I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth . . . Can PR survive the new age of authenticity?

BibleI recently came across a really fascinating article and online discussion entitled ‘Uncovering the human factor in social media marketing’. 


Steve Martin, a Digital Strategist with Copperfox and David Amerland, Author and Analyst discuss the changing role of PR as we move ever-forwards into a digital communication age and some of the reasons why the ’traditional’ model of PR (with heavy reliance on one-way communication) needs to urgently embrace a new challenge i.e. the demand being created by social media for authentic, transparent and multi-way communication.

For me, the most important word being used frequently here is authentic i.e. accurate, fact-based and trustworthy.  Social media users demand transparency, openness, truth, integrity and authenticity i.e. the ‘human’ factors upon which, arguably, all long-term mutual relationships are built.  In other words, the power-base for corporate-public communications has shifted.  No longer can a corporate entity or organisation espouse one-way comms to a submissive public and expect their communication efforts to impact.  The social media age is levelling off the playing field.  As Steve Martin says “spin just doesn’t cut it any more”.

Burch (2013, p.11) describes the need for a shift from traditional to conversational communication tactics, emphasising the importance of jointly constructing meaning and building ‘brands’ together with your audience - empowering ’advocates’ for your brand: not just segmenting and targeting publics.  Gone are the days when messages can be carefully constructed in a corporate PR backroom.  Successful organisations in this new era build their brand and protect their image by embracing the new level playing field that social media offers: where connections are real, live and ever-developing based on authentic interactions and relationship-building.  PR therefore needs to think differently.

Social media may be viewed by some as just another ‘tool’ in the box.  However, can there ever be PR these days without some aspect of digitalised PR?  Brown (2013, p.6) suggests that there is no such thing as a PR campaign without a digital dimension.  However, goes further (Brown, 2013, p.9) by stating ”Digital PR is dead because all PR is digital”.  As such, if all PR is now digital, and if all digital communication requires to be authentic for it to be successful, by default, does that mean that all PR now requires to be authentic?  Arguably, yes.

I think of it like this – would I have a relationship with someone I didn’t trust?  No.  Would I bother interacting with someone with no integrity?  No.  Would I source information from someone who I knew was prone to concealing the whole story?  No.  Would I share news of my unfulfilling relationship experience through my own personal connections and contacts?  Most likely.  Would I utlimately disengage from such a non-fulfilling relationship?  Yes, definitely.  Wouldn’t you?

I would suggest that PR is in a period of transition as a direct result of the new communication age which is now upon us.  As communication specialists, we now need to step up to the mark and embrace the call for greater authenticity – otherwise what role will be left for PR?



Brown, R.  (2013).  Digital PR is dead: Social goes mainstream.  In Brown, R. & Waddington, S. (ed.). (2013).  Share this too: More social media solutions for PR professionals (pp. 4-9).  Chichester: Wiley.

Burch, D.  (2013).  The shift to conversation: content, context and avoiding cheap talk.  In Brown, R. & Waddington, S. (ed.). (2013).  Share this too: More social media solutions for PR professionals (pp. 11-19).  Chichester: Wiley.


5 thoughts on “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth . . . Can PR survive the new age of authenticity?

  1. Another good post Jacqui. I think the questions you ask yourself about how YOU would want to be treated in a relationship are key to consider. Thanks to social media, organizations can reach their publics quickly and relatively easily, but this also means they can ruin their reputation just as quickly and easily. PRs, on behalf of the organizations we represent, must realize the importance of communicating with integrity and honesty, treating our publics how WE ourselves would want to be treated, with authenticity. I

    PR has always been on the front line between organizations and publics, and it still is, even though the line has drastically moved. I think that social media has given power back to the people, and is requiring organizations to think about treating their publics like people and not just like a targeted audience segment. This is good I would argue, but does require a reboot in our standard thinking process of goals/identification of publics/objectives, tactics etc.

    Have you tried this in your own practice? Have you found your current employer to be willing to communicate in this way? I’ve run into some difficulties with the amount of leeway I’m given with tone, style etc.


    • Hi Hillary – thanks for the comments. Within the Health Service we are quite far behind with regards to social media and most departments do not as yet have access to social media for work purposes (I am still blocked from all social media sites at work!). I have probably been fortunate as a Public Involvement Practitioner (as opposed to Corporate Comms/PR) that my team fully supports authentic communication and open, transparent engagement – but I do still come up against barriers when dealing with our Corporate Communications team who are still very specific about tone, style, layout, format etc – I foresee a challenging time of change ahead across all strands of our communication policies – particularly how to reconcile the ‘risk averse’ nature of health communication (still very much one-way) with the growing audience need for open and authentic discussion – person to person – not ‘corporate organisation’ to ‘stakeholder group’. Interesting times ahead I think!

  2. Hi Jacqui,

    Thanks for the interesting post and the insights into your work environment.

    In my understanding, it was always (or at least in the recent decades) PR’s function to guarantee authentic and trustworthy communication. Also, the “relations” in Public Relations has always stood for establishing and maintaining dialogue with publics. Digital media has not changed any of that. However, as many practitioners do not share my understanding of PR, they use it for publicity, one-way communication and hope to directly influence their audiences. Digital media, however, facilitates to online users to uncover these attempts of persuasion.

    Internet has made it easy for users to use billions of sources in order to verify information that they come across. Therefore, I do agree with both of you (Jacqui & Hillary): Digital media has made it even more risky (if not suicidal) for PR practitioners to disseminate wrong (untrue) information, as every bit of it might be torn apart, shared and criticised by engaged online audiences.

    • Hi Bojan – I wholeheartedly agree that the function of PR should be to guarantee authentic and trustworthy communication. However, sad to say, that hasn’t always been my experience. I have had personal experience during my career in various posts where corporate messages being communicated are not the ‘whole’ story – sometimes it isn’t the ‘authenticity’ per se of the information being communicated that is of question, but rather the amount and nature of information not being communicated – openness and transparency being just as important in my opinion. Unfortunately it still appears that the PR function within many organisations is still not recognised as a specialism or professionalism in its own right – sometimes resulting in ‘communication/PR’ staff with no access to the ‘dominant coalition, employed in mainly an administrative capacity and easily compromised by organisational loyalties. However, I do feel that the digital media definitely challenges such outdated modes of practice – which is great in my opinion.

  3. Hi Jacqui,

    Really interesting post. I think you’ve hit it spot on when you suggest that public relations is at the stage where now more than ever this is an increased demand for greater authenticity. With social media making it incredibly easy for stakeholders and individuals to alert any wrong doing within an organisation, especially as an anonymous user, public relations absolutely should strive for transparency to increase levels of trust.

    I still find it interesting however that, having been a former journalism student in my undergraduate days, when I tell my former classmates that I’m doing a masters in public relations I’m still met with comments of how I’ve switched to ‘the dark side.’ Of course its all in jest, but still interesting to me that public relations, despite growth and development in areas of trust and authenticity, is still be seen as ‘the baddie.’ Sigh.

    Thanks again for the post and best of luck with the course!

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