Is the public relations profession ready for a rapidly changing technological world?

Tina McCorkindale, Ph.D, APR
President & CEO, Institute for Public Relations

One of the most powerful global influences on the public relations industry is the rise of smartphones. According to the 2015 Global Mobile Economy Report, half of the world’s population now has a global subscription, compared to just one in five subscribers 10 years ago. The mobile ecosystem is a tremendous economic driver; in 2014, the mobile industry accounted for 3.8 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP).

Last month, Dr. Dejan Verčič , Professor and Head of Centre for Marketing and Public Relations at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, was the recipient of the highest honor given to an academic by the Institute for Public Relations, the Pathfinder Award. At the IPR Research Symposium in November, Dr. Verčič discussed the influence of hyperglobalization and hyperdemocratization, and its implications for public relations.

With hyperglobalization, world trade has surged much more rapidly than the world GDP. Dr. Verčič posited that if we want to study the influences of hyperglobalization, we need to look inside our pockets for the source—smartphones.  Smartphones have the power to transcend borders and serve as global transmitters. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of cell phone users in sub-Saharan Africa has exploded in a place with low landline penetration. Cell phones have allowed people to send messages, do mobile banking in places with no physical branches, and have even served as maps for Syrian refugees to navigate through Europe. Verčič contends that mobile devices are globally changing our society fundamentally in the way we operate, and public relations professionals must pay attention.

In addition to the impact of smartphones, Verčič suggests that the tension between hyperglobalization and national-level politics will continue to increase. In his 2001 piece in Time Magazine about hyperdemocracy, Robert Wright wrote of the increasing use of technology. He said, “Its descent into a wired world of ultranarrowcasting and online discourse, may render democracy more hyper and in some ways less functional. We have seen the future, and it doesn’t entirely work.” Fifteen years later, this is our world as our technology growth is accelerating at warp speed.  

For public relations, according to Verčič, much power is media generated. Historically, only certain groups could produce and publish content through media platforms due to the lack of technology. Now, anyone can produce and share content, especially within our own social networks, however small or large that may be. Verčič warns that the public relations industry must think about media relations differently—not just the paid, earned, shared, owned model—but everything generating communications today. “Mediatization” is everything.

On a global level, public relations professionals must learn to better deal with opinions and emotions. Verčič said while PR professionals want to be purists and use fact-based models, the world around us is different. We are losing the reality around ourselves and must remember the importance of social representations. We cannot forget the society that exists outside our realm.  

The public relations industry must answer the call and we must be prepared to face a rapidly changing society. Right now, our industry is not ready. Technology, including smartphones, have changed the power structure, and public relations must be prepared to deal with these significant societal changes both on a local and global level.

To view Dr. Dejan Verčič ’s Pathfinder Award presentation, please click here