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From Traditional to Digital – The Evolution of PR and its Impact on Businesses

PR has experienced a significant transformation over the past decade. Brought about by the rapid pace of technology and digital advancements, PR now looks completely different to its original form. The foundations are the same – employing creative communications and leveraging media contacts to help businesses to increase visibility and market share. But now the way we approach and deliver PR support is now more expansive and complex than ever before – presenting many new opportunities to get your brand in the right place at the right time – and in front of the right people. 

The transformative impact of digital technologies on PR practices has completely revolutionised the way we connect brands with customers. But what effect does this continue to have on businesses, and how can companies adapt and update their approach to make the most of this shift? 

Here we’ll discuss the changing landscape of PR and its emerging trends, as well as the business implications for brands eager to cut through the noise and get noticed. 

Traditional PR practices

Although so much of what we do and how we do it looks very different compared with 20 years ago, the foundational principles of traditional PR remain relatively unchanged. PR is all about building trust and credibility and establishing meaningful connections with your target audience, employing various mediums to reach and communicate with them. 

How we go about this does look a lot different compared with the earlier days of PR. Traditionally, businesses had fewer options available to build and manage their public image – such as printed press, television and radio. The key components of traditional PR strategies were strong connections with journalists and industry insiders and an understanding of a brand and its audience, both of which enabled PR teams to link brands up with the perfect opportunities and arenas for them to increase visibility. Traditional media channels played a significant role in shaping public perception – and if you didn’t have access to them (or if they weren’t interested in working with you), very few alternative options remained. 

Thankfully things have progressed significantly since then. Although the same values and priorities underpin every campaign, the delivery of traditional PR differs dramatically from modern approaches. With the expansion of digital tools available there are now so many more ways we can reach audiences. Although the complexity and numerous new techniques of digital PR can be overwhelming for brands to get to grips with, the expansion of what’s possible in PR is a good thing. It opens up the playing field to fresh, disruptive brands and makes widespread recognition attainable for anybody with the right skills and/or support to help them get noticed.

Digital transformation in PR

The shift from traditional to digital PR strategies has come about incredibly quickly – which has left a number of companies scrabbling to catch up. Within the past decade we’ve seen space-age style technological advances which have changed many different aspects of modern life, including buyer behaviours and media consumption and of course, PR. 

There are too many changes to cover in detail here – but some of the most fundamental differences involve the communication channels we now have available and the ways we interact both with promotional platforms and audiences. This revolution is due to the expansion of social media networks and online platforms, which offer a perfect solution for brands seeking to make a more memorable connection with potential customers. You could also argue that the nature of how we communicate and share with audiences has allowed us to deepen our relationship with brands, because there are many more opportunities for us to interact with them on an emotional level. 

In the past a PR professional’s toolkit was relatively compact – consisting of a pen, a notepad and a little black book filled with media contacts and journalists. Now there are numerous digital tools which are not only nice to have but essential for modern PR practitioners – such as an appreciation of digital marketing skills like SEO, influencer collaborations and an intimate understanding of social media networks.

Another aspect of contemporary digital PR is time – in the past, there were only a few ways we could reach an audience immediately and this limited opportunities where there could be real-time interaction with a brand. Now we have more channels delivering real-time information dissemination, which has impacted communication both positively and negatively. Although there are advantages associated with being able to reach an audience immediately and receive an instant response, sometimes this can go against brands. With no buffer between when information is posted and when it is received, bad news can carry just as quickly as a positive review and begin to damage your reputation before you’re even aware of it. Monitoring the vast online space for mentions both good and bad is one of the essential aspects of modern PR – and one of the most challenging. 

The changing landscape of media consumption

One of the key challenges for contemporary PR professionals to navigate is the significant shift in how people consume information. In the past, there were only a handful of fixed channels through which your audience could get to know details of different brands and their offerings. This made PR much more simple and brand visibility more secure – but it also made exposure much less accessible for smaller brands and start-ups who lacked the resources to meet the huge fees of these big platforms. 

Over time, print media expanded to include the likes of radio and television, representing a ‘big three’ for PR professionals to focus on in years gone by. But in this digital age we now have thousands of touchpoints to choose from, from websites and apps to social media platforms, podcasts and online press – which is good news and bad news for brands. 

On one hand, the shift to digital media has positively affected the reach of PR campaigns, making it possible to reach thousands of people within minutes across multiple platforms. But modern media consumption habits also present a number of challenges – including selecting the right channels and employing the correct techniques to use them to your advantage. 

Adapting to new media habits can feel quite natural for users – but for those of us looking to harness the promotional power of new digital channels it’s easy to get it wrong and difficult to know where to begin. This is another aspect of modern PR which differs to the old days – where before PR professionals were sought out for their ability to connect brands with publications and communicate both with them and with their desired audiences, now we are also sought out for our knowledge and expertise of how to interact with different platforms to get brands in front of a wider audience. Often there are a few easy things you can do to start with which you can build upon as you go – such as tentative outreach and interaction with potential influencers, exploring new types of content and focusing on proactive engagement on socials

Many companies make the mistake of jumping on the latest digital marketing trends without having good digital PR practices to underpin their efforts. With stumbling blocks like poor content, no crisis management set-up in place or inconsistent effort to navigate, sometimes putting yourself ‘out there’ can do more harm than good. 

Still, incorporating emerging trends within your digital PR strategy often generates rapid results, provided you take the time to understand how they work and what’s needed to employ them to your advantage most effectively. Two of the current most talked-about trends in digital PR include influencer marketing and content creation. Because they’re so new, these strategies often are misunderstood or mishandled by businesses and as a result, brands can struggle to see results. 

Influencer marketing is fast becoming an integral cog in the wheel of digital PR – with most PR firms having an influencer-focused branch of some kind. That’s because they offer a direct and incredibly persuasive line of communication between you and your target customers. There’s often more emotion tied to our connection with an individual than with the brand itself. There’s a reason that these digital brand ambassadors are known as influencers – because the content they share is often incredibly influential and encourages followers to buy and use the products and services they promote. 

Despite its infancy, influencer marketing has already undergone several rounds of evolution, including different tiers or types such as micro, nano and mega to suit different budgets, which is good news as it makes influencer marketing accessible for smaller brands too. We’ve shared more on working with influencers here in our comprehensive guide to mastering influencer marketing. 

We’re also experiencing some cross-over now between the realms of digital marketing and digital PR. In the past a PR team would have limited input in the running of sales platforms or the way in which a brand’s website is managed, for example – but now both SEO and online reputation management are two side of the same coin. 

Opportunities for businesses in the digital era

There are countless potential benefits for businesses that choose to embrace digital PR sooner rather than later. That’s because when done right, digital PR is a comprehensive and cost-effective one-stop solution for brands that need to get noticed. These benefits are closely tied to the versatility of digital PR, which is comprised of many diverse professional services and techniques.

The digital PR umbrella is huge and encompasses many different aspects of online marketing, all of which present vital opportunities to get in front of your audience. With brand visibility which cuts through the noise being more crucial than ever before, opening up more opportunities to reach your customers alongside easier ways to engage with them can be a powerful combination. 

Something that has seen a surge during these developments in the digital space is storytelling. In PR we use storytelling as a technique to help forge an emotional connection between brands and their ideal customers, creating narratives that help them subconsciously resonate with what a business has to offer. Avenues such as social media and mediums such as imagery, video content and immersive digital experiences all lend themselves perfectly to more expansive and experiential storytelling, which in turn leads to more engaged and positively influenced audiences. 

What are the challenges of adapting to digital PR?

With so much change happening in such a short period of time, there are countless obstacles businesses face when transitioning to digital PR. Usually it takes a re-evaluation and complete overhaul of existing marketing and PR efforts, involving a blended team of professionals who can put new practices and approaches in place. 

There are various different challenges for brands as they make the shift from traditional to digital PR approaches – including cost, resources and time. To stay ahead (and avoid wasting time and money), businesses must adopt an agile and dynamic approach to their digital PR efforts. Being adaptive, flexible and responsive when tackling PR for your company is crucial, as this enables you to navigate the constant changes with more ease and continue to build on your success. 

Online reputation management is another key concern for businesses in the digital age. Positive reviews are essential in order to build a solid reputation which cultivates trust and credibility for your company. At the same time, it’s easier than ever before to be taken down by a few negative comments or reviews – even if they aren’t genuine. Proactive and appropriate engagement with both positive and potentially damaging comments is now crucial for most brands and public figures. We’ve written more on online reputation management over here. 

Change is uncomfortable for a lot of people, so organisations face a challenge here to ensure that everyone is on board and can embrace new technologies and approaches as necessary. Many businesses stay stuck with outdated PR strategies because they have very knowledgeable yet stubborn team leaders who prefer to stay close to what’s familiar. In these cases, demonstrating that digital PR is building on these skills and strategies as opposed to replacing them can be effective. 

It’s also important to recognise that things will continue to change – and to put infrastructure in place which enables your teams to quickly discover and adopt new mediums, channels and techniques. Companies need to provide training, support and dedicate time to enable their teams to deliver in-house and collaborate effectively with external professionals and agencies. Through focusing on the positive impact these changes can have and being mindful of the difficulties adopting new techniques can bring up, implementing a fresh approach to digital PR can be seen as an exciting and positive initiative rather than a confusing and inconvenient development. This approach can also help to overcome any resistance organisations experience within their workforce. 

What’s next? 

Hopefully this potted history of the evolution of PR and overview of new developments has inspired and motivated you to explore new ways to enhance brand visibility and ensure your business isn’t left behind as the digital space continues to move forward at an increasingly rapid pace. Integrating digital PR techniques alongside the traditional is now essential for most businesses – and due to the complexity of these tools professional support and guidance is often required to get it right. Digital PR has revolutionised the way brands communicate with their customers, as well as changing the way PR professionals work with businesses to support their growth. 

As you can see, despite the challenges change can bring, there are steps businesses can take to navigate the challenges and opportunities presented by the digital era of PR successfully – from understanding the new methods available to embracing emerging media channels. Adopting a holistic, tailored approach is important, as every audience and business has different needs. This allows businesses to adapt to the evolving landscape of PR at their own pace, incorporating new techniques and tools responsively rather than rushing to keep up. 

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