Digital-First is the Way

The "old ways" are not coming back.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Instagram)

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

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.

Those who can manage the perceptions of publics can control their attitudes and behaviours.

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: Organizational Perception Management 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 important 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

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.

Inbound Marketing and Outbound Marketing - Doctor Spin - The PR Blog
The difference between inbound and outbound.

Instead of focusing on trying to spawn non-existing audiences, PR can do so much more with existing online publics.

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 PR Strategy

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.”
Source: Public Relations Review

Here’s PR’s most significant challenge summarised by AI:

“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 organizations 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. Additionally, the abundance of online information can make it difficult for organizations to stand out and get their messages heard. As a result, public relations professionals must be creative and innovative to engage with their publics effectively.”
Source: ChatGPT

Read also: 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.

Thank you for reading this article. Please consider supporting my work by sharing it with other PR- and communication professionals. For questions or PR support, contact me via [email protected].

ANNOTATIONS
ANNOTATIONS
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.
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://www.doctorspin.net/
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.

4 COMMENTS

  1. It is digital first. But it is also planning exit strategies for many campaigns. Having built up a huge following, why do so many then slam the door, leaving their followers in the lurch.

  2. Having a background in Data Mining, I’m very interested in your second point. Could you please elaborate a little bit on how you are using big data in your digital marketing?
    As for me, when I’ve worked with data it has almost always been in house data used for either creating clusters or discovering exceptions in different flows.

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