Sunday, May 17, 2009

Evolution or Revolution

In his review of the two new books about online public relations Richard Bailey opens up an interesting point.

He asks “Online public relations: evolution or revolution?”

It is a debate worth considering because it matters to the PR industry if it is and if it is not.

In this post I shall, by using some of the new search tools announced by Google this week, provide evidence and reason the believe that online public relations is probably an industry revolution rather than evolutionary.

What is a revolution?

The OED definition is:
1 a forcible overthrow of a government or social order, in favour of a new system.
2 a dramatic and far-reaching change.
3 motion in orbit or in a circular course or round an axis or centre.
4 the single completion of an orbit or rotation.

I guess the test should be to see the extent to which online public relations does or does not satisfy the first two OED definitions.

The extent to which online public relations has contributed to the overthrow of a government can be tested from experience. Certainly the Barack Obama election campaign was heavily mediated by online public relations but to say that it was the single of even the most significant cause for his success in the Primaries and the overthrow of the Republican incumbent government is stretching the point.

The public unrest in Iceland was certainly a factor in the proroguing of parliament this year but it is unclear to what extent the internet was the instrument of the over throw of the government. It is probable that it had an effect but whether this was a public relations activity and that it was the prime cause is not evident anywhere.

It's pretty fair to say that online Public Relations is not, yet overthrowing governments.

Perhaps we can look at the extent to which online public relations is evident in the forcible overthrow of a social order. Here we can see the evidence of activist public relations having an effect. In “Change Activist: Make Big Things Happen Fast” Carmel McConnell, the ex-Greenham Common activist turned consultant suggests that planned and sustained interaction (sounds like a re-write of the CIPR definition of PR) can change social order especially in business. But in the wake of humble apologies (did I really write that?) from bankers, one gets the impression that it is an idea that has not got a lot of traction yet.

Certainly, advertised jobs do not seek online skills as a rule.

There are no signs of forceful overthrow in recruitment job profiles. Indeed, there is very little evidence of a need for any online skills at all!

On the first definition. It would seem that the PR industry is not going through a revolution.

Now to examine the notion of revolution being dramatic and far-reaching change.

This should take us first to a definition of the work and role of the public relations practitioner. In 2005, I did a little exercise to see if I could shed some light into what Public Relations is (PDF).

Looking at these definitions and job titles, we can compare and contrast the role of the practitioner then and now and the extent to which online public relations is now a part.

It’s not easy. The self defining methodology based on the job titles given by CIPR members extends from external affairs to publicity manager.

There is a case for examining these definitions one by one to see the extent to which public relations, the designated job title, and references to ‘digital’ or ‘online’ have changed.

This might give us some inclination about the nature and extent to which there is a change in perceptions.

This is a research project that does need doing as the following results indicate based on a swift look on a wet Sunday in May.

One methodology (which I thought might give us some interesting results) could include the use of Google’s time-line tool of mentions of search terms associated with dates.

It would give us a response discovering the user of PR terms associated with dates over time.

This is an example for a search: 'online "public relations" publicity for the UK.

(fig 1)

It seems that there is a growing correlation.

Here is the counterpart for online "public relations" "external affairs" for the UK.

(fig 2)

I think it is fair to say that on a small sample we can see that there is growing association with job titles and online public relations.

From this small example it would seem that there is evidence of PR jobs being associated with online. Using such a tool, one might be able to see the extent to which different PR jobs are being associated with online and digital PR.

The extent to which this is ‘far reaching’ might be tested using such a methodology (although I would want other methods to be included in such research for it to be considered ‘grounded’).

Using this methodology there is evidence that there is a very definite change happening. Using the same method results based on UK searches about

“Online Public Relations” mentioned with dates gives some interesting insights.


(fig 3)

(One has to consider the underlying ‘noise’ in this form of analysis with about a quarter of the results seemingly being unreliable returns)

And “Digital Public Relations”


(fig 4)

(There would seem to be less ‘noise’ in the sample)
This form of analysis suggests that there is change. But is it a dramatic and far-reaching change.

I then searched for references to public relations that did not include the words ‘digital’ ‘online’ or ‘web 2.0’


(fig 5)

This form of discourse analysis would suggest that in recent years the use of the term “Public Relations” has been quite stable but in decline for the last 18 months when not associated with online. Indeed, the number of mentions about public relations is increasing but is in decline when not associated with Online.

This would suggest that there is an important change taking place.

Is this a dramatic and far-reaching change?

I think that if the term “public relations” on its own had been stable for the last 18 months, it could not have been considered dramatic. But the decline suggests that there is a move towards public relations being associated with online public relations. This is ‘dramatic’.

But is it ‘far reaching’?

In the Google analysis we have see a steady rise for a decade for the notion of online public relations. This suggests a long term trend but that is not the only way of testing the notion of 'far reaching'. I thought I might apply a semantic test as well and this gave me an opportuity to try out the new Google ‘Wonder Wheel’ tool. It gives us a related search view of the subject we are searching.

Online public relations is associated with digital tactics is a big way:

(fig 6)

While digital public relations is less broad based.


(fig 7)

With comparative related search capabilities, ‘Public Relations’ on its own has a wide semantic meaning online according to Google.


(fig 8)
Google is showing us that there is an equivalent range of search associations for ‘online public relations’ and ‘public relations’ suggesting there is an equivalency in semantic association.

This is ‘far reaching’. It suggests that there is an association in the presence between online activity and PR in the minds of people looking for PR and that, semantically, both normal PR and online PR have a considerable hinterland of similar force.

Bearing in mind that the web presence of online PR is very new compared to ‘public relations’ this is pretty good going.

I would suggest that this evidence has the hallmark of revolution.

For the sake of clarity, one has to bear in mind that this is based on a UK search. For other parts of the world results will be different.

This is not much more than ‘finger in the wind’ research and drawing any big conclusion from it would be a bit too much but it does give us the basis for a debate and suggests that the PR industry might like to look more closely at how much PR is changing, how fast and where the investment in marketing, training, education and sector development should go.

Thank you for starting the debate Richard.