New media has caused and continues to send ripples and shock waves throughout the realm of public relations (PR) practice. Increased public and stakeholder access to the internet has in particular set the demand for information from PR practioners at an unprecedented level (Galloway, 2005). Whilst past research findings indicated that PR practioners were ready to accept and use new media in the performance of their functions (Porter & Sallot, 2003), current signs show that many are still grappling with the impact of new media on their practice.
The term new media is normally used in reference to an array of media practices that utilize digital and computer technologies in one way or another. More notable is the fact that some definitions of new media integrate aspects related to the culture and/or contexts within which the new media is used (Dewdney & Ride, 2006). New media technologies share the characteristics of having wide reach, being portable and in effect, enhanced mobility (Galloway, 2005).
New media continues to pose significant challenges for PR practitioners especially because it forces them to look for means and ways to marry their traditional PR practice and roles with new and emerging technologies as well as adapt their delivery of information to the usage patterns of these technologies amongst their key publics and stakeholders. In essence therefore, effective application of PR theoretical frameworks to new media, redefinition of the scope of PR practice to cater for the increased demand for information by various stakeholders which is prompted by these technological developments and the aspect of having to acquire technical knowledge and skills without additional remuneration or support are amongst the major challenges PR practitioners face in their use of new media to communicate with key publics and stakeholders.
Effective application of PR theoretical frameworks to new media is one of the formidable challenges faced by PR practioners in their quest to utilize new media (James, 2008, p.139). For instance, the application of theoretical frameworks to new technologies for the purposes of establishing and maintaining symmetrical two-way communication between organizations, their publics and stakeholders has been identified in various studies as one of the challenges faced by PR practitioners. Findings from these studies further concur that despite the fact that new media have and continue to offer the means for PR practitioners to potentially enhance two-way communication by employing PR theoretical frameworks for instance the model for two-way symmetrical communication by Grunig and Hunt (1984), the goal remains a mirage for many organizations.
The McAllister and Taylor (2007) study of community college websites which had aimed to determine whether the said websites fostered two-way communication relationships is just but one examples of these studies. The study concluded that majority of the websites lacked the interactive features necessary for PR practitioners to solicit for opinions, information or inputs from key stakeholders. A study on online investor relations by Hessink, Boggen and Steggink (2007) echoed similar sentiments pointing out that the provision available on most corporate websites for investors to make enquiries via email did not fulfill the criteria for two-way symmetrical communication. Quality and timely company responses to email inquiries were the indicators of effective two-way communication in this particular study. In essence therefore, the inability to effectively apply various PR theoretical frameworks to new media with an aim of enhancing the capacity of PR practitioners to collect vital information as well as monitor the opinions of key stakeholders remains a major challenge for PR practitioners.
PR practitioners are also faced with the challenge of keeping abreast with already available technologies as well as technologies whose releases are planned for the future. This is due to the fluid and dynamic nature of technology with new technologies being developed and updated every day (James, 2008, p.140) The latter is compounded by the fact that the aforementioned changes in technology continue to prompt changes in the usage of these technologies among the various organizational stakeholders. For example, many stakeholders currently expect that content delivery during any event should be done via digital projectors and power-point presentations. Others on the other hand expect the afore mentioned technologies to be coupled with internet access so as to allow presenters during such events to integrate content that is available online with their presentation when they deem it necessary.
In this regard, PR practitioners especially those planning for large scale PR projects with a half-life of several years like major international events face the daunting task of having to plan and revisit their plans so as to ensure they accommodate any changes in technology and its usage among their key stakeholders. Moreover, PR practitioners need to be more technologically savvy in areas like software operations, web analytics and publishing amongst others (Nowland, 2006). Recent trends also indicate that PR agencies are broadening their requirements during recruitment exercises so as to ensure that they also hire staff with other areas of expertise for instance in technology besides PR. In short therefore, PR practioners need to acquire skills and knowledge in the use of new media or face extinction.
Dynamism in the usage of new media amongst various organizational publics and stakeholders has put PR practitioners under significant pressure to ensure that they provide instant access to content. For example, internet news services are a far cry from what they were in the past because they no longer rely on news wire services as their primary sources of information. In addition, due to increased internet access, organizations are no longer able to monopolize the information about their companies in the public realm because any stakeholder with internet access can place information about the organization on the net (Taylor & Kent, 2006, p.146). This implies that PR practitioners are faced with the challenge of continually meeting the needs of public and stakeholder access to content, at their desired level of accuracy failure to which they will solicit for the information from other more readily available sources (Stephens, 2007, p.35).
Enhancement of public and stakeholder access to content on the other hand poses significant ramifications on the relationships between PR practitioners and the management of the organizations they represent and their IT departments (James, 2008, p.145). This is so because for the PR practitioners to provide spontaneous consumer access to information, they must have the appropriate authority to release the information, establish or aid in the establishment of processes that foster the timely release of required content and finally, they must be equipped with technology appropriate for the uploading and/or subsequent dissemination of the content. Achievement of these needs comes at a cost because it greatly strains the PR practitioner relationships with other parties in the organization who feel that the PR department is encroaching on what they perceive to be their professional territory. As such, PR practitioners have the task of identifying processes that facilitate instant public and stakeholder access to information and at the same time establish a state of balance and harmony between PR functions and those of other departments in the organization (Pavlick & Dozier, as cited in Porter and Sallot, 2003).
PR practitioners additionally face the challenge of having to undertake additional work in the absence of a corresponding increase in personnel and/or budgetary allocations (Helsby, 2010). As previously discussed, the dynamic nature of new media as well as changes in the patterns of usage of these new technologies has significantly increased the work of PR practitioners. Further, new technologies have redefined and/or increased the management’s, public and stakeholder expectations of public practioners. For example, when planning for media releases, PR practitioners have to ensure that the content they prepare is appropriate for the various multimedia utilized by the key stakeholders they are targeting. This requires ample knowledge in stakeholder technology usage patterns and skills in the different types of new technology. These expectations are despite the fact that PR practitioners are experiencing difficulties in finding the funds, time as well as the support necessary for them to upgrade their skills and engage in professional development (James, 2008, p.144).
Last but not least, PR practitioners are under pressure to redefine their the scope of their practice so as to accommodate the impacts of new media on their profession while ensuring that they continue to deliver on their traditional PR roles like crisis management, media and stakeholder relations, marketing communications amongst others (Helsby, 2010). For example during crisis management, PR practitioners can advise the management as well as actively participate in the utilization of new media like the organization’s website to communicate with both the organization’s publics and stakeholders. In so doing they will not only be performing their traditional role of crisis management but they will also be incorporating new technology in the performance of this role. This notion is supported by Taylor and Kent (2007, p.146) who points out that some forms of new media like websites provide a one-way means of communication which the organization can exploit them to convey information to its publics and stakeholders and thus dispel any fears especially during times of crisis.
In conclusion therefore, new technologies have provided innumerable opportunities for PR practitioners to enhance their functions. However, the effective application of PR theoretical frameworks to new media and acquisition of appropriate skills and knowledge in new media to facilitate its effective utilization which must be done in the absence of funding, time and support are merely the tip of the ice-berg when it comes to the challenges PR practitioners are facing in their quest to fully capitalize on new media. Other factors pausing significant challenges to PR practioners include providing both publics and stakeholders with continuous and spontaneous access to information using the media of their choice, the establishing of meaningful functional relationships with the management of organizations as well as IT departments so as to ensure that they have the authority and resources necessary to provide instant content access to stakeholders and finally redefining the scope of PR practice to embrace new media while still delivering on their traditional PR roles.
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