Redefining how PR drives value

by Sarah Quady

May 2, 2018

The 10th biennial World Public Relations Forum unfolded over three days in Oslo, Norway, in a historic district that includes the National Palace, the National Theatre and the Oslo Opera House. The conference, focusing on “Truth, Profit and Intelligence” in public relations, attracted hundreds of PR practitioners from 44 countries. While presentations ranged from the modern role of public relations to the tension between profit versus value, the most salient topics to me focused on authenticity and technology and data.

Neighborhood of the 10th biennial World Public Relations Forum in Oslo, Norway
Neighborhood of the 10th biennial World Public Relations Forum in Oslo, Norway

Authenticity: The Mommy Study 

The Canadian mommy-blogger industry demonstrates the value of honest and natural partnerships between influencers and brands, according to Donna Lindell, the PR Program Coordinator for Toronto’s Centennial College who authored a study on the subject. Lindell’s study was quantitative and replicable, and found that many mommy-blog posts were perceived as inauthentic and deceptive. Lindell sampled blog posts from the most-read Canadian mommy bloggers, who use their blogs and social media to share their experiences about motherhood. These influencers often partner with brands to promote products in exchange for compensation, allowing the influencers to make livings as bloggers.

Lindell explained that in honest and natural partnerships, influencers are among the target market for the product they blog about and they enjoy a following that values their opinion. These partnerships are good for brands because influencers promote products creatively, and in ways that appeal to their specific audience. However, unnatural or less-than-forthright partnerships can seem like advertisements and lower the credibility of both the influencer and the brand. Lindell found that in most sponsored blog posts, the blogger left sponsorship disclosure to the end, possibly misleading readers into believing the post was a candid, unsolicited opinion versus a paid one. Though the U.S. has stricter sponsorship disclosure laws, deception is still an issue. For practitioners working with influencers, cultivating relevant and authentic relationships is key to producing compelling campaigns.

Image of audience members watching a presentation
When PR partners with influencers, cultivating authentic relationships is key to compelling campaigns.

Technology & Data

Technology and data yield vast amounts of new business opportunities, ranging from automating tasks and uncovering new customer insights to reaching new audiences and launching products. But, technology also can have dangerous consequences if used mindlessly, says Elin Hauge, Head of Emerging Technology at EVRY, an Oslo based IT consultancy.

One example Hauge highlighted: Through machine learning and artificial intelligence, images and videos can be manipulated to show nearly anything. A source actor can record themselves saying anything and convert that speech to an existing video of Donald Trump (or anyone), making it appear and sound as though Donald Trump said the words of the source actor. In the age of fake news, this capability blurs the line between real and fake until it is undecipherable. For practitioners, the need to emphasize validity and honesty will only grow as these technologies move to the mainstream.

Presentation showing video of Donald Trump being manipulated
Elin Hauge presents on visual manipulation technology

The recent Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal brought to light what many of us already know—we no longer control our data. Companies including but not limited to Facebook collect not just the data explicitly shared with them, but also metadata like how one interacts with Facebook, what they upload, and much more. For consumers, the lack of privacy feels like a necessary but unpleasant sacrifice for using digital and social platforms. For the companies, data scavenging is central to their business models. 

The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), effective at the end of this month, regulates how companies operating in the EU collect, store, and use customers’ personal data. Companies will be required to ask permission before collecting any personal data such as name, address, health and location information, and search history. Because the perception of data scraping is negative, consumers will most likely opt out of sharing this information. Hauge says that users will be more open to sharing data if they understand how it will benefit them. To do this, companies should use customer data to identify pain points and trends in order to improve processes and better serve their customers. Though GDPR is an EU law, it affects U.S.-based companies too: Any company with an EU web presence will have to comply. And, as digital privacy concerns grow in the U.S., practitioners will need to better communicate their data practices and explain how seemingly-unnecessary data collection benefits users.

As the digital world becomes inundated with content and data concerns spark restrictive action, public relations practitioners will need to reassess how they can create company value. To do this, practitioners can no longer work in a silo; they must understand their firm’s role, their audiences, and the greater world around them.

Sarah Quady is a senior public relations major at the Newhouse School.