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