Online public relations: evolution or revolution?

Public Relations and the Social Web: How to use social media and web 2.0 in communications
by Rob Brown
182 pages, Kogan Page, 2009

Online Public Relations: A practical guide to developing an online strategy in the world of social media
by David Phillips and Philip Young
274 pages, Kogan Page (PR in Practice Series), 2009 

‘I believe that the distinction between digital and offline will gradually disappear’

Rob Brown‘s book contains one pleasant surprise, and one disappointment. The surprise is that it’s written in narrative form and provides a very readable introduction to public relations in the internet age. He claims in the preface that ‘this is a book about how radically public relations is changing’.

In defence of this claim, the author provides a useful overview of media and technology, and challenges the notion that the internet is just another medium, like TV (‘it is far richer and more complex than any of the traditional media channels’).

Having reviewed the loss of control that worries the old brand guardians, he asks about the role of public relations: ‘who should public relations people be talking to? The answer, ultimately, is quite simple and the clue is in the description ‘public relations’. PR people need to be talking to the public just like they have always done’. So where is the radical change?

The revolution versus evolution discussion takes place throughout these pages. But is the decline in the effectiveness of the news release and the emergence of its social media replacement revolution or a sign of evolution?

Let’s agree that the world is changing and so is public relations. ‘The future of marketing communications rests with the art of conversation. Engaging in conversations is what public relations people have always done. PR has always operated through intermediaries and persuasion and reasoned argument have always been important elements of what we do.’

‘Now the content comes from lots of different places, the skills that are important to the marketing function are not hard technical skills, nor are they predominantly aesthetic but are the softer management skils of diplomacy and influence. In short, these are the skills that PR people have always used in their interactions with traditional media.’

I agree, but both these statements contradict the claim that there’s something radically new.

Brown has written a good introduction to the media (including, of course, social media), and he has a useful perspective on the role of PR within marketing. He’s also good on search engine optimisation and covers ethics (including an astonishing first-hand example of Max Clifford in action, though it had nothing to do with social media).

He extends the usual contrast between business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) to include a new category: consumer-to-consumer (C2C). This is a very helpful concept when understanding the conversational web and when trying to decide whether an organisation should blog (‘the answer to this is a qualified yes they should, but they need to be careful and need to do it properly’).

The problem with the book comes from the narrative structure that works so well at the beginning. By the end, what was needed was a gazeteer of social media tools because I must have read the same entries about Twitter, Facebook and social bookmarking tool delicious three times over. The focus on tools also means that this book will date very quickly.

It’s a good overview suitable for undergraduate students and confused clients, but I can recommend an even better read covering the same ground: David Brain and Martin Thomas’s Crowd Surfing published last year.

‘The internet is about the exchange of information – and so is public relations’

Online Public RelationsIt’s almost a decade since the first edition of Online Public Relations was written. For the second edition, David Phillips has teamed up with Philip Young.

While tools and technologies have changed rapidly, what do the authors claim for PR?  ‘For public relations practice the unavoidable conclusion is that nothing will ever be the same again; the advent of an online world means almost every aspect of the discipline needs to be rethought.’

Fasten your seatbelts; we’re in for a much more ambitious ride. It’s not just the practice that is changing, it seems, but its role and purpose. After a short section on the basic toolkit, this book deals in concepts: transparency, porosity, agency, richness and reach.

We assume transparency to be a good thing, and porosity (leaks) bad. But they are the flipside of the same concept. ‘As with transparency, there are benefits. The authentic voice of the organization that flows through the corporate shell has tremendous impact outside and may be part of the managed process of making organizations more competitive.’ Yet as the authors ask (in the context of ghostwritten blogs), ‘where does the ‘authentic voice porosity’ stop and managed transparency begin?’

There are big challenges: ‘the practitioner with ‘messages’ to present to a public is now confronted with this changed communications environment.’ As the authors describe, it’s a mixture of one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-many and many-to-one communications channels.

But here’s the problem. While Rob Brown’s book presents a simple (though not simplistic) view of public relations in the age of social media, Online Public Relations presents a very complex picture. That’s because the authors view public relations operating in the realm of relationship optimization. This implies a practice that will be unrecognisable to many since ‘untruths, half-truths, hype and extravagant claims become reputation time bombs.’ This is no doubt true, but it presents a counter-factual view of the practice in a similar way to the famous ‘two-way symmetrical’ model, which still feels idealistic 25 after its publication.

So ‘the internet brings public relations closer to the heart of corporate re-engineering, corporate governance, corporate and brand relationships, reputation promotion and issues management.’ It’s a very different picture from that depicted by Rob Brown. If Rob Brown’s book could be renamed Marketing Public Relations and the Social Web, Phillips and Young’s could become Corporate Public Relations Online. I described the first as suitable for undergraduates and confused clients; the second is for advanced students and practitioners.

Let’s summarise some of the changes identified by Phillips and Young. ‘The traditional website has become a place of record and commercial exchange. The new social media web is a place for interactions.’ And ‘the extremes between a press release and a telephone conversation require flexible policies in terms of approval of corporate statements. Social media need the same kind of flexibility.’

‘In the past, a PR person might have been judged by the volume of coverage generated for a client. The key today is not volume but influence: that is, how deeply into the networks did the story reach and for how long did it actively set the agenda in the online ‘conversations’?’

At its heart (chapters 15 to 21), the book provides help with developing a corporate internet strategy (‘there is an overwhelming case for improving capabilty to strategically manage online presence, interactions and stakeholder relations by organizations.’)

The challenge is to bring the linear, rational process of planning up to date to cope with rapid change and uncertainty (even about the very nature of the organisation). ‘Put simply, we need to be able to plan for surprises in this fast-changing world… The idea that one can run a ‘PR campaign’ is now flawed. A ‘campaign’ once had time limits and could thus be dropped after the event, but this does not apply today.’

The book cannot provide a template for your corporate internet strategy, but it does discuss approaches and adapts existing tools and models, and has particularly strong sections on risk assessment and legal and ethical issues.

Best of all, the book challenges us to rethink the role of public relations. ‘The previously unseen hand is moving into fairly sharp focus’ the authors state, in discussing the shift from communicating through journalists to engaging in social media conversations (moving from mediated to unmediated discourse). And ‘the fundamental vector of communication that shapes reputation and an organization’s relationship with its stakeholders has flipped through 90 degrees. Now, the truly significant discourse is that which surrounds an organization, product or service.’

Yet the authors also state, ‘Online PR is not an alternative to other forms of relationship building, communication and interaction; it is an extension of what has gone before.’ I call that evolution. The radical, revolutionary thinking is less about the relationship of public relations to the internet and more about the role of public relations within organisations. ‘New PR is also about new thinking’.


  1. Thanks, Richard, for such a perceptive review. As someone who has long struggled with the Whig/Grunig view of PR I am a little surprised to be identified with a counter-factual view that parallels the two-way symmetrical model! Unfortunately, though, I think you are probably right, or at least on the right lines…

  2. Excellent – astonishing, even – book, Philip. There are a few things that didn’t make it into the over-long review above: I think you’ve been suckered by the Cadbury’s Wispa campaign. Surely this was a good old-fashioned publicity stunt (rather than a genuine reaction to the groundswell of public opinion). Think Sainsbury’s Cake-inspired renaming of pollack as colin (though this operated through the traditional media rather than through social media).

  3. Richard you are very kind and thank you. Perhaps we were, as you say, suckered by the Wispa campaign but the nature of online transparency will tell all in due course.

    I am delighted that Rob’s book came out at the same time (almost) I think they are a companion set. We just could not deal in depth with something like Google Alerts as he could partly because, with a decade between editions, we did want to present theory that would last. This limited the extent we could examine practice extant.

    Evolution or revolution in PR practice? If the former then at the speed of a billion people online where a high proportion are actively involved in making the revolution happening.

    All the way through writing the book, we were constrained and wanted to write an even more serious (but much longer) text. Your name kept coming up in our discourse as we did so.

    There is so much that is missing. The thinking of Yochai Benkler should have a place in the PR syllabus as should the work of Jonathan Zittran on Network Neutrality. Dutton’s (2009) The Fifth Estate Emerging through the Network of Networks surely is a ‘must read’ for PR students. There is so much we just could not include.

    From a personal perspective, writing this book brought home to me the need for first and second degree Online Public Relations courses to meet the needs of the PR industry. There is also a need for more research. As a practitioner, I am very well aware of the need for senior consultants to advise board rooms who have a grounded as well as a practice perspective.

    I am not sure if there is a University bold enough to do this in the UK and do not see any significant representations from CIPR/PRCA demanding such capabilities.

    Thank you for an excellent review.

  4. I applaud you for limiting discussion on tools (this is better done online) and for focusing on the abstractions: concepts and theories.

    I’ll be using Online Public Relations as a core text when teaching corporate communication and PR planning, not just online PR and social media.

    I’m confident you’ve produced a book that will stand the test of time (though I can’t see ten years ahead) and will give us ideas and discussion points for years to come.

  5. As always, so kind. Thank you.

  6. I think you’re being a bit harsh on Rob’s book. I’ve been working a review of it and I think he’s written a book that’s perfect for the 95% of PR operators and clients out there who don’t understand the social media dimension – and while it may date quickly, I believe Online Public Relations will as well due to the nature of the beast at the moment.

  7. Thanks for redressing the balance, Craig. I was thinking that perhaps 95% of students (and indeed practitioners and clients) will find Rob’s book the more accessible. Perhaps I should have made this more explicit.

  8. I greatly appreciated the review. The challenge on whether to cover the things that will date is a real one, but I was motivated by constant requests for practical information – so I decided that it was right to give practical help as far as I was able and within the constraints of the medium. I have no doubt that my book will date and so it should given the subject matter. What has surprised me is that so much of it – even the practical stuff (and I began writing over a year ago) remains so current.


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