The Necessary Shift from Public Relations to Public Engagement

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Social and political forces have caused a shift in how organizations approach public relations, a field more aptly described today as “public engagement”.

Old style public relations was designed to guide perceptions and behaviours around a product, service or brand, and to form a two-way relationship with the public by building mutual understanding and trust, as well as listening to feedback.

Today, advanced technologies, turbulent global economies and skepticism of spokespeople and institutions have changed the relationship between organizations and audiences.

How should organizations and governments go about listening to and engaging with stakeholders in this digital age? The complexity of the current media landscape means public-facing people need to think more strategically in order to capture attention and interest.

The democratizing effect of social media platforms has given rise to the “social influencer”, an inspired individual who exerts unofficial yet powerful sway over a mass audience. How do institutions engage a public who prefers candid advice from peers over information that comes from positions of authority?

It is more necessary than ever to individualize messaging and engage with the social media landscape to guide both policy and communication. Transparency about vision, mission and values is needed to reach today’s skeptical audiences. Issues of social responsibility and consumer empowerment must be addressed. Videos, blogs and podcasts combined with in-person events such as town halls, focus groups and influencer round tables are all ways to achieve communication and collaboration and build reputation.

The transition from public relations to public engagement is more than just wordplay. Persuasive marketing tactics of the past are no longer reliable. Rather, organizations understand that they must invite people on a journey. Solid reputations are made by keeping promises and balancing respect for the individual with concern for the social good. The result will be more meaningful engagement that creates high awareness and trust.

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The topic of this article is covered in the SEEC course Masters Certificate in Marketing Communications Leadership (starting Sept. 25, 2019). The program is designed to to help marketing and non-marketing executives alike succeed in the rapidly shifting realities of today’s MarCom environment.

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