How can Public Relations communications theory help us understand the role of new media

The Public Relations industry, which is an offshoot of the traditional advertising industry, turned into a dominant business institution through the course of the twentieth century. The two countries that pioneered this industry are the United States and the United Kingdom. In the case of the former, Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, is widely acknowledged as the founding father of the industry. In the United Kingdom, the government propaganda campaigns to mobilize support during the two World Wars made clear the importance and potency of strategic PR campaigns to influence and control public opinion. Toward the end of the century, as business corporations became the dominant institutions of our times, the scope of PR widened and assumed new roles in the commercial realm of product marketing. At the birth of the new millennium, the ascendency of digital technology into the mainstream has once again enhanced and redefined the nature and role of public relations industry. Irrespective of the evolution and change of mediums of communication over the last century, the essence of PR industry has remained more or less the same. In other words, the theoretical framework within which the PR industry operates is applicable across media technologies, both new and traditional. This essay will pertain itself to the analysis of how Public Relations communications theory can help understanding the role of new media.

Firstly, new media is a term that is used to refer to a range of communication options that fall along a spectrum. The research team of Diana Owen and Richard Davis have done extensive analytical work on new media. They describe the wide range of new media technologies thus:
“At one end are communications platforms based on old technologies that have taken on new political roles, such as radio and television talk programs, tabloids, and television news magazines. In the middle of the spectrum are mixed or hybrid media that combine elements of traditional media with newer technologies. These include 24-hour cable news programs and the Internet sites of newspapers and magazines. On the far end of the spectrum are new media that have developed as a result of new technology that has been put to novel political uses. Internet applications, such as social networking Web sites like Facebook and MySpace, blogs, video-sharing sites including YouTube, and podcasts fall into this category.” (Owen & Davis, 2008)

What we learn from the history of PR theory over the last century is the identification of four distinct models. These are “press agency, an approach intended to yield favourable publicity, largely through the mass media; public information, in which largely objective information is distributed through mass media; two-way asymmetrical, which utilizes research to develop messages meant to persuade publics to the organization’s point of view; and two-way symmetrical, which uses communication to improve understanding, manage conflict, and achieve “win-win” consensus with strategic publics.” (Berger, 1999) The felicity of new media technology is such that it is compatible with these four models of information dissemination that embodied traditional public relations practice. Moreover, the two prominent public domains upon which PR communications theories are applied are politics and business. In the case of politics, electoral democracy, both in the UK and the USA, has always utilized mass media avenues to get the messages of candidates across. Similarly, the launch of a new product is inevitably accompanied by PR and advertising campaigns. Bruce Berger of the University of Kentucky sees an ideological role for PR in both these domains. He says that it is important to critically question the relationship between organizational public relations and ideology, especially at a time when significant changes are happening in the development and application of new media technologies. During the last ten to fifteen years, corporations have accelerated their expansion into powerful global enterprises; political actors have adopted ‘spin’ techniques to portray and interpret events; transnational media and entertainment companies have “consolidated control over news content, production, and distribution; and organizations have invested billions in communication campaigns intended to create or enhance brand and institutional images worldwide” (Berger, 1999).

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