Coming of age in the digital era: An exploratory transnational study into Australian and Singaporean PR consultants’ attitude towards digital communication.
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Digital and social media tools are no longer new and have become standard components of the public relations toolkit. However, they have undoubtedly changed and shaped the practice of public relations (PR) over the past decade. Industry reports like the Cision-Canterbury Christ Church University Social Public Relations study (Pole & Miller, 2015) remain enthusiastic about the importance of and opportunities provided by social media for the public relations industry. Likewise, media reports have acknowledged that public relations as a discipline has fundamentally changed because of changes in the traditional media landscape and the rise of digital media tools (see, for example, Eppen (2017)). The emergence of digital and social have been the subject of a plethora of scholarly studies (see e.g. Vercic, Vercic, & Sriramesh, (2015) and ; Wang, (2015) for comprehensive literature reviews). Online communication, and in particular social media, have provided oxygen to the occupation of public relations (Demetrious, 2011). However, despite calls by Macnamara in as early as 2010 for empirical data on how what was then labelled ‘Web 2.0’ and ‘PR 2.0’ have influenced or changed PR practice, the focus has remained almost exclusively on the quantitative tracking of usage and access to digital, social and mobile media as tools (in particular within the context of media relations). Scholarly literature in the field has historically relied on the assumption that social media and online communication provide benefits for the communication sector, commonly failing to critically examine online engagement and its shortcomings (Valentini, 2015). As Valentini & Kruckeberg (2012) emphasise, online communication primarily exist for the purpose of interactions and exchanges of opinions amongst individuals; hence the question should not be to what extent PR professionals embrace online tools, but what they perceive as their benefits and limitations, as well as to what degree commercially-driven communication should interfere with user generated content. While some academic literature has examined the changes – and challenges - faced by the PR industry with the rise of digital communication, there are surprisingly few empirical studies that provide insights into the lived realities of practitioners adapting to new technologies and grappling with the changes. Notable exceptions include an exploration of the ethical implications of social media use (Toledano & Avidar, 2016) and ‘early’ studies in Singapore and Malaysia (K. Fitch, 2009; K. Fitch, 2009b). This exploratory study examines public relations consultants’ perceptions of and attitudes towards digital communication in both Singapore and Perth, Western Australia, more than five years after a preliminary study into the emergence of what was then referred to as ‘new’ media was conducted in Perth (see XXXXXX). This project answers the call by Macnamara (2010) for further research related to social media into “levels of interactivity, the issue of control, practitioner knowledge and skills, and ethics in social media use which are shown to be topical issues, but far from clear or resolved” (p.33). Furthermore, it responds to the need for “cross-national studies of public relations ….to assess similarities and differences in public relations practice, further enhancing the body of knowledge” (Sriramesh, 2009, pp.920-921). Perth and Singapore have previously been the focus of critical investigations into the public relations industry (Kate Fitch, 2012; Kate Fitch & Desai, 2012), as they are conveniently located in the same time zone and only marginally further apart than Australia’s East and West coast, but provide insight into two distinct nation cultures and professional contexts. Consultants have been chosen as key focus of this study, assuming that as they are providing expert advice to multiple clients, they need to be at the forefront of new developments and model best practice. Findings in the current study are based on a critical analysis of semi-structured interviews with current and past West-Australian based Registered Consultancy members of the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) and Singaporean practitioners. The full paper and presentation will provide insights into regional differences, as well as commonalities, and changed attitudes since the completion of the initial study. Preliminary findings from the current, cross-national study indicate that the PR industry has experienced a shift from ‘novel and new’ to a more balanced attitude towards and strategic understanding of online communication tools. Appropriately so, the reference to new media has become dated, as the focus moves increasingly towards sophisticated usage and – arguably most importantly – critical analysis of online engagement and its contribution to organisational objectives. PR professionals’ attitude towards online communication and digital tools has notably matured. Digital communication is no longer an ‘add on’” or a responsibility that is (by default) allocated to the “’office junior’”, but a crucial communication offering which is embedded across functions. Participants in the original study downplayed their involvement and interest in the use of new technologies. Today, communicators feel no longer as overwhelmed, although the need for continuous upskilling has been identified as a key challenge – and ultimately risk – in particular for smaller operators. Digital communication tools have not changed the basics of professional communication, but they have extended the toolkit available to communicators and hence the pressure to “stay on top” (Zerfass & Schramm, 2014). As McCosker, Rid & Farrell (2016) highlight, communicators frequently struggle to negotiate and keep pace with changes to social media platforms, which appears to be amplified by a lack of appropriate, timely, high level training and professional development opportunities. The use of online tools for intelligence gathering and ongoing monitoring was surprisingly limited in the initial study, but communicators are increasingly recognising the opportunities presented by new and emerging tools and platforms. However, evaluative tools and analytical skills are still evolving, with a remaining focus on basic tools such as click through rates. This reflects findings of similar studies, such as DiStaso, McCokindale & Wright’s (2011) study in the United States. The biggest change has arguably been an increased interest in opinion leaders, influencers, or what the Edelman Trust Barometer (Edelman, 2016) refers to as ‘a person like yourself’. Professional communicators recognise the increased trust placed in peers – in particular in comparison to CEOs and corporate spokespeople. Meanwhile, payment to influencers and the ethical ramifications of disclosure versus non-disclosure of payment have arisen as a major concern, with attitudes somewhat differing between the two locations. Despite not changing the basics of good communication, the digital communication environment has introduced a number of new – in particular ethical - challenges for communicators, which will be discussed in detail based on senior consultants and practitioners’ first hand insights and observations from both Perth, Western Australia and Singapore. References Demetrious, K. (2011). Bubble wrap: Social media, public relations, culture and society. In L. Edwards & C. E. M. Hodges (Eds.), Public relations, society & culture: theoretical and empirical explorations (pp. 118-132). New York: Routledge. DiStaso, M. W., McCorkindale, T., & Wright, D. K. (2011). How public relations executives perceive and measure the impact of social media in their organizations. Public Relations Review, 37(3), 325-328. doi:<a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2011.06.005">http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2011.06.005</a> Edelman. (2016). 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer: Annual Global Study. Retrieved from <a href="http://www.edelman.com/insights/intellectual-property/2016-edelman-trust-barometer">http://www.edelman.com/insights/intellectual-property/2016-edelman-trust-barometer</a>/ Eppen, M. (2017, 27-28 May). PR changing and challenging Digital landscape means jobs in public relations are evolving rapidly. The West Australian, p. 115. Fitch, K. (2009). The new frontier Singaporean and Malaysian public relations practitioners' perceptions of new media. Asia Pacific Public Relations Journal, 10(1), 17-33. Fitch, K. (2009b). Making friends in the Wild West: Singaporean public relations practitioners' perceptions of working in social media. PRism, 6(2). Fitch, K. (2012). Industry perceptions of intercultural competence in Singapore and Perth. Public Relations Review, 38(4), 609-618. doi:<a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2012.06.002">http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2012.06.002</a> Fitch, K., & Desai, R. (2012). Developing global practitioners. Journal of International Communication, 18(1), 63-78. doi:10.1080/13216597.2012.662169 Macnamara, J. (2010). Public relations and the social: How practitioners are using, or abusing, social media. Asia Pacific Public Relations Journal, 11, 1-13. McCosker, A., Reid, D. W. L., & Farrell, C. (2016). Social Media Industries: Bridging the Gap between Theory & Practice Retrieved from <a href="http://www.swinmediacomms.net/media/social-media/social-media-industries-report-2016">http://www.swinmediacomms.net/media/social-media/social-media-industries-report-2016</a> Pole, K., & Miller, P. (2015). Social PR Study 2015. Retrieved from <a href="http://marketing.cision.com/social-pr-study-2015">http://marketing.cision.com/social-pr-study-2015</a> Sriramesh, K. (2009). The missing link: multiculturalism and public relations education. In K. Sriramesh & D. Vercic (Eds.), The global public relations handbook: theory, reserach, and practice (pp. 907-924). Abingdon, UK: Routledge. Toledano, M., & Avidar, R. (2016). Public relations, ethics, and social media: A cross-national study of PR practitioners. Public Relations Review, 42(1), 161-169. doi:<a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2015.11.012">http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2015.11.012</a> Valentini, C. (2015). Is using social media “good” for the public relations profession? A critical reflection. Public Relations Review, 41(2), 170-177. Valentini, C., & Kruckeberg, D. (2012). New media versus social media: A conceptualization of their meanings, uses, and implications for public relations. In S. Duhé (Ed.), New media and public relations (pp. 3-12). New York: Peter Lang. Vercic, D., Vercic, A. T., & Sriramesh, K. (2015). Looking for digital in public relations. Public Relations Review, 41(2), 142-152. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2014.12.002 Wang, Y. (2015). Incorporating Social Media in Public Relations: A Synthesis of Social Media-Related Public Relations Research. Public Relations Journal, 9(3). Zerfass, A., & Schramm, D. M. (2014). Social Media Newsrooms in public relations: A conceptual framework and corporate practices in three countries. Public Relations Review, 40(1), 79-91. doi:<a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2013.12.003">http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2013.12.003</a>
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