‘How is today the best or worst of times for public relations & communications?’

‘How is today the best or worst of times for public relations & communications?’

Entry to the PRCA Reginald Watts Prize by Edward Halliday from OVID Health

Far more illuminating, when we look to the first words of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, are the words that follow immediately after the famous first clause: ‘it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness’.

This contradiction capably summarises where our industry is today. We have an unparalleled ability to inform, question, and communicate at scale. Equally, there has never been more background noise to compete against. It is not simply the best or the worst of times – it is both.

Working in health PR and communications, I strongly appreciate how important the work we do is. The stories we share, the campaigns we shape, and the information we promote all has genuine social value. It’s what attracted me to the industry in the first place: the ability to inform discussion, promote good causes, and raise awareness about issues and ideas that can genuinely improve lives.

To talk about PR and communications today without acknowledging technology is like talking about art without mentioning paint. 87% of adults in the UK use the internet daily or almost every day. In the most widespread imaginings of the future, from Star Trek to Star Wars, nothing as powerful as the internet existed.

The billions of online interactions that take place every day results in a huge amount of data that comms professionals can use to enlighten how we talk to our audience. Data analysis will drive how we talk, to who, and even inform what we talk about.

Bold and creative thinking can be joined to behavioural insights that ensure a message hits home. Creating a viral story that captures the imagination – no easy feat in itself – means a key message will disseminate more broadly and rapidly than ever before through the platforms that define our current epoch: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and a host of other social media sites.

This shift is also a change in the battleground where knowledge and information fights for acknowledgement and acceptance. One could argue this process of communicating directly to the public is a more egalitarian one. In the marketplace of information, the best and most worthy causes and ideas will prosper and get the most buzz. After all, it is ‘public’ relations.  Popular buy-in on messaging is one of the key goals of any successful campaign.

However, the reality of the situation is more complicated. The issue in communications and public relations is less about simply being heard. Now, it is a matter of being heard above the rest.

The network of media gatekeepers and editors is becoming less crucial. A new host of individuals – the online influencers – demonstrate their power through promoting content they believe to be valuable (to themselves, their audience, or both) and thus worthy of attention. Through utilising this new sphere of key voices, messaging can reach further and have a deeper impact.

The opportunities this presents us are exciting. We cannot, however, be ignorant to the challenges that await our industry. It is inevitable the disruption of traditional media through technology creates new channels where news and information will flow. But the implications of this for communicators are potentially severe in terms of trust levels in what we say.

There are a number of explanations for the increased awareness of social polarisation. That disagreement is rife is nothing new. What is new is that individuals – through their preferences and behaviour – can insulate themselves to opposing views, receiving a constant feed of information into their pre-established bubble.

‘Fake news’ is itself big news – you need only look across the Atlantic to see how far claims without basis can dominate both the media and popular conversation. The power of narrative has never been stronger, but this is also true of the counter-narrative.

Even backed up by strong evidence, there is no guarantee a message will be able to reach those who need to hear it most. This is particularly disheartening regarding the growth in anti-vaccination campaigners and vaccine hesitancy, where misinformation has disastrous consequences. The effect of the ‘echo chamber’ has seen positions on everything from Brexit to climate change become more entrenched. The space for debate has become a No Man’s Land through which few would dare to tread, as to stand in the middle is to face annihilation from both sides.

Society is in a state of constant flux and instability given the unprecedented speed of change around us. With a lack of solid foundation, people find comfort in what they know and believe, and trust sources that support this, even in the face of evidence.

Our challenge as communicators is that while the pace of technological change is set by the innovators and entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley and Shenzhen, humanity has not yet developed to process the overwhelming amount of information presented.

The issues our industry faces are not about to fade anytime soon. Even with the best messages and the most trusted means of spreading them, there is never a guarantee that people will listen.

Our best chance of succeeding is continuing to adapt and embrace the change as it happens. Organisations need to strive to be adept at traditional and digital communications, able to navigate both of these worlds without neglecting one or the other.

Most importantly, our voices must be guided by an appreciation of the people we are communicating with, and why what we have to say should matter. Whether it’s the best, worst, wisest or most foolish of times, that we speak intelligently, truthfully and powerfully is our greatest resource.

An age of wisdom can, paradoxically, exist at the same time as an age of foolishness. If Dickens were writing today, a more apt title may have been: A Tale of Two News Feeds.