From Tutankhamun to Twitter: PR now lives online

Did internet kill the PR star? Some say public relations is a dated profession, while others insist that the online arena is giving it a new lease of life. Ahmed Ahmed, Online PR Manager at Tomorrow People, gives his take on the evolving world of online PR.

The world’s oldest profession…

Forget what you may have heard; I’m fairly sure that reputation management ranks as one of, if not the, world’s oldest lines of work. A flick through the history books should reveal some of the creative, questionable or downright dastardly lengths that the great and good have gone to in order to influence public opinion.

Need a far-fetched but plausible example? The pharaohs of Ancient Egypt definitely knew how to play the PR game. Never appearing in public unless bedecked in gold and surrounded by slaves, ancient leaders used pageantry and images in a largely preliterate age, to communicate influence and power.

The age of mass media (and bowler hats)

What we tend to regard as traditional PR came about during the early 20th century, tapping into the popularity of print media. Quoting from Wikipedia (unashamedly — crowdsourced info is the way forward), PR could be defined as ‘the practice of managing the flow of information between an individual or an organisation and the public.’

Unlike advertising, which involves paying for carefully crafted promotional messages, the fledgling PR industry focused on trying to create positive associations and newsworthy events around particular products and causes.

Torches of Freedom in 1929 is one of the most famous publicity stunts of all time. Although it was for a tobacco company (everyone ‘tut’ together now), it is a powerful example of how traditional PR aims to kickstart conversation and exposure around a brand or organisation by doing something the mainstream media will feel compelled to shout about.

The arrival of the interwebs

This is where our traditional ‘managing the flow of information’ starts to get into trouble. Gone are the glory days of the carefully crafted press release sent (sometimes by post!) to a traditional newspaper. Although releases, short summaries of newsworthy information sent to journalists, are still a big part of PR, the internet and social media have added a dimension that cannot be overestimated – you and me.

So what is online PR?

If ‘traditional PR’ is all about getting coverage in newspapers and on the telly, then you might think online PR is just about getting coverage on news websites. But the online environment is more than simply ‘the same but on a website’. The internet and social media have provided a platform for bloggers, enthusiasts, ordinary ‘netizens’ (awful word, not mine) to exert influence and give exposure, both positive and negative, to brands.

Online PR is still about building relationships and influencing people, but using all the new tools at our disposal, including social media sites like Twitter, and a slightly altered attitude. The internet is full of thriving specialist communities. Helping a few influential bloggers to understand and appreciate your client is potentially far more beneficial than getting the brand mentioned somewhere deep in the pages of a large newspaper.

The fast and the furious

And the other thing about online PR? It moves quickly. And when it goes wrong, it really goes wrong. Angry customers have always complained, but to their friends and neighbours. Now, the world is listening. One slip-up can quickly go viral and let loose a PR nightmare. But on the other hand, create something incredible that people want to share, and you could gain amazing exposure around the world. Just ask Bodyform.

Tomorrow People is a Birmingham-based digital consultancy specialising in inbound and content marketing. The company runs internships and is keen to hear from students and graduates with a flair for marketing and communications. To learn more, visit their website.

Image by vasile23