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Biggest Challenge of Modern World for PR.

Is PR Still Fighting Recognition Deficiency, or Struggle with Technology Threat?

What is the biggest challenge of Modern World for PR. I believe technology is not the biggest threat for Public Relations (PR) as been heralded by some of my former colleagues. PR indeed has reason to worry as some job desks may be replaced by machine, but critical challenge is beyond the technology, ‘identity’.

The industry revolution from time to time has brought evolution to the way communication industry and PR work. From traditional PR by word-of-mouth, traditional media publication and oration, to the rise of online media where audience’s feedback is coming faster and easier or sometimes harshly criticizing. Work of PR became more challenging with the emergence of social media, where citizen journalism, corporate journalism and even employee journalism was born and taken place (Arief & Saputra, 2019). The information that rapidly comes from many directions, could bring both joy or sorrow depend on how it maintained. But despite the advancement of technology, PR still struggling with its identity (Sanchez, 2018; Nothhaft, 2018), where recognition on the profession is less favorable.

Recognition has always been a biggest challenge ever since the early existence of PR, and it probably could get worse in threatening the profession itself. This identity crisis has been shadowing PR within three areas: organization (practice), academic, and the hugest area with biggest impact for profession existence, society. This is an essential issue for PR to overcome in order to survive in the future. I will further pour out my thought on why it should be a concern in the long term, start with explaining how PR is positioned in organization nowadays and its academical attainment.   

Recognition within the organization and academic

Bridgen (2018) mentioned that generally, PR practitioners don’t work with significant authority within the organization, more likely not involved in the “dominant coalition” and therefore, are not strategists. Many practitioners are assigned in reactive role. Executing things decided by the board without got involved in the discussion, or solely as the gatekeeper when journalists start to ambush, or as organization’s positive image defender, not limited to cover-up wrong or bad decision that have made by the board (Cheney, et al., 2011). Many companies often hire full-time PR or consultant intentionally to have a shock absorber army, the people with rhetoric dexterity to deal with the public when something wrong is happening, including when organization doing wrong things (Furnham, 2009).

I got a chance for short interviews with a PR staff and a manager who have been working in a particular district unit of a multinational oil and gas company for couple of years to equip this article. One of them would picturize, “well, it (PR) is under the legal manager. But most of us including me, tend to get less KPI score because we are perceived perform only when there are problems with public and communication” (Alex, pseudonym, PR staff). Moreover, what Willis (2018) mentioned about budget for PR tend to be the first option to cut during the times of economic downturn, appeared to be the case in (at least) his company. “We got financial challenges these past 5 years. We must apply efficiency, so we cut the PR budget. Big communication crisis rarely happens here. Only with locals. PR just talk to them, negotiate and done. Not much money needed.” (Rachel, pseudonym, Legal & Relations Manager)

The PR department often does not have its own place, or only being mentioned as sub-part of another department. Human resource department for instance, is observed more recognisable in mostly organization (or company) with its distinct director or vice president in the management board. Taking another example on multinational company Unilever (Unilever, 2020) and Chevron (Chevron, 2020), where finance and human resource directors are existed but neither PR nor strategic communication. Their communication function operates under other department like marketing, corporate affairs, or as a small part in each location branch of the company with no leader or representation in the board of director. As there is no magic formula to prove the value of communication (Cheney, et al., 2011), PR practitioners tend to face the lack of big picture of its value to the organizations.

On the other hand, PR as a rather new discipline also having hard time attaining “theoretical core” to further strengthen the academical prestige and recognition (Dühring, 2015). There are progressing in number of researches about PR, yet the inconsistency of core knowledge on defining and confine the discipline is still apparent, and where theoretical part that still borrow and adopt other discipline fields (Jelen-Sanchez, 2018). Aggravatedly, PR field is still on lack of research-based information that explain its value in organization. This put another obstacle for PR to work strategically, as three attributes according to Brønn (in Falkheimer, et al., 2017) that strategic thinking associated with are including “using research-based information, working with a plan and being involved with the top management.”

Society recognition

Let’s ask again what is the biggest challenge of modern world for PR. When we talk about the unfavorable recognition from society, it is mostly related to the ethic. Doorley and Garcia (as cited in Hothhaft, 2018) argue when it comes to ethic, professional PR has to confront with “trust, falsity and ambiguity and managing through the muddle with integrity” (p.33). At least my ears are familiar with the notion that PR is about twisting and hiding the truth. This misconception however, could be understood, although not fully, by looking at the history. According to Bowen (as cited in Kim, 2019), the PR industry arose from press-agentry, media relations practice with main goal of obtaining as much press coverage as possible where the approach focusses on evoking publicity at almost any cost that inflict unethical reputation of PR in the further era. The growth of PR industry apparently, started with zero consideration of impact to the public. Although the industry further legitimize ethic, and trustee responsibilities towards the public as requirements for PR professionals, the prejudice still sticks.

One of prejudice generators is how sometimes PR is portrayed in imbalance by media. Even in the professional publication like PR Week magazine, famous people in the industry are often overly exposed, while “amateur” campaigns are normally taken no notice of however successful they caught mainstream media attention (Bridgen, 2018). Ashforth and Kreiner (as cited in Bridgen 2018) agree that the negative portrayal of public relations in the media is a potential explanation of why the opposition perceive a strong collective identity towards public relations practitioners. The doubt whether PR is using the fact or generating the fact in their daily work, the image that Nothhaft (2018) called as a ‘fact-producing apparatus’ is still flying around out there.

Often, public do not see the PR for how an individual practitioner handle the situation or manage the arrangement. Instead, they judge based on how media portrayed either the organization’s policy or decision that put detriment to the society. The same Alex further testified how the society have difficulty separating employee’s credibility and organization’s accident.

It was quite funny actually. I was in a coffeeshop with my girlfriend’s friends last month, where one of them surprised by the fact that I work in ‘the company’. They further questioning how irresponsible the company about blowout (massive oil spill) that happened in 2013 in the village. They became cynical and does not matter whatever I have achieved during my education and career, that is all look bad for them, like I was the one causing the blowout. They think PR is always bad person, screaming around covering the mess. It was accident. Nobody wanted it.

(Alex, pseudonym, PR officer)

Let alone PR to handle the media during communication crisis, or working on penetrating the campaign message to the audience, all the effort would seem on trying to make the organization looks good, utilizing all capital they have including talent of a fashionable dresser to match up the stakeholder’s preferences or whatever audience’s situation. And stigma of PR as manipulative language expertise in doing doubtful campaign for unpalatable organization which in a crisis (Bridgen, 2017), also affiliated with propaganda, lobbying, media manipulation (Dühring, 2015) are keep going on.

On the one side, the not-so-white part of PR is a legacy from the institution, and public cannot always see the different that within the ‘unethical’ companies, there are first entry PR practitioners in junior level who work all out giving their best on communication roles (Bridgen 2018). This is real challenge for PR practitioners, and I could argue that practitioners have times when it is hard to detach their individual personality and PR prejudice in the eyes of society. On the other side, PR could be the prejudice generator itself. Scepticism that leads to bad recognition to PR are sometimes resulted by unethical practice of PR practitioners themselves. From journalists’ side for instance, Morris and Goldsworthy (as cited in Hothhaft 2018) mentioned that PR practitioners generally is understood by journalists as not so truthful source of information when it comes to looking for facts. Therefore, journalists tend to look another source.

Further example for this matter, if we take a look back couple years ago at how a big PR firm based in London, Bell Pottinger, ended up on a bankruptcy for its own practice. Bankruptcy, however, is not the only worst consequence here. Well, at least for the firm, yes. But the reputation of other PR firms all over the world was on the stake. The Bell Pottinger was running ‘dirty campaign’ for their client, Gupta family in South Africa in 2016. They set toxic narrative to evoke racial tension, portraying the client as the victim of ‘white monopoly capital’ to deflect the charge accompanied by evidence, that Gupta family committed in corruption activities. The firm could never stand up more for the scandal blowout and as the result of their ‘black art’ performance, defunct in September 2017 (Segal, 2018). Bell Pottinger may had been in a steep ravine to the downfall, but public as we know is curious. The firm’s client list revealed and becoming news topic as turned out, mostly in it are not so ‘good side’. The New York Times (Segal, 2018) even mentioned the worries that the city of London has become “the global capital of reputation laundering”, as the firm served foreign governments in unethical way. It is revealed that the firm had received half a billion dollars from The Pentagon to run a secret propaganda, including creating videos that sophisticatedly looks real to fake the facts to stimulate certain public opinion in Iraq (Black, 2016).

They cannot hide from the reveal, and news spread faster than the light. Sounds exaggerating, but nowadays technology indeed make it easy to whisper news across continent. And people love to talk about bad guy. The worse things are done, the better for news value to publish, and the more people are eager to share throughout internet. With those kinds of history, I wonder if PR would have hard time to explain their profession to the posterity. It is amazing how the big firm like Bill Pottinger used technology to produce such fake facts to be used as properties. The technologies that have been accused threatening PR existence, does not seem dangerous compare to the false tendency of using it. But wait! Does technology have nothing to do with PR challenge in the future at all? Let’s talk little bit about technology.

Advancement of technology: Between threat and opportunity

The industry revolution from time to time affect the way people run the day. Use of technologies is maximalised to all corner of life aspect, bringing automation everywhere. From coffee machine that made cappuccino in one button to three-dimension printing. Even further, 3D printing for house building is being developed. God knows what else is being automized. Human’s occupation has been reduced and people are forced to be more creative to think beyond the machine.

This technology forces indeed hits PR as other occupations. Data and information are produced massively than ever, to where human cannot handle manually. This abundant of information circulation is followed by the advanced invention, where finally, artificial intelligence (AI) and big data are existed. At glance, it seems like reinforcement for PR. Both AI and big data are claimed to be able to help organization overcoming the boisterous and darting information flow. Apparently, it comes together with a consequence, which gradually substituting PR’s scope of tasks. Part of the work of PR which highly related to observing as well as distributing information are gradually replaced by sophisticated electronic devices. From this point, the advancement of technology is indeed seen as a challenge for PR in the future. An inventor and futurist, Ray Kurzweil (in Abdullah 2020) even mentioned a forecast that AI innovation would reach to singularity era where it can be more quick-witted than human. Sounds intimidating.

There are at least five AI technologies that has been used in PR activities nowadays (Arief as cited in Abdullah, 2020). First, AI for task simplification like news release distribution or information shorting. Second is social listening, part of PR work that very much takes time to do manually, but bring huge impact when ignored. Third is automation such as social media content automation or even ‘happy birthday’ email to stakeholders. Forth, AI for structured data which is function of processing, selecting, organizing, maintaining and supervising content and make a comprehensive report about the information. Finally, the fifth AI technology has come to touch the scope for unstructured data unlike before. It able to administers and manage information based on unstructured variant like Autonomous Learning Machine (ALM).

The born of AI and big data make it easier to give communication service by filtering and processing data efficiently with less human involvement needed. How the sophisticated AI like ALM that capable of understanding textual data, finding pattern of customer and perception, give company chance to cut their employee number as not many people needed to operate set of electronic devices. Looking at those capability of technology, it seems the role of entry-level PR would come to extinct. Take more example of how The Associate Press, an American news agency uses AI to produce their stories. This AI (called NLG by a company, Automated Insight) transforms unprocessed earned data into decent stories and reports that worth to publish (lynch, 2018), produces 15 times more article than manual work and faster (Automated Insight, n.d). The same technology can later be used to produce press releases. This ‘sweet’ technology could clearly create further scenario, where less PR staff is needed to create publication material, and the recruitment for this PR job desk would look expertise from different background discipline like IT or computer engineering rather than communication or PR. Because, it is hard not to admit that those automation are more efficient with less time consuming and less human power needed. Will PR literally be finally replaced by AI at all? I don’t think so. Sounds endangering, but despite the forecast, machine still has not reached the point where it can automate relationships. Unless ‘ethic’ is no longer exist in PR practice, there are still opportunities in the future.

We previously have enough example of how PR could harm themselves by practicing ‘black art’, where the use of technology is involved in it. From my perspective, PR nowadays should be able to address the incapability of technology and make use of it to build better trust to grab better recognition by practicing PR with ethic. That is a real opportunity for next era of PR. It is the machine gave the calculation report on trending topic or most mentioned public figure in whole USA between particular time period. But it is not the machine that decided Colin Kaepernick to be the ambassador for Nike’s campaign ‘Just do it’ for example, which the controversy brought big success to the brand and increase the sale (Martinez, 2018). It is not the technology that knocked Bell Pottinger down. It is the decision of using it to spread black campaign. What I try to portray here is that the technologies do not create the plot, but the practitioners do.

Another example from Southeast Airlines, Large American low-cost carrier that use AI for feedback to detect any negative experience quickly, which make it one of good examples for social listening (Auris, 2020). That success was not achieved by just reading the AI recap. Trust they earned, is generated by taking real action towards negative comment. Real action taken by real people, communicating directly to the complaint giver while giving solution until they finally rewrite their previous complain with satisfying testimony. The trust, reputation, brand strengthening, those cannot be achieved by only AI read and reply comments on social media. AI give chance in meticulous way for the institutions to see chaos-potential glitch. Automation clearly set practitioners free from mundane tasks, but AI is not yet able to deeply analyse how the campaign well “resonated with the audience or missed the mark completely” (Dietrich, 2017).

Christophen Penn, Vice President of marketing technology for Shift Communication (as cited in Chen, 2017) testified that replacing PR professionals’ job is not the meant of the use of AI. Instead, “it allows us to do our work at scale”. PR work contain art aspect in it; therefore, AI should be seen more as tools to increase PR value than as an opposition that rolling down the PR domain. Unlike human, AI is incapable of using emotion and lack of authenticity, and there are many years to go before finally AI literally can generate emotional storytelling that resonate the target audience ethically.

So, what’s next?

Technology is hardly a threat, but an opportunity. It is not the technology that put PR in danger, but how PR use it matter. I strongly argue, the more technology gets advanced, the more human will craving for human authenticity that include genuine and honesty in it. AI is operated by human, which the impact is always up to the users.

Back to its nature, the work of PR is not merely about hiding ‘the sin’. From my perspective, PR is more to the work art that combine with science to deliver story of the product or service or whatever it represents while putting the ethic (including not lying) on the top consideration. I am not the only one think that. In line with that, Carolyn Mae Kim (2019) explained, “Public relations represents a vitally important part of society. This is an industry dedicated to the art and science of relationships—strategically managing communication on behalf of organizations in order to effectively engage stakeholders” (p.1)

Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) on the other hand, announced a definition of public relations in March 2012 after almost a year of research and discussion, as well as hundreds of definition submissions. “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics” (Public Relations Defined, 2012). How the effectiveness of PR established, moreover, is by governing “rational decision-making, clarity of purpose, strategic certainty and seamless campaign implementation” (Willis, 2018).

Nevertheless, those definition and point of view may be disrupted by how PR been portrayed, and how PR have been portraying themselves. It is up to the PR practitioners to upgrade the trust. Working in ethic should be one thing each practitioner hold on. Ethic should be defined on PR definition and implemented, not only a formality consensus on the paper. Performing communication strategy to Improve reputation can be done by doing good things instead of talking bad about opponent or creating fake facts.

The PR recognition may not on the top chain. But changes are not impossible. Just that these cannot be done overnight by only one individual. PR needs a generic, fundamental ethic code that followed by each PR individual. This way, there will be uniformity on PR work as well as lawyer or architect, and gradually build reputation and trust from within. Collaborating interdisciplinary and researching on the implication PR sociocultural, firmed and stable theoretical development is necessarily needed for PR in the future globally, where it could bring credibility and respect to the discipline in academia, practice and society through “pragmatic inclusiveness” (Bridgen, 2018).


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