The public relations industry has been relatively slow to embrace new technologies, even when they have the potential to expand its role by opening up new frontiers of communications or to make the job of individual practitioners more rewarding by eliminating tedious tasks and freeing them to focus on the real value-added aspects of the craft.

Only five years ago, I sat in the office of an executive vice president at one of the three largest public relations firms and was puzzled at the absence of a desktop computer. When I asked about it, he pointed to the top of one of his bookshelves, where sat an old Underwood typewriter. If he had to write something, he used a manual typewriter and then had his secretary input it into a computer.

Around the same time, I heard stories of a major agency CEO who had his secretary print out all his e-mails every morning. He would then scribble responses on them with a pen, and hand them back to his assistant for her to send out. Hearing this story, I called the CEOs of the top 20 agencies and asked for their e-mail addresses. More than half had to put me on hold while they asked someone else for the information.

These incidents may be amusing, but this technophobia has other, more serious consequences. When the Internet came along, every communications discipline staked its claim to the new medium: advertising agencies felt it presented a new way to get commercial messages in front of vast audiences; corporate identity firms felt the Internet was essential a design medium; direct marketers saw it as a vehicle for database-driven communications.

But the Internet was primarily a public relations medium. It was about dialogue, not monologue, encouraging interactivity of the kind PR people are used to, dealing with journalists on a daily basis. It was about multiple stakeholders, not just customers. And it was about education, allowing consumers and others to plumb depths of information rather than passively accepting a 30-second commercial message. Yet PR people were slow to take advantage, often allowing other communications functions—or worse still, the IT department—to take the lead.

Even now, most large corporations are only using about a tenth of the potential of the Internet.

There are at least 10 ways in which technology can help public relations professionals—in agencies and in corporations—do their jobs better:

1. Process automation

Execution is “the missing link between aspirations and results,” according to Honeywell chief executive Larry Bossidy, author of a best-selling book on the subject. As such, making it happen is the business leader’s most important job.

Public relations people are conceptual, creative thinkers. They are not process oriented. They are generally more comfortable brainstorming big ideas than dealing with details.

Public relations automation software has come a long way in the past few years, and can help both agencies and corporate PR departments with campaign management, from compiling media lists to sharing documents to monitoring and analyzing media results.

This can be particularly vital in large organizations, where quality control issues are critical, because it gives management a way to ensure that everyone is executing according to the same game plan.

2. Knowledge management

In a large organization, it’s easy to lose track of where specific knowledge resides.

When top tier firms started promoting their “best teams” approach in the late 90s, they implicitly recognized the difficulty of bringing together the right talent for the right account. A “best team” could conceivably consist of a media relations expert in New York, a public affairs professional in Washington, and an individual with cardiovascular disease experience in San Francisco. To find the best people, agencies need to have access to the relevant information—generally via an intranet with a robust people database.

In corporations, the challenge is even more daunting, since corporate communications people may have to locate experts on a wide range of issues, from specific products and services to human resource topics (age discrimination, 401k plans) to the finer points of a company’s environmental, health and safety record.

3. Knowledge sharing

Even the best-run agencies—in normal times at least—experience staff turnover of 25 percent or more in an average year. Public relations people move easily from job to job, seeking new experiences and new challenges. In an industry where people really are a company’s greatest asset, that creates real problems, because it means 25 percent of your institutional knowledge is lost every year.

Knowledge sharing has become a priority for smart managers. Knowledge must become an institutional asset, and technology can enable that process, as companies create a body of knowledge that everyone can access.

Beyond that, technology can help agencies share knowledge not only among their own personnel but also—via sophisticated extranets—with their clients.

4. Empowering people to speak on behalf of the organization

One of the realities of the modern communications environment is that everyone in your organization is a potential spokesperson. Not every media inquiry comes through the public relations department, and while smart companies will train their people to notify the PR department of every media contact, there will be times when non-communicators have to respond to reporters’ questions.

In such cases, it’s vital that non-professional spokespeople have access to corporate policies and message points developed by the professionals.

Beyond that, it’s important that everyone in the organization recognize his or her role in maintaining corporate reputation. Every contact an employee has with a customer, a member of the community, another employee, has the potential to enhance or undermine corporate reputation.

Technology enables PR people to share the company’s values among all employees, and provides those employees with access to the corporate values and other reputation management tools, whenever and wherever they may be.

5. Eliminating low value tasks

Agencies need to understand that not all billable hours are created equal.

A billable hour spent compiling a media list, or pulling together a clip report provides less value—regardless of how much the agency bills for that hour—than an hour spent brainstorming an client’s problem, or providing strategic counsel to the CEO. Every client dollar spent on a commodity task is a dollar that is not available for value-added public relations counsel.

It’s surprising how many PR firms fail to recognize this fact. Rick Rudman, chief executive of public relations software company Vocus, tells of developing a software product designed to make media analysis easier, cutting the time it took to compile a clipping report from two or three days to two or three hours. But when he showed the new tool to a PR agency president, the reaction was horror. “If I start using your software, I’m going to lose 16 or 20 billable hours of work,” the agency president told him.

Obviously, clients will understand why that’s flawed thinking. Hopefully, agency personnel will recognize that they can’t sustain a business model dependent on expanding the amount of commodity work to fill the time available.

6. Beyond media relationships

When it comes to media relations, there’s no substitute for personal relationships. But in today’s media environment, it’s impossible to have a relationship with every journalist who can help tell your company’s story, or who might uncover a story you’d rather not have plastered all over the front page of The Wall Street Journal.

Media management software is a vital source of information on journalists, and available databases provide a depth of information—beats, deadlines, pitching preferences, and more—that can be customized and expanded for individual companies and specific clients.

When you’re pitching a story on your company’s environmental record, for example, you can be sure you’re pitching only those reporters who have shown a previous interest in the subject. But you can also, by using databases intelligently, predict which reporters are more likely to give the story a favorable hearing, and which industry analysts or activist sources they are likely to call to verify the story—giving you an opportunity to reach out to opinion leaders before you pitch.

7. Adding reach to press releases

The Internet has changed the nature of the press release. If you’re writing a press release today—at least, a press release that goes out over the newswires—it’s going to be read not only by the news media, but also by any stakeholder who has access to the Internet and sufficient interest in your company to do a search.

Research conducted by PR Newswire at its website indicates more than 25 percent of those who read press releases online are shareholders of the issuing company, and 34 percent identify themselves as individual investors. About 13 percent identify themselves as business professionals, and almost 15 percent are ordinary consumers, looking to learn about the company, it products and services.

That means public relations people need to consider a broader audience for their press releases, to tailor messages to a wide range of stakeholders.

8. Adding depth to press releases

In addition to changing the audience for the press release, the Internet has also changed the power of the press release to communicate complicated information and to provide reporters with access to more detail. Press releases no longer need to be written to adhere to a structure as rigid as a haiku. They can contain hyperlinks to a wide range of resources—executive biographies, product specs, annual reports, even video of speeches or product demos—that give their readers as much information as they could possibly want.

Most press releases are still one-dimensional, two pages of double spaced text transported from paper to the Internet with no thought of how the new medium changes the way in which they can be used, the quantity and quality of information they can communicate. That has to change if PR people are to keep up with demand.
9. Intelligence gathering

The decision by Hershey Trust to sell its 70 percent stake in the Hershey candy company was a massive public relations disaster, not because the Trust said all the wrong things, but because it failed to listen to what others were saying. Had anyone at the Trust been in touch with the Hershey community, they would have been able to predict the ensuing reaction, which forced the Trust to rethink its decision and turn down a couple of viable offers for its stock.

Public relations is about dialogue, but two many PR people are focused on talking rather than listening. They are proficient when it comes to taking the company’s message to the public, but not when it comes to monitoring and reporting on what the public is saying about the company.

In the Hershey case, spending a few minutes in conversation with the community might have prevented a huge PR blunder. But in general, companies need to monitor a much larger universe of stakeholders and influencers, and only technology can help them do that: tracking what is being said about companies on the Internet, in chat rooms and user groups where issues may percolate for months before they become media stories.

Several PR agencies have acquired competitive intelligence firms, but every PR professional needs to have mechanisms in place to gather such vital data.

10. Real-time evaluation

Modern technology enables public relations professionals to take measurement and evaluation to the next level, to analyze the success or failure of a campaign—and of individual components of a campaign—on a real-time basis.

It used to be that evaluation was something PR people did at the end of a program, to figure out whether it was a hit. But today PR people are taking a leaf from the political campaign book and looking to evaluate programs on an ongoing basis. Thus, research has gone from a means of keeping score to a tool for adjusting and improving programs as they go along.

That means research is no longer an expense but an investment in using data to figure out what’s working and what’s not, which messages are resonating with the media and which are falling flat, which media are particularly receptive and which are not interested. Practitioners can eliminate what doesn’t work and focus on what does, delivering greater value for money in the process.