally irrelevant today. However, there is no denying that there has been an exponential rise in the public consuming media digitally; to the extent that it will not be wrong to say that Millennials and Gen Z across the world almost totally consume media digitally. PR therefore, is more and more using digital channels for messaging dissemination, even though digital outreach is increasingly having to be paid for. The original concept of free editorial – where PR could pitch a solid story to the traditional media and have it published or aired purely on the merit of the story, without having to pay for it, is under threat.

In conclusion, PR has changed over the past 25 years, in response to changes in communication and information technology and changes in societal beliefs and values, which together have procreated a change in the media landscape. All this has also meant that PR is today much more critical a function than it ever was, because it is really the only credible tool to address public concerns, shape opinion and generate understanding and empathy.

A final note on the road ahead. The new challenge and the new opportunity for PR is the impact that AI and automation will have on the practice. This new area has several aspects, ranging from the use of AI to generate content, using AI for data analysis and strategy formulation and forecasting trends, and automating the dissemination of messaging. But a consideration of how advancing technology is likely to increasingly shape the future direction of PR is best left for another writing in the future.

Zohare Ali Shariff is a PR & comms professional and CEO, Asiatic Public Relations Network.