The Technical Transition13 years ago
In an era of virtual worlds, search engine optimized press releases, social media and incalculable blogs, PR professionals need to develop their technical skills, argues Morgan McLintic.
Your ability to deliver good PR is now a function of your technical ability.
The rise of social media, online video, search engine optimization andvirtual worlds into mainstream PR programs presents new challenges for the PR practitioner. Unless you know how to implement these tactics, you can’t execute the campaign. And it’s only in actually implementing the programs that you get the feedback, learn what works (and what doesn’t), and so can advise on the strategy. For an industry of professionals typically with language and arts backgrounds, that’s a daunting shift.
For many years, there wasn’t much technical innovation in PR. Press releases were posted in the mail, urgent news was sent via fax. If you were especially technical, you might have had fax carousel to avoid slaving over a hot fax machine.
The arrival of email thankfully did away with the fax and endless photocopy runs (in most parts of the world anyway). Email had a big impact on the speed and practice of public relations. But it wasn’t too technical.
At the same time, the Web emerged and we debated the value of online coverage versus print (now interestingly it’s almost the reverse!). From a tactical perspective, we posted our releases onto company websites, and then developed online newsrooms. But again, that was the webmaster’s role and for many of us, we just sent the details for posting online.
The Arrival of Blogging
Then blogging came. And the transition to the technical started. Here was a web-publishing platform which end-users, like you and I were expected to use. And for the most part, that’s possible, but try to fight it, little snippets of HTML start to creep in and become useful. You start to find yourself looking at code.
The advent of online video opened a new channel. At last our message could be visual. We started to worry about transitions, graphics, frame rates and synching. Suddenly, extra hard drives, larger screens, faster CPUs and more memory were necessary to avoid endless compiling. The tools of the trade started to become more technical.
Podcasting brought its own blend of sound mixers, MP3 recorders and radio microphones. More kit, more wires and power supplies strewn beneath the PR consultant’s desk.
And now the technical stakes are being raised once more. With the escalation of content online, how is our audience to find our finely crafted messages and flowing prose? Simple, we’ll optimize it for search engines, so it stands above the crowd. Unless you are familiar with HTML and inserting metatags into web pages, then optimizing content for search engine crawlers, will seem like a black art. It’s here that the practice of PR becomes more technical than it is creative.
But the journey doesn’t stop at SEO. Enter virtual worlds, 3D environments allowing your audience to fully immerse themselves into the brand experience. An opportunity for an entirely different and open-ended engagement. To create such an experience, you need not only graphic design skills but also a strong working knowledge of action scripting. Suddenly the PR practitioner, with an arts background and creative bent, is coding.
Of course, you can bring in technical expertise to help you execute some of these techniques. I doubt there are many PR professionals who can lay claim to proficiency across the field. But there is opportunity where supply is short. And as these tactics become more mainstream, general PR specialists will be obliged to master at least the basics.
Evidence of this is all around. Even the humble press release is being rethought and remixed, adding in multimedia assets to make it more visual and tools to make it searchable and easier to find.
In a recent survey of 150 senior marketing managers from the US, UK and EMEA markets, two-thirds recognized that social media has made PR a more visible process. Sixty per cent believed the arrival of social media has made PR a business-critical function, having a direct impact on profit and customer satisfaction.
This is an exciting time in the field of public relations. There are new ways to engage audiences, many of them directly. Senior practitioners can’t advise on how to leverage those tools strategically unless they have a firm grasp of the tactical implementation. And that means rolling up your technical sleeves and getting involved. Like swimming, however much you understand the principles, you only truly learn by jumping in. For junior staffers, it’s a chance to gain experience in uncharted territory, to become an authority in an area where even seasoned practitioners are still novices.
Moving forward, as social media, video, SEO and virtual worlds become more broadly used, other channels and tools will be developed, demanding a new set of technical skills, offering a set of opportunities. PR has always been a blend of art and science – and the mix is changing. PR is undergoing a technical transition.
Morgan McLintic is a senior vice president at global public relations agency, LEWISmail the author
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