Digital-First is the Way

The "old ways" are not coming back.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

Digital-first is the way.

I can see it now. It was nev­er about how PR and mar­ket­ing should add digit­al media to their toolbox.

It was nev­er about what role the new digit­al land­scape was sup­posed to play in PR and marketing.

It was always going to be the oth­er way around:

How can PR and mar­ket­ing stay rel­ev­ant in a digit­al-first world?

Let’s learn why:

Enjoy It While It Lasts”

I’ve worked in vari­ous dis­cip­lines of pub­lic rela­tions. When I decided to double down on digit­al strategy, many seni­or advisers in the tra­di­tion­al PR and mar­ket­ing industry tried to con­vince me that I’d bet­ter set my mind on a tem­por­ary hype.

Enjoy it while it lasts,” they said.

Most tra­di­tion­al PR and mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sion­als did­n’t think digit­al media would dis­ap­pear. However, they thought the hype would die down and digit­al media would be like any oth­er media type.

One highly-respec­ted seni­or PR pro­fes­sion­al came up to me at an event. He was a little bit drunk, but he wanted to inform me that everything would soon be back to nor­mal again. He told me that he was impressed by my ideas on digit­al PR but that I should be care­ful not to “burn any bridges.”

This digit­al media hype won’t last forever,” he said.

A few years later, his renowned tra­di­tion­al PR agency, once a power­house and a career tar­get for many pro­fes­sion­als, is gone. I haven’t heard from him since. And the digit­al trans­form­a­tion has only just begun.

Traditional PR Ain’t Coming Back

Digital media is like noth­ing we’ve ever seen before. As soon as you stumble upon some­thing new, yet anoth­er end­less abyss of poten­tial know­ledge and skill sets opens up under your feet.

Not even the print­ing press meas­ures up. Our cur­rent digit­al trans­form­a­tion is on par with the indus­tri­al revolu­tion. And it shows no signs of slow­ing down.

But more import­antly for many tra­di­tion­al PR and mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sion­als — the old ways won’t be mak­ing a comeback.

The Electronic Age and Digital-First

Human cul­ture is often described based on our access to pro­duc­tion tech­no­lo­gies (i.e. stone age, bronze age, iron age). 

Still, accord­ing to Marshall McLuhan and the Toronto School of Communication Theory, a bet­ter ana­lys­is would be to view soci­et­al devel­op­ment based on the prom­in­ence of emer­ging com­mu­nic­a­tions technologies.

Marshall McLuhan - Cambridge University - Digital-First
Marshall McLuhan at Cambridge University, circa 1940.

Marshall McLuhan sug­gests divid­ing human civil­isa­tion into four epochs:

  • Oral tribe cul­ture. Handwriting marks the begin­ning of the end of the oral tribe cul­ture. The oral tribe cul­ture per­sists but without its former prominence.
  • Manuscript cul­ture. Printing marks the begin­ning of the end of the manu­script cul­ture. The manu­script cul­ture per­sists but without its former prominence.
  • Gutenberg galaxy. Electricity marks the begin­ning of the end of the Gutenberg galaxy. The Gutenberg galaxy per­sists but without its former prominence.
  • Electronic age. Today, we reside in the elec­tron­ic age. Likely, we haven’t yet exper­i­enced this age’s decline yet.

The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962) is McLuhan’s mass media ana­lys­is, pop­ular­ising the term glob­al vil­lage.

As a PR pro­fes­sion­al and lin­guist, I sub­scribe to the concept of the elec­tron­ic age. My line of work’s main point of ana­lys­is is that soci­ety is unlikely to revert to the Gutenberg galaxy.

The PR industry must adapt to digit­al-first. Why? Because the Typographic Man is not mak­ing a comeback.

Read also: Digital-First is the Way

Perception Management is Digital

Walter Lippmann: Public Opinion and Perception Management

No one is basing their atti­tudes and beha­viours on real­ity; we’re basing them on our per­cep­tions of real­ity.

Walter Lippmann (1889 – 1974) pro­posed that our per­cep­tions of real­ity dif­fer from the actu­al real­ity. The real­ity is too vast and too com­plex for any­one to pro­cess. 1Lippmann, Walter. 1960. Public Opinion (1922). New York: Macmillan.

  • One who effect­ively man­ages the per­cep­tions of pub­lics acts as a mor­al legis­lat­or, cap­able of shap­ing atti­tudes and beha­viours accord­ing to the cat­egor­ic­al imperative.

The research on per­cep­tion man­age­ment is focused on how organ­isa­tions can cre­ate a desired repu­ta­tion:

The OPM [Organizational Perception Management] field focuses on the range of activ­it­ies that help organ­isa­tions estab­lish and/or main­tain a desired repu­ta­tion (Staw et al., 1983). More spe­cific­ally, OPM research has primar­ily focused on two inter­re­lated factors: (1) the tim­ing and goals of per­cep­tion man­age­ment activ­it­ies and (2) spe­cif­ic per­cep­tion man­age­ment tac­tics (Elsbach, 2006).”
Source: Hargis, M. & Watt, John 2Hargis, M. & Watt, John. (2010). Organizational per­cep­tion man­age­ment: A frame­work to over­come crisis events. Organization Development Journal. 28. 73 – 87.

Today, our per­cep­tions are heav­ily influ­enced by news media and influ­en­cers, algorithms, and social graphs. Therefore, per­cep­tion man­age­ment is more crit­ic­al than ever before.

We are all cap­tives of the pic­ture in our head — our belief that the world we have exper­i­enced is the world that really exists.”
— Walter Lippmann

Learn more: Walter Lippmann: Public Opinion and Perception Management

Inbound: A New Frontier for PR

As PR and mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sion­als, we must rethink how we approach audi­ences. Because they’re going to be the ones doing most of the approaching. 

Inbound vs Outbound

The inbound mind­set is a fun­da­ment­al shift in pub­lic relations.

Instead of focus­ing on try­ing to spawn non-exist­ing audi­ences, PR can do so much more with exist­ing online pub­lics. 3See also The Publics in Public Relations (Doctor Spin).

If your inbound PR strategy is good enough, you might not even need an out­bound PR strategy.

Jerry Silfwer speaking about inbound marketing
Jerry Silfwer (Doctor Spin) speaks about inbound marketing.

Read also: The Inbound First PR Strategy: Beauty From Within

Digital-First is the Future of PR

Digital media will be the prime mover of people’s per­cep­tions for a long time. It has become our num­ber-one source for inform­a­tion, group form­a­tion, and dialogue. 

The Digital Transformation of PR

The biggest chal­lenge in PR is ensur­ing that our pro­fes­sion keeps up with new com­mu­nic­a­tion tech­no­logy and stays valu­able and rel­ev­ant as a busi­ness function.

The authors argue that earli­er paradigms are mostly inad­equate in address­ing the needs of a 21st Century in which com­mu­nic­a­tion tech­no­logy is cre­at­ing rap­id glob­al­iz­a­tion while it is dan­ger­ously exacer­bat­ing the ten­sions of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism. Through a crit­ic­al dis­cus­sion of pri­or assump­tions and paradigms in pub­lic rela­tions schol­ar­ship, the authors under­line the need for pub­lic rela­tions to revital­ize and bring its body of know­ledge into the 21st Century. The authors pos­it and dis­cuss how the com­munity-build­ing the­ory ori­gin­ally espoused by Kruckeberg and Starck (1988) and mod­i­fied in sub­sequent schol­ar­ship can provide a viable depar­ture point toward devel­op­ing new approaches to research about and prac­tice of pub­lic rela­tions that can take into account the dynam­ic envir­on­ment wrought by changes in com­mu­nic­a­tion tech­no­logy.”
— Valentini, C., Kruckeberg, D., & Starck, K.4Valentini, C., Kruckeberg, D., & Starck, K. (2012). Public rela­tions and com­munity: A per­sist­ent cov­en­ant. Public Relations Review, 38, 873 – 879.

The biggest chal­lenge in mod­ern pub­lic rela­tions is the con­stantly chan­ging media land­scape. With the pro­lif­er­a­tion of social media, the rise of fake news, and the decline of tra­di­tion­al journ­al­ism, it can be dif­fi­cult for organ­isa­tions to con­trol the spread of inform­a­tion and pro­tect their reputations. 

Public rela­tions pro­fes­sion­als must now be stra­tegic and pro­act­ive in their approach and must be able to adapt to new tech­no­lo­gies and plat­forms to com­mu­nic­ate with their pub­lics effectively. 

Learn more: PR Must Adapt (Or Die)

So, what does this mean?

It means that digit­al com­mu­nic­a­tion is not a fad.
It means that we must adapt — or perish.

Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing it with oth­er PR- and com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

1 Lippmann, Walter. 1960. Public Opinion (1922). New York: Macmillan.
2 Hargis, M. & Watt, John. (2010). Organizational per­cep­tion man­age­ment: A frame­work to over­come crisis events. Organization Development Journal. 28. 73 – 87.
3 See also The Publics in Public Relations (Doctor Spin).
4 Valentini, C., Kruckeberg, D., & Starck, K. (2012). Public rela­tions and com­munity: A per­sist­ent cov­en­ant. Public Relations Review, 38, 873 – 879.
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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