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PR in the time of Covid: how technology has kept the practice going

PR in the time of Covid: how technology has kept the practice going

Back in March, the UK entered a period of lockdown in an attempt to stop the spread of Coronavirus.

The public health crisis has not been easy on practitioners overall. The profession’s relatively strong job security has been shaken by announcements such as M&C Saatchi’s salary cuts and Manchester agency SKV Communications being forced to wind up the business. It’s not all bad news though, as Edelman has guaranteed that all of its 6,000 employees’ jobs are safe.

Practitioners have found themselves made redundant, furloughed, or working from home, sometimes juggled alongside challenges like lack of a suitable working space or available childcare. Even for the 31% of practitioners that previously worked from home for at least one day a week, the current sustained home working is surely taking a toll. However, it is worth it to keep ourselves safe from a highly contagious and sometimes fatal virus.

As lockdown measures begin to ease and some agencies begin to return to their offices, it is worth reflecting on how the profession coped during the difficult time. The picture may not be as bleak as it initially seems.

Public relations practitioners are lucky in that it takes a relatively basic amount of kit to complete tasks. Most responsibilities can be completed armed with either a laptop or smart phone and internet access. Prior to lockdown, there was debate on whether it was appropriate to continue pitching to journalists, and how to go about it if so. Social media enabled practitioners to share opinions and best practice with each other, including the weekly #PowerAndInfluence Twitter discussion that recently explored the ethics of pitching for new business during a pandemic.


It hasn’t been all work and no play, either. TechJPR, a Facebook group for technology PR and journalism professionals, has run virtual quiz nights for its members, enabling PR practitioners to take advantage of a socially distant but still social aspect of media relationship building.

Despite mounting financial uncertainty for businesses, many have continued to invest in their public relations and communications functions, as urged by the PR Week editor back in April. So, new business pitches have taken place via video conference. Press releases have been sent, and instead of the usual posed handshake photographs, accompanying images are Zoom screenshots featuring a grid of faces. New brands are still launching, and some practitioners have applied for new jobs, undergone interviews, and started a new role entirely virtually from their own homes.

Much has been said in the past about how technology has affected public relations and will impact its future. I am sure that more scholarly viewpoints than mine will be released when the pandemic is over and there has been enough time and distance to study this extraordinary period in our profession’s history. For now, though, we can definitely say that practitioners have needed to rapidly adapt to this (hopefully temporary) new normal, and have achieved this with the help of the technological tools available to them.

Brand responses to #BlackLivesMatter

Brand responses to #BlackLivesMatter

The death of George Floyd sparked a global anti-racism movement. “Justice for George Floyd” quickly became the most signed petition on Protests begun in the US, including at the site of his death in Minneapolis, and quickly spread to other countries around the world including the UK, Japan, France, Germany, Poland, Columbia, and Brazil.

George Floyd’s death triggered a resurgence of Black Lives Matter, a project created in 2013 in response to the acquittal of the man who fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Much of this campaign has been enabled by social media, particularly the use of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, used to raise awareness of and combat anti-black racism and white supremacy.

Three days after George Floyd’s death, the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag peaked on social media – according to Pew Research Centre, it was tweeted 8.8 million times that day alone. In the weeks afterwards, it was tweeted an average of nearly 3.7 million times a day.

As the Black Lives Matter continued to gain huge momentum, and silence was viewed as complicity, organisations began to identify themselves as advocates of the movement.

[AdAge has published a detailed and regularly updated overview of brand responses to racial injustice here.]

However, as outlined in Edgett’s Ethical Framework for Advocacy, communications need to be defensible against attacks on their validity:  It is expected that “audiences will challenge the information communicated to them, and that the communicator should be able to legitimately defend against such challenges.” Social media users began criticising those that were perceived to be jumping on the bandwagon with performative statements that didn’t truly reflect the organisation’s values.

Despite the criticism, some organisations have been lauded for their attempts to support the cause.  The brand that has “gone the hardest” in publicly supporting Black Lives Matter is ice cream brand Ben and Jerry’s. It added to the conversation by using multiple digital platforms to condemn racism and white supremacy. In a strongly-worded statement posted on its website, it outlined the need for people to speak out against these social injustices, and set out four clear calls to action.

All of us at Ben & Jerry’s are outraged about the murder of another Black person by Minneapolis police officers last week and the continued violent response by police against protestors. We have to speak out. We have to stand together with the victims of murder, marginalization, and repression because of their skin color, and with those who seek justice through protests across our country. We have to say his name: George Floyd.”

– Excerpt from Ben & Jerry’s website

It also posted messages of support on its social media pages:


Aside from the strong wording of the messaging that points to clear actions and goals, the Ben and Jerry’s responses are viewed as legitimate because they are consistent with the organisation’s past actions; it has been a vocal advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement since 2016.

More recently, the brand has boycotted paid for Facebook and Instagram ads to support the #StopHateForProfit campaign, which calls for social media platforms to take action against the spread of racism online.

Ben and Jerry’s messaging was then amplified further by multiple news organisations that covered the statements, including the Evening Standard, the Independent, and Metro.


Header Image: Ice Cream Van by Eveline de Bruin from Pixabay 

Cyber threats: Why is the PR industry ignoring its own vulnerability?

Cyber threats: Why is the PR industry ignoring its own vulnerability?

EasyJet hit with £18bn lawsuit over massive customer data breach”

Gloucestershire Council staff leave after data breaches”

Honda’s global operations hit by cyber-attack”

These are just three examples of major cyber incidents that hit headlines this month. It’s not surprising that cyber security is an increasingly talked-about issue; attacks are becoming more frequent. In May 2020, an estimated 8.8 billion data records were breached.

The public relations industry is no stranger to threats of this kind because, as demonstrated by the above articles, any cyber security breach represents a huge threat to reputation. Organisations that lose or expose their customers’ personal and financial data also risk losing their trust. Plenty has been written on this reputational threat and how PR teams should respond if an incident occurs. A quick Google search uncovers dozens of PR firms claiming to specialise in cyber security. “I was hacked” has become a convenient crisis communications response (or excuse) deployed when politicians come under fire for their social media activity.

Despite this, public relations firms are not taking steps to protect themselves. Employees are the single biggest risk factor for data breeches. They can fall victim to a scam, but it could also be something as simple as failing to create and update strong passwords, or not using an up-to-date version of software. Yet, it’s incredibly rare to find PR agencies with a comprehensive policy and employee training on cyber security. There seems to be no mention of cyber security within the online educational resources or training course outlines on either the PRCA or CIPR website, even though “digital” is a common theme.

It may be that they have a sense of false security; stories on cyber attacks usually centre around large or household name organisations and high-profile individuals. In reality, smaller organisations are more vulnerable because they are perceived to be an easier target. For example, SME PR agencies rarely have a dedicated ICT department.

In fact, there are nearly 10,000 daily attacks on small businesses. According to one report by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, a third (32%) of businesses suffered a breach or attack in one year, with that figure almost doubling for medium businesses (60%). One of the criteria for being an SME in the UK is having fewer than 250 employees, and the majority of UK PR and communications firms have less than 99. This leaves most PR firms at significant risk.

Most PR agencies use online services such as email, online banking, websites, social media, and cloud-based data storage facilities. Many will have Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies where employees will use personal laptops or mobile phones for work-related activities. This creates lots of potential vulnerabilities. This seeming indifference of practitioners regarding cyber threats is especially concerning considering the amount of confidential data that they store or have access to. This includes commercially sensitive information about clients, the agency’s own financial data, personal information about employees, and the contact details of journalists – all of which would be valuable and a potential target for cyber criminals.

There is usually a lot of focus on the implications of a cyber security breach]. This is for good reason; financial losses, business disruption, regulatory fines, and reputational damage are some of the negative potential outcomes. Many smaller businesses will never recover from the hit of a serious cyber incident.

However, there are plenty of positives that can be achieved through a proactive approach to cyber security:

New business development

Many larger organisations rely on SME organisations, including public relations agencies. As awareness of the need for cyber security spreads, more of these potential clients will require PR firms tendering for business  to demonstrate that they have a proactive and comprehensive cyber security policy, to help protect the whole supply chain.

Boosting reputation

The public relations industry has long suffered from an image problem. Taking a diligent attitude towards cyber security could improve the reputational standing of agencies. It shows a willingness to go beyond doing only what is required by law, such as meeting GDPR regulations. It also provides an opportunity to advise clients on the importance of cyber security, especially in avoiding any potential crisis communications scenarios, and the PR firm is seen to be practising what it preaches.

Improving relationships with journalists

Media relations is a key aspect of the day-to-day for many public relations practitioners. Those that are observing best practice in terms of storing and using the data of journalists are likely to build better relationships. For example, journalists may be more willing to have their contact data and information about their interests stored on a PR mailing list if they know that data is secured and being used responsibly.

Building trust with clients

Some public relations scholars believe that PR is most successful when it is involved in strategic management and organisational decisions. Practitioners may be more likely to be granted increased access to boardroom-level confidential information that influences strategy where clients can be assured that any classified data is as secure as possible.

Quicker recovery

Even the most secure organisations can still fall victim to a cyber attack or breach. However, having certain elements of cyber security in place allows for quicker recovery. For example, a ransomware attack can lock down systems or files and ask for money to unlock them, but an agency or practitioner whose work documents are safely and remotely backed-up will be able to return to normal quickly, so there is barely any business interruption.

It is high time public relations took cyber security seriously by raising awareness of its importance and setting it as an industry-wide standard. It is unethical to leave the sensitive data of clients, journalists, and employees exposed, and any attack or breach could prove fatal to SME PR and communications firms. Protecting against cyber risks will benefit individual agencies and improve the reputation of the industry overall.

Are you sure you want to share that?

Are you sure you want to share that?

Earlier this month, Twitter announced a new feature on the platform: a prompt designed to encourage users to read articles before sharing them.

The update came in the form of a Tweet that read:

“Sharing an article can spark conversation, so you may want to read it before you Tweet it.

To help promote informed discussion, we’re testing a new prompt on Android –– when you Retweet an article that you haven’t opened on Twitter, we may ask if you’d like to open it first.”

The update is just one of many current trials by Twitter, including a new app interface to make tweet conversations easier to read, and a capability that allows users to limit the amount of people that can reply to their tweets. In May, it also announced the trial of a prompt that appears if a user attempts to send a tweet containing “language that could be harmful”, asking the user to consider revising their language.

For now, this trial is only taking place on the Twitter app for Android, for some English-speaking users. If the trial is successful and the feature is rolled out platform-wide, users that retweet a link to an article without first clicking on that link will see a message asking if they’d like to read the article before sharing it. Twitter will only use data on whether users have recently clicked through to the article from a tweet; it can’t account for users that may have already read the article through another platform or accessed it directly through a publication’s website or print copy. It is hoped that inserting this extra step (that some have called a “shaming tactic“)  will persuade people into reading past the headline of online articles before sharing them.

If the trial does successfully encourage more people to read an article’s contents before sharing it, and Twitter rolls it out as a permanent, platform-wide feature, it could have implications for public relations. The prompt is designed to slow the spread of misinformation online and improve the quality of online discourse but could also have an impact on engagement – or at least, what some PR practitioners describe as engagement.

The concept of engagement has become increasingly important and popular in public relations, and has been suggested as a potential new paradigm for PR. In both academia and practice, engagement is generally viewed as a positive, something to achieve and maintain, and crucial to the success of organisations in the new digital media landscape. Social media are used as tools for engagement between organisations and their publics. Organisations have “digital engagement teams” within communications departments, and even the UK’s royal family has a “head of digital engagement”.

However, the term “engagement” is ambiguous; it has been used at a theoretical level to describe dialogue and interactions, a relationship between an organisation and its stakeholders, and as a process of online interactivity and communication. “Engagement” is also sometimes used by practitioners as a metric, deployed to measure and report on the success of social media communications. Twitter defines engagements as the “total number of times a user interacted with a Tweet”.  Counting these engagements – which include retweets, likes, and clicks on links – enables calculation of the “engagement rate” of each social media post: the total number of engagements divided by the number of users that have seen the tweet. In recent years, engagement rates have been lauded by some as a measurement for influence, advocacy, and loyalty. Others see this as a “superficial” way of attempting to measure and define a psychological concept.

A study by Columbia University and Microsoft, entitled Social Clicks: What and Who Gets Read on Twitter? found that the sharing behaviour of users (such as retweeting) is vastly different from clicking behaviours; researchers estimated that 59% of links shared on Twitter are never actually clicked on. So, for practitioners that use social media figures as a measure of engagement, Twitter’s new feature may not be appreciated.

Users receiving the prompt will still be able to choose to retweet the article without clicking through to read it first, so people may continue to retweet based on headlines alone. However, should the prompt be effective in convincing users to read the article before retweeting, some may realise that they don’t agree with the points made in the piece, or that the headline doesn’t reflect the article, and decide not to retweet after all. Others may decide not to retweet because they still don’t want to read the article, but have changed their mind about sharing it. In both scenarios, it is likely that engagement rates would drop. Practitioners that use it as a way of measuring and reporting on the success of PR activity would likely see a negative impact on their results.

The average engagement rates of different social media receive a lot of attention in the industry. Each platform has different features, but the figures inform communications strategies by helping practitioners – and social media “influencers” – decide where to focus their efforts.  Twitter’s engagement rate is already low compared to other platforms, so it is possible that the prompt may not be rolled out if it causes a further drop to avoid loss of users.

For now, the prompt only appears in relation to links to news outlet domains, but it’s plausible that Twitter could expand the feature to all links, such as blog posts hosted on brand websites. Even if it does stay entirely focused on news organisations, practitioners should be encouraging users to click through to read the whole article; despite the hype around social media there is still value for public relations in positive media coverage, and this helps to support news outlets, many of which now rely on revenue from online visitors in order to survive.

It remains to be seen whether this prompt will become a permanent feature. It is also very unlikely that any data on this experiment will be publicly released, partly because it is commercially sensitive information for Twitter, but also because there are ethical questions surrounding the tracking of clicks and user privacy online.

If Twitter’s new feature works, it may make it harder for pieces of content to “go viral”, but it also holds potential to encourage public relations practitioners to stop aiming for high retweet figures and what some scholars have called “faux engagement”. Instead, the industry can refocus efforts on finding better ways to define and achieve genuine engagement with publics – even if that is much more complicated to measure.


Twitter, blogs, and trust in the Durham scandal

Twitter, blogs, and trust in the Durham scandal

Information is a crucial tool in the management of a pandemic.  Governments need quality information when forming public health strategies, medical workers use it to make appropriate decisions when providing healthcare, and the public need to know how they can keep themselves safe.

The current Coronavirus outbreak has become a global crisis. In the UK alone, as of the 5th June, more than 40,400 people who had tested positive for Coronavirus had died. There has been a lot of debate about the UK Government’s handling of the pandemic, and much of it centres on criticism of its communications strategy. How successfully the Government distributes its public health messages, such as guidance on what people can and should be doing, affects how many people will fall ill to a potentially fatal virus.

According to a survey from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, trust in the UK Government as a source of accurate information on Coronavirus has declined substantially since April. This decline in trust in has been reported across the political spectrum, from people who defined themselves as left-wing, centre, and right-wing. The overall proportion of people who said they were very or extremely concerned about false or misleading information about coronavirus from the UK Government has increased by 11%.

Gaining and keeping trust is important in public relations, particularly in online communications. In times where uncertainty could mean danger, people tend to actively engage in information seeking, and increasingly use newer forms of media, including the Internet and social networks, to do so.

It has been suggested that some of this decline in trust can be attributed to the uproar about Dominic Cummings, a special adviser who travelled to Durham whilst he was supposed to be self-isolating in London. After The Guardian and The Mirror published details of a joint investigation into the trip, the story dominated print and digital headlines and some social media, particularly Twitter. The news on Cummings’ trip to Durham started a debate on the legality and ethicality of his actions, much of it taking place on social media. Meanwhile, some social media accounts urged users to write to their MPs to express opinions on whether Cummings should be fired from his role; hundreds of thousands of emails were sent.

Two of the main forms of trust are systemic (where an individual trusts an organisation) and interpersonal (where an individual trusts another person, or both trust each other). Interpersonal trust can have a positive influence on systemic trust; if a representative of a political party is considered trustworthy, it can help to build trust in the party itself. Although not a politician, Dominic Cummings, as chief adviser to prime minister Boris Johnson, could reasonably be viewed as a representative of the Conservative Party. Therefore, his “trustworthiness” impacts on that of the UK Government.

One individual deciding whether they think another person is trustworthy is subjective and based on whether they perceive that person to possess relevant traits, such as “ability” and “integrity”. Attribution theories describe how people explain what causes the behaviour of themselves or others. Either the augmentation principle or the discounting principle can be used in this process. Under the augmentation principle, we attribute someone’s behaviour as being down to internal factors, such as personality traits or motivation. By contrast, the discounting principle attributes behaviour as a result of external factors.

The way that we attribute characteristics to others can be influenced by whether we perceive similarities – or not – between them and us. This could be because when we think that someone is like us, our self-serving bias is triggered. This bias describes how people tend to justify their successes using the augmentation principle, and their failures using the discounting principle. Accomplishments are likely to be accredited to internal factors such as hard work and competence, whereas failures are put down to unfavourable conditions or unavoidable circumstances.

Dominic Cummings has previously been described as “anti-establishment” because of the casual clothes he wears in parliament and his own personal blog, which regularly criticises “those at the apex of power”, accusing them of blaming failures on “lies” and the “devilish use of technology to twist minds” rather than their “endemic dysfunctional decision-making”. However, in this situation, he was perceived by some social media users to be one of the elites, rather than an ordinary member of the public, as demonstrated by numerous “one rule for them and one for us” tweets, which were spurred on by Labour politicians including Kier Starmer.

On the 25th May, Cummings gave a press conference, where he outlined his reasons for the trip. Using the discounting principle, he explained that he had been in a “complicated, tricky situation”. Those who stood up for him agreed that he was simply following guidelines or doing the best he could in difficult circumstances. Those that believed his actions to be unreasonable – likely those that do not see a similarity between themselves and Cummings – attributed it to Cummings’ personal wants and motivations, suggesting it was a selfish decision taken because he wanted a day out on his wife’s birthday, or to see his parents.

Source – BBC News. Video posted according to the BBC sharables Terms of Use. The full article can be accessed here

Tweets from several conservative MPs in support of Cummings were sent following the press conference. They themselves came under fire from social media users (including political opponents) who suggested that the tweets were inauthentic, stemming from similarities between the tweets. Many of the messages did seem to contain three matching elements: a line about how Cummings had explained himself, had done the best he could under the circumstances, and that it was now time to “move on”. Earlier that day, the head of data journalism at The Economist had already taken to Twitter to question the authenticity of tweets from Conservative MPs, highlighting four tweets from separate MPs that were posted within an hour of each other, but contained the exact same sentence. For some social media users, this perception of inauthenticity will have eroded interpersonal trust in the politicians, and therefore the systemic trust in the Conservative Party.

In the same press conference, Cummings stated that he had already warned of the dangers of coronavirus on his blog: “last year I wrote about the possible threat of coronaviruses and the urgent need for planning.” However, the same day, claims began circulating on Twitter that Cummings had lied. One tweet, alleging that he had actually retroactively edited a 2019 blog post, amassed over 13,000 retweets.

The independent fact-checking charity Full Fact found that he had indeed updated an older blog post to include mentions of SARS and coronavirus. The edits had taken place in April 2020, months after the pandemic began. This set the agenda for more press coverage about Cummings, accusing him of trying to “rewrite history” and questioning his priorities.

Without the “gatekeepers” of traditional media – such as news editors, who are assumed to be checking content for credibility before allowing it to be published – users have to make their own minds up about the trustworthiness of messages they find on social media and blogs. Cummings seems to have underestimated the abilities of users to fact-check his statements about his blog, and then share their findings to large social media audiences. Drawing attention to his blog at a time when online discourse was already dominated by questions of his trustworthiness only drew attention to the edits, compounding the problem.

The effectiveness of the Government’s communications during the coronavirus outbreak is likely to be studied beyond this pandemic and could affect the outcome of future elections. How Dominic Cummings and Conservative politicians communicated during the Durham trip scandal, and the damage it may have done to systemic trust in the Government, should serve as a warning to public relations practitioners; a perception of authenticity is important when building and maintaining trust.

Robo PR: are practitioner’s jobs at risk?

Robo PR: are practitioner’s jobs at risk?

A recent guest blog by Eleonora Terzi on discussed the need for PR practitioners to get ahead of Artificial Intelligence. In the post, Eleonora outlines the important questions she is addressing in her postgraduate dissertation, such as how AI will affect jobs and skills in the industry, and reassures readers that we are a long way from the feared situation of AI becoming too intelligent; the bots are not taking over anytime soon.

“Like many other practitioners, I am hopeful that a transparent future for AI is indeed possible – if the correct effort is put in making this a reality. I expect the skills we have learned so far will still be useful; however, it can be argued that in order to be indispensable hereafter, a new set of competencies will have to be mastered.”

– Eleonora Terzi, 2020

The blog reminded me of a short blog I wrote back in 2016 sharing my views on whether the public relations industry was under threat from AI. That post was inspired by a conference talk on how AI could transform the workplace, and reports at the time that showed nearly half of job roles could be replaced by AI capabilities. Back then, other professions were being told that their jobs were at risk due to technological advances, and there seemed to be a particular focus on how robots would supposedly replace teachers. My prediction at the time was that AI would not replace PR practitioners in our lifetime.

So, nearly half a decade on, has the threat level changed?

The fact that Artificial Intelligence has begun to receive more attention from public relations scholars could indicate that it is becoming more relevant in the field.

Thinking positively, AI could help to solve the industry’s problem with work/life balance. In the CIPR State of the Profession 2019 report, the top three factors contributing to workplace stress were “heavy/unmanageable workload”, “unrealistic deadlines”, and the “always on culture”. Applications that successfully take some of the repetitive, administrative, or analytical workload off practitioners – for example, scanning media coverage for sentiment – could lighten the load and lead to improved overall wellbeing for practitioners. In the same report, only 12% of respondents cited “job insecurity” as a cause of workplace stress, so practitioners do not currently seem overly worried about any encroachment of AI.

Public relations practitioners are also expected to possess an increasingly diverse skill set, so I have no doubt that successfully working alongside AI capabilities is well within our grasp. Besides, there is speculation that in the coming years AI will start to create more jobs than it eliminates – it’s possible that PR roles will shift to include tasks such as “training” AI, but the humans wont be replaced by that AI. Rather, it could free practitioners up to perform higher-level, more strategic PR whilst algorithms take care of the boring jobs.

It may be that in the coming years, PR teams could attempt to use AI as a content creation tool, but there are serious risks. This was demonstrated recently when Microsoft replaced human journalists with artificial intelligence code. The AI failed to tell Jade Thirlwall apart from another mixed-race member of the pop group, Leigh-Anne Pinnock, using a photo of the latter to illustrate a story about the former. Ironically, the theme of the article in question was racism. Hopefully, public relations practitioners are more aware of the impact that biased AI can have on reputation – if not society as a whole – and would be more careful in deploying similar software.

At its core, public relations is still based upon relationships, with authenticity and trust two key elements of that. Artificial Intelligence is far from being able to replicate the ability of humans to cultivate relationships, and so I still believe that the robots are not coming for our jobs.


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