Kirk Hallahan, professor at Colorado State University, is the recipient of the 2007 Pathfinder Award for outstanding scholarly contributions to professional knowledge. Hallahan, a former practitioner with 19 years of experience, has focused his recent research on the application of online technologies to public relations practice. Here he summarizes much of what he has learned into four observations.

1. Public relations activities cannot be segregated from an organization’s other uses of technology.

The uses of new communications technology in public relations must be examined within the context of how organizations use new communications technologies to manage the enterprise as a whole. Communications technologies have altered both structure and function. Changes include a flattening of organizational hierarchies, the decentralization and delegation of responsibilities, a redefinition of job functions, and the creation of a cybercentric or virtual work environment where leaders are no longer centrally located in one headquarters and tasks are performed by virtual teams. Work is performed using the same technologies commonly used in public relations to reach both external and internal stakeholders. Customers and others are increasingly asked to interact with organizations through web- and wireless-based self-service technologies. As a result, technology-driven public relations activities are increasingly indistinguishable from routine organizational activities. More specifically: (a) public relations systems must become more integrated into the working technological systems of the organization, and (b) system and work design can no longer be delegated to systems or user analysts or managers without consideration of the public relations implications. This trend can actually enhance organizational credibility by melding managerial and relational functions.

2. Public relations must redefine itself as a result of technology.

The rise of new communications technologies makes even more irrelevant the traditional distinctions between communications activities. Organizational managers and technology users do not care about the differences – and do not differentiate – between computer-mediated information, promotion, advertising, and publicity. The rise of hybrid messages – advertorials, VNRs, corporate video clips on You Tube, blogs, sponsored chats and chat tours, planted wiki’s – suggests old turf issues require re-examination. In today’s postmodern media environment, users can select, edit and personalize content. Users are both active receivers and producers of content – not merely passive audiences. Other people within organizations also have the power to alter content – and can unwittingly or quite intentionally encroach on the province of public relations. The profession must seriously reconsider its function in today’s brave new world of mediated communications. The critical question is whether practitioners are charged merely with producing, distributing and promoting messages that take advantage of new technologies (the traditional communication function of public relations); or should the real function of public relations be to advise managements at all levels (from chief executives to systems analysts) about maximizing organizational-user relationships regardless of who produces content? This suggests that the counseling function and overseeing (versus “managing”) reputation and relationships are even more important as the foci of the profession.

3. New technologies are not the solution to all organizational communications problems.

New media are not passing fads. However, as has always been the case, organizations might be tempted to adopt every new medium that becomes available. Yet some might not be appropriate to the organization, the culture in which it operates, the message, or the abilities, needs, concerns and interests of audiences or users. The uncritical adoption of new media can place a heavy burden on organizations with limited resources while the potential return on investment remains unproven. Just because a new tool is available – or others have rushed to use it – is not an appropriate reason for adoption. Organizations must invest in new media selectively and strategically, to maximize effectiveness and efficiency. With so many choices, planning must be media-neutral and involve the astute selection of channels. The "digital divide" between “technology-haves” and “have-not’s” also is a tactical concern – not merely a social problem. One-third of Americans do not have access to the Internet (and many users use it infrequently). One-quarter of the population does not use a cell phone. Discrepancies in adoption are largely a generational phenomenon expected to decline over time, but they will not be eliminated altogether. New communications technologies must be combined into an integrated media mix that also takes full advantage of traditional media. Moreover there is a limit to the quantity and quality of time people can spend with new media and organizational messages – especially users who have low or minimal involvement with an organization. The metrics for measuring many of the newest media are only in the developmental stage. More needs to be learned about new media’s impact on organizational relationships and reputation.

4. Technology poses new challenges to public relations and client organizations.

New technologies can be incorporated into any of the four basic types of public relations programs involving promotion, relationship building and maintenance, crisis communications or issues management. The speed with which information can be shared with stakeholders during a crisis or controversy is obviously an ideal application of new media. Yet speed has placed new, unintended burdens on organizations as well. News workers and others have developed increasingly unrealistic expectations about organizations’ abilities to staff and deploy new media to provide information on demand – often at times when verifiable facts are unavailable or fragmentary at best. Organizations must be better prepared to handle crisis and more nimble than ever before. At the same time, new media present new sources of crises that did not exist previously. These range from unfounded online rumors to malicious attacks by critics who enjoy unfettered access to a global audience. Organizational systems are subject to malicious tampering by far-away and unknown hackers, cyberterrorists, thieves and rogues, plus unexpected disruptions due to less sinister forces. Practitioners must be prepared to protect their organization’s digital assets – an increasingly important component of reputational assets. Public relations practitioners must understand this dark side of cyberspace in order to provide advice concerning the prevention and containment of risks and to respond adroitly when organizations are confronted with cyber threats.

Kirk Hallahan, Ph.D.
Professor, Colorado State University

Share this:

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
Follow on Twitter

5 thoughts on “Kirk Hallahan: Thinking Inside the Box

  1. The most important insight of Prof. Hallahans analysis is in paragraph 2) “… the real function of public relations be to advise managements at all levels (from chief executives to systems analysts) about maximizing organizational-user relationships regardless of who produces content? This suggests that the counseling function and overseeing (versus “managing”) reputation and relationships are even more important as the foci of the profession.”

    Technologies facilitate distribution and rarely impact core content. This reminds me of a quote attributed to a british prime minister who went to Queen Victoria and proudly announced that Her Majesty had now established telegraphic link with her subjects in India. Queen Victoria reportedly replied: “ My dear prime minister what do I have to tell the people of India.”

  2. Once more, timing is the essence in life for I am completing an IT Certification and PR is my last course, but as I read more and more on the subject, it will probably become the most important one.

    Working for the Government, our department mandate is to better service the general public through the Internet has its work cut-out: undertaking a major restructuring of how we interact with citizens and employees, it is now clear that this reorganization, no longer based on hierarchy but on functions, will definitely need to weave itself around a dynamic PR strategy to address all aspects.

    Thank you very much for your insight on this crucial issue.

    Jules Charron

  3. Prof. Hallahan. I am excited by you observations about the PR and the way is being handled by our Higher Learning Institutions. The management doesn’t believe that PR practitioners can utilize the communication tools to effectively publicise the Institution. Though most of the social media tech. used is quite limited in the sense that not all the stakeholders can make use of new techn. to access information on timely basis. It will take sometime to realise the relevance of using modern social media tech. The campaign now is to sensitize the stakeholders to continue using the modern social media in order to get timely information. I am worried that most of our Institutions will continue to rely on traditional communication media in dissemination information regardless of feedback and open discussion about the development of the Institutions/organisations. Thank you so much, wish to access the whole document.

  4. Dr. Hallahan,wonderful insight. Thanks for articlating very basic concepts. I would like to bring to your attention 1) the public relations is a function not of a specific department or agency,it is integral part of any organisations,so people at all levels (though hierarchy is demolished) need to be trained in basic PR functions and attitude.2)PR activities is a continuous process,but it must start much before any specific campaign has to be undertaken. 3)The technology will continue to make progress faster than we witness, but most important change in communication is demolition of mass communication, to be replaced with individual communication to many simultaneously which involves the art of including all the ingredients to appeal and reach individuals of variety of attitdes and world view and 4) the most important objective of pr should be changing the attitudes of people or the publics of any organisation and that requires humane interest at the bottom. Thanks for the article.

  5. Dr. Hallahan. Thank you for your great article. I am on the same page, and just to add my thought here, basically, from a PR practitioner POV, I see the current new/social media tech as “a technology that ‘forces’ organization to be transparent, nothing else.” This poses a challenge to traditional PR, where practitioners could ‘exaggerate’ or ‘hide’ selective organizational information. I believe there will be many mistakes along the way, but, ultimately, PR folks should come up with strategies and tactics to deal with ‘speed’ (of good or bad news distribution) and ‘transparency’ issues in our profession.

    Hoh from Seoul, Korea

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *