‘Public’ Relations or just Relations?: Social Media & PR

Our Contemporary Theories and Issues class recently had a debate on whether or not we felt social media put the ‘public’ back into public relations.

It’s an interesting concept. Social media and web 2.0 now provides everyone with the power to connect on a different and more intimate level than previously seen before. This emergence lets us engage what Dozier, Grunig & Grunig call the two-way symmetrical model of communication, characterised for its use of communication to negotiate with publics, resolve conflict, and promote mutual understanding and respect between the organization and its public(s).


Before, we were seeing only one-way communication of organisation to publics. While a number of methods from one-way communications models work, such as press releases and promotional materials, communication was lacking in the background information about the publics they were communicating with in order to understand them better. Social media stepped in to aide in this process.

Publics are now able to Tweet at organisations to file complaints, show their loyalty to a brand by liking them on Facebook and mentioning them in blogs. On these platforms, organisations are now able to engage with the publics and to gather information about them through metrics that lets the organisation tailor future messages and experiences for them.

However, in countries like China and most recently Russia, social media sights are regulated for reasons concerning the government and therefore may not exist there. From a western perspective, this two-way communication is very valuable for organisations and empowering for publics, but what happens when this communication doesn’t exist in a culture?

Publics are no longer involved in the public relations process, therefore eliminating the ‘public’ from public relations. With the prevalence of this one-way communication, we begin to backslide into one-way communication models that publics have often associated with manipulation and distrust.

This is what Grunig tries to warn against in his article ‘Paradigms of global public relations in an age of digitalisation’. We have the opportunity to advance our profession, but many practitioners are using the new media in the same way they used the old- dumping messages on the public. And cultural differences in terms of social media regulation aren’t helping.

I do believe that social media has given public relations a dynamic way to interact with publics that does put their voice into messages, however this can’t be said globally. This is very situational and it may take years and other technological advances to transcend social and cultural barriers in order to fully put the public back into public relations.

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Brett Ashley Bridges

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