The importance and sheer effectiveness of telling stories and communicating brand values means that nobody can deny the essential place of public relations. But over the years the standard roles and duties of PR have continued to evolve to the edge of being unrecognisable. Simon Yuen talks to PR and brand representatives for their take on the industry and how strategies have changed.
Where better a starting point when defining PR than to head straight to the definition. And indeed, there are many competing definitions of public relations. But theorist James E. Grunig and Todd Hunt offered the most widely cited definition of public relations in the 1980s – “the management of communication between an organisation and its publics”.
The Public Relations Society of America offered a modern (and longer) version of it: “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organisations and their publics.” PR people position themselves as storytellers. They create narratives to advance agendas, adopt a “softer” approach to tell a brand’s history with emotional connections and find stories that readers will be willing to read.
Although things have changed rapidly in communications, a capable PR person still needs to analyse an organisation, find positive messages and translate these messages into positive stories.
“Public relations consists of several aspects such as media relations, social media, influencer marketing, content creation and digital solutions, to name a few,” says Kiri Sinclair, founder and CEO of Sinclair, and chairperson of PRHK, Hong Kong’s PR and communications association.
However, not all can so easily tell the differences between public relations, advertising, or marketing, and the situation frustrates practitioners in the public relations industry.
“A lot of people do not understand the differences between advertising and public relations,” says Eric Chiu, client services director at Elite Step Asia.
“Advertising is sometimes equivalent to ‘hard sell’. But in public relations we tell the stories behind brands with deeper emotional connections.” Chiu also believes media channels are the core of public relations, no matter what the media channels are.
Public relations people have to convince reporters or editors to write a positive story about their clients. When stories appear in the editorial section of a newspaper or magazine, they will have more credibility because they have been independently verified by a reliable third party.
“I think brands intrinsically know the importance of public relations. They need to drive reputation in the long run, but we cannot use advertising value to measure public relations,” Sinclair explains.
PR people have plenty of duties. For example, they have to write and distribute press releases, create and execute special events designed for public outreach and media relations, conduct market research on clients and their messages, offer strategies for public relations crisis, do social media promotions, and respond to negative opinions online.
Traditionally, the industry spent most of its time handling print media. But the rise of social media has changed the scene significantly.
“The boundary of internal and external communications becomes blurred nowadays, thanks to (the prevalence of) social media,” says Hanks Lee, head of corporate communications at A.S. Watson Group, who has 15 years of experience in corporate communications.
“We deploy social listening to understand the latest trends in the social landscape for each of our brands to find out how people feel, and to respond to a particular subject. It’s useful to fine tune our campaigns and product development since we can make sure what we have done is relevant to customers.”
As for public relations agencies, social media has created plenty of opportunities and job vacancies as well. Sinclair says a sophisticated agency now has to have data analysts and programmers.
“These ‘IT geeks’ help us gather data, and more importantly, we have to understand the meaning of this data. Also, agencies now hire people specialising in cinematography to produce online videos, as people’s reading habits have changed from text and images to videos,” she says.
Jane Morgan, managing director of Golin, agrees the enhanced capabilities of handling data brings more opportunities.
“We can now be much stronger and more accurate with creative storytelling because the amount of data, as well as the research we have conducted, truly reflects audiences’ emotional triggers and needs. Data also helps in where we seed the story, particularly on social,” she says.
There is a belief that social media will eventually replace traditional media due to the prevalence of information circulating throughout these platforms. However, a blog post lacks the quality of sourced quotes in an established, well-received, and respected publication.
“Social media can enhance readership. Sometimes a story from traditional media can be put on its official social media account to amplify its influence. Social media is still a type of media, and the connections between public relations and media channels haven’t changed,” Chiu says.
Social media can have a rapid positive and negative effect on a brand’s reputation. For the public relations industry, practitioners need to know the SEO, content development, online newsrooms, blogs and online media coverage to engage different sectors.
“In a world with rapidly changing customer preferences and technologies, it’s important for corporate communications or PR professionals to keep their fingers on the pulse with the market, stay agile and be able to respond quickly,” Lee explains.
From an agency perspective, Morgan agrees with Lee’s comments and says having a solid social media strategy is not just about community management or content creation.
“It’s about being agile, listening to customers and reacting accordingly to create a positive experience.” But one thing hasn’t changed – the importance of targeting the right audience.
Members of the media industry regularly complain about receiving unrelated pitches from public relations practitioners. They fail to meet clients’ expectations and the media’s demand for good stories.
In previous years, brands and the public relations industry simply got in touch with traditional media such as a newspaper with great influence. Both Chiu and Sinclair agree that research is necessary before pitching to reporters and editors.
“In the past, some public relations practitioners did not understand the necessity of tailor-made stories. Even in a publication, you need to have a particular angle for different sections. You cannot just offer a sporting event to finance reporters, but the business or financial elements of the event can engage them,” Chiu says.
For Sinclair, research can help brands avoid potential risk. For example, just because an actor has gained recognition from audiences worldwide doesn’t mean they are popular in their own country.
“Local sensitivity and sensibility are necessary, particularly in China. Many campaigns in China have launched focus groups before launching to avoid criticism from the public,” she says.
“However, Hong Kong is a less sentimental market, and the city has more social channels to convey the messages. But different channels require different languages, it’s already a skill.”
Hong Kong’s PR practitioners have a range of backgrounds. Those hailing from other countries can have educational backgrounds and training that may not be applicable to the local industry.
To improve the industry, PRHK has been collaborating with local universities and offering public relations courses to nurture future talent by creating syllabuses pertinent to the local market, according to Sinclair.
Students receive training in writing, programming and the use of social media. Apart from schools, some agencies also recruit interns. They can obtain experience from working with different brands and clients, and explore their career paths before graduation.
But soft skills are crucial to PR people’s career as well, which include interpersonal skills, personality traits, communication skills, social intelligence and emotional intelligence. Chiu says these soft skills are even more important than writing and programming skills, as these cannot be taught at school, and the skills are indispensable to building a network.
In the digital age, the importance of networking has not been rendered obsolete. On the contrary, possessing good interpersonal skills is conducive to crafting tailor-made stories for reporters.
Speaking on the future of the industry, Sinclair and Chiu are optimistic because there are plenty of good signs. “I think the public relations industry will continue to grow strongly thanks to the increase in media channels. In Hong Kong, there are a lot of media outlets, offering more opportunities for the industry. Social media and traditional media can complement each other, but not replace each other,” Chiu says.
Sinclair thinks the core of the industry, including building brand values, persuasion and crisis management, will not change. “But the form of information consumption won’t be the same as now. I think in more than five years, the use of social media will decrease since people are now already looking for authentic information. They will go for trusted media with an opinion, and research-based materials will receive more attention,” Sinclair concludes.
This article was produced for the May issue of Marketing Magazine. For more features and other magazine-exclusive content from this and upcoming issues, you can subscribe to receive your print copy here or can read our digital version in its entirety here.