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The ever-changing face of PR and how social media is affecting it

by AprilSix Proof

Two weeks ago I got the opportunity to attend a press officer training day organised by STEMPRA, a network run by science communication professionals from around the UK that provides training and events for those working in the science, technology and engineering communications and PR profession.

This month’s training day saw both communications professionals and journalists evaluate the current state of PR, discuss the emerging trends and issues in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) communications and cover the tools that every science press officer needs.

Feeling somewhat outnumbered as an agency executive sitting in a room filled with the in-house communications officers of various science publications, I took an insightful journey into an industry that is constantly adapting to the world’s evolving social and cultural changes.

The day began with a talk from John Davidson, warning how sensationalist headlines with little truth behind them all too easily gain traction. He gave examples of the media outletspublishing stories about the supposed luxury lifestyles of junior doctors and an article on the planned building of a research laboratory in King’s Cross, calling it a ‘disease super lab’ – both stories garnering much interest, despite the significant absence of fact.

Moving on to social channels, John discussed the emerging trends in social media and how we now receive our news. It’s no secret that the majority of the public are now reading the news online rather than in print, but the online platforms audiences are using to engage with the news and the written word is increasing in number and changing in popularity. Despite these changing online platforms, Facebook maintains its position at the top of the pile or as John Davidson described it: “an unstoppable force that is eating the internet”.

Interestingly, he highlighted how the rise of social media and the evolution of the news industry has contributed to the shrinking numbers of journalists, but has created opportunities for those working in PR and how this industry is now beginning to generate the news.

John concluded by urging communications professionals to embrace the shift to digital and social communications, reminding us that although the traditional press release isn’t quite dead yet, it’s definitely “in its last twitches”.

Maintaining the digital focus, I then attended a social media and online engagement seminar held by Cassie Williams, the Digital Manager at The Royal Institution and Rob Dawson, the Head of Content at The Institute of Cancer Research. Reiterating the lessons of John Davidson, Cassie opened the seminar stressing the opportunities created by social media for PR and communications professionals. “The average social media user looks at 285 pieces of content a day,” she told us. “The challenge is to grab their attention.”

She went on to describe her organisation’s somewhat trial and error approach to testing the best social media channels. To their surprise, what began for them as a tentative foray into the world of YouTube, turned into one of their main forms of communication, their video series reaching far beyond their targeted demographic and gaining in the process a swath of new followers, including some high-profile YouTubers who promoted their videos far and wide. Cassie’s advice to those in communications is use YouTube, maintain a vlogger style and friendly approach, and link to other social media platforms – especially Facebook as this has the largest organic reach for videos.

Dig, Reddit and Tumblr were also on her list of platforms the communications professional should make use of. Taking an unorthodox approach to online engagement, a professor at The Royal Institute took to Reddit’s Ask Me Anything, allowing the organisation to communicate and interact directly with a wide range of audiences and generated a huge amount of interest in the process. The scope of social media communication is evolving rapidly and the trick, according to Cassie, is to “stay true to your organisation’s voice, but adapt your conversation to suit each platform.”

Echoing the advice from Cassie Williams earlier in the day, freelance filmmaker Thom Hoffman discussed the role of video in communications, telling us that “film is part of your role if you work in comms; it’s not the job of a ‘video’ person.” By and large, news readers now see film as part of the media landscape and communications professionals must keep this in mind.

The day concluded with a pitch-off style contest in which two members of the audience pitched their stories to a panel of journalists. A story on children affected by Alzheimer’s disease was pitted against another on the UK public reacting to people eating dogs. Unsurprisingly the majority of the panel chose the Alzheimer’s story idea.

STEMPRA’s press officer training day gave an informative view of the current state of communications and the media, provided excellent advice and equipped all present with valuable tips and techniques for communicating their organisation’s messages. It’s clear that social media and digital engagement is the future for communications and the training day helped demonstrate the many ways in which communications professionals can utilise the digital channels available. I would recommend STEMPRA to anyone working in STEM communications.