PRSA Richmond’s April luncheon speaker, Dr. Donald K. Wright, wanted to make one point very clear: Digital media is absolutely vital to modern public relations departments. Dr. Wright is the Harold Burson professor and chair in public relations at Boston University’s College of Communication. Every statistic, metric, and case study from his research, a 12-Year Longitudinal Analysis Tracking Social and Digital Media Use in Public Relations Practice, points to the simple fact that PR professionals must take new media very seriously, or else suffer the (often very public) consequences.
The Death of Traditional News
Dr. Wright began his talk by discussing the downfall of the newspaper industry, especially at the local level. Newspaper Death Watch keeps a comprehensive list of those papers that have closed in the past few years, but even once-daily papers that have managed to stay afloat have in many cases switched to a three-day-a-week model to save money.
While traditional news consumption has fallen off a cliff, though, digital media use by consumers is rapidly expanding. This trend, according to Dr. Wright, means PR agencies have been forced to adapt to the new media climate, or watch their clients’ visibility and outreach suffer. His research shows that the time PR practitioners spend working with emerging media like blogs, social media, etc. has increased each year since 2015. In 2015, 29% of his respondents spent more than 25% of their working hours with social and digital media. That percentage increased to 36% in 2017 (Wright and Hinson 21). 75% of 2017 respondents think that PR or Communications should have the responsibility of monitoring and managing emerging media communication (Wright and Hinson 22). Still not convinced that digital media is inescapable in the field of PR? According to Dr. Wright, only 1% of the PR practitioners surveyed don’t spend any of their working time with digital media (Wright and Hinson 21).
These trends matter, because digital media empowers customers, subscribers, audiences, etc. Consumers are now one tweet, Facebook post, or Yelp review away from causing viral backlash against an organization. But even absent a crisis, maintaining public relations through print and broadcast are no longer tenable in this era of real-time status updates. To improve sales, maintain a positive public reputation, and quickly disseminate news and information, PR departments must dedicate substantial resources to digital media. To highlight this point, Dr. Wright used a series of good, bad, and ugly case studies:
In 2015, McDonalds’ sales were reaching record lows. But, together with communications firm Golin, McDonalds was able to use new media to boost their sales by identifying the service a huge part of their consumer following craved: All day breakfast. During his talk, Dr. Wright said that Golin found more than 300,000 people had mentioned all-day breakfast on Twitter between 2007-2015. When they announced the debut of all day breakfast, it trended on Twitter and Facebook for more than five hours, and received more than 340 tweets per minute (Wright and Hinson 32)!
Dr. Wright’s statistics are clear: The announcement generated 245 media placements, 1,100 influencer brand engagements and 48 mentions in earned media stories. McDonald’s stock rose 25% in one quarter, and store sales recorded their strongest quarter in four years (Wright and Hinson 33)!
For every all day breakfast, however, there is a viral video that severely damages consumer trust in a brand. Dominos experienced exactly this in 2009 when a video surfaced of two employees, among several more disgusting things, spitting on food before serving it to customers.
However, Dominos was able to combat the viralness of this video with a video of its own. President Patrick Doyle filmed his own YouTube video apologizing to his customers. Through directness, sincerity, and quickness, Dominos was able to avert a major hit.
And for every gross Dominos video, there is, well, are, several United Airlines fiascos. Back in 2008, digital media was used to strike at United when a passenger, Dave Carroll, had his guitar broken by the airline. He promptly posted a song on YouTube called “United Breaks Guitars.” Rather than replacing the $3,500 guitar, United watched as the video went viral, and they lost millions in reputation and business.
More recently, United suffered social media heat when they refused to allow two teenage passengers, who were using a United benefit that allows employees and their dependents to fly for free on a standby basis, to wear leggings on board. And somehow even more recently, United became a top global news story when a passenger was forcibly removed from one of their airplanes because United had overbooked the flight.
What United shows perhaps better than any other company is that new media makes organizations’ reputations instantly vulnerable. While Dominos was able to get in front of its problem with speed and sincerity, United failed to adequately communicate with its consumers. And when United CEO Oscar Munoz did communicate, he showed a noticeable lack of empathy.
What we at Wireside took away from Dr. Wright’s speech is that, ultimately, technology has consequences. As we exist in a time that is shifting away from traditional newspapers to the new media of Twitter, Facebook, and beyond, it is important to stay on top of the tools and systems that allow PR professionals to best share an organization’s message. As McDonald’s and United show, new media giveth, but new media also taketh away.