Public Relations on the Net

I had the good fortune to learn the art and science of public relations in a large organization (a trade association for a financial services provider). We had a ten-person PR team, each with a specialty. I got to learn from all of them. We had a speech writer, a media relations manager, a special events manager, industry news editor, and a director of state affiliates relations. My beat was employee communications and I edited print newsletters and provided photography services.

We were in the Midwest, and we had a busy governmental relations team in Washington, DC. We corresponded with Washington via a proprietary network (similar to CompuServe) which required logging in via dial up. (This was in the late 1980s.) Every week we collaborated on industry news stories and put together a newsletter every Thursday night (and there were some LONG Thursday nights). We printed out a single copy of the final product on a local office printer, then hand delivered it to our print shop late that night. Early Friday mornings the print shop crew came to work and fired up their massive printing machines, mass produced the newsletter, and got it into the mail so it would arrive in our members’ mailboxes Monday.

It was fun, and could be exciting. It amazes me now to think we did that without email and without the Web.

Given that background I really appreciate the new communication tools at our disposal. No more dial up connections! No more worrying about the mailman doing his job on time (he usually did).

We were using one-to-many communications. Now I’m having to un-learn that. As part of my re-education as a PR practitioner I read Shel Holtz’s book “Public Relations on the Net” (American Management Association, 2nd ed., 2002). He wrote it to help communicators like myself and our organizations figure out how to achieve measurable business results by using the Internet to communicate.

In addition to its value as a guide to strategically incorporating new media into a PR program, I recommend this book as a reminder of what the public relations field is all about – or is supposed to be.

One point Holtz keeps emphasizing is that the best public relations efforts are two-way and symmetrical – they afford both the company and the strategic audience equal opportunities to participate in the discussion and, even more important, equal opportunities to achieve their objectives.

As a whole, PR practitioners like myself have work to do in terms of using new communications media. The public often does a better job of online public relations than the professionals themselves, Holtz says, citing examples of activist groups and other passionate people who do a better job of understanding the Internet’s networked nature and using it to their advantage.

To effectively employ a medium as part of a communication strategy communicators must be intimately familiar with the medium. Holtz says to become better at online public relations, communicators must spend time online. PR practitioners should be the “eyes and ears” of the organization online, monitoring constituent content, extracting value from that content, and providing intelligence based on that content, which our organization can use to make strategic business decisions.

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