The concept of public relations is something that can be traced back for centuries. The practice of communicating key messages to each other and to interested parties has been a cornerstone of society since time began. The fundamentals have never changed – who am I trying to reach and what am I trying to say to them? But the practicalities and methods have never been changing at a quicker rate than they are now.
Public relations professionals are now operating in a world where the dissemination of news and information is no longer constrained by print-runs or hourly news bulletins. Technology has allowed us all to be more connected, but has also allowed everyone to stay more informed. In a world where media deadlines are almost instantaneous and there is a constant race to be first with news, public relations professionals must remain cognisant of the fundamentals which have underpinned communications for thousands of years.
With over thirty years of experience in the communications industry, Ann-Marie O’Sullivan has seen dramatic changes in the speed at which information is shared and reacted to. Speaking to Stephen Ryan on the 24 Stories Podcast, Ann-Marie reflected on what working in a communications agency was like when she joined her father, Robin O’Sullivan, in O’Sullivan PR back in 1988. “When we were starting out, the standard practice was that you would get a media query via the landline. The journalist would call, ask their question and give their deadline. That would typically be the following day. In a situation like that, you would have time to consider the query, speak with your client and spend time preparing a response.”
“Contrast that to today, where there is a constant race to be first with the news. That applies to media, but equally to society”, said Ann-Marie. “We are always vigilant to ensure that sensitive information will be shared directly with employees before they hear or read about it elsewhere. In the modern age, citizen journalism means that people are now in a position to break news via their own social media channels, without the need to even share information with journalists. Rumours or snippets of a story are shared, often under pseudonyms. The next thing you know, you have a reporter on the phone looking for detailed information about something that wasn’t to be shared for a number of weeks. Speed presents a huge challenge and is something that we always need to be ready for”.
One area of particular expertise for Ann-Marie and her team is that of providing strategic communications advice to clients who are going through restructuring programmes. In those instances, Ann-Marie advises senior management to keep the information under wraps until a comprehensive communications plan is prepared.
“We would always tell our clients to try and keep that circle as tight as possible for as long as possible. Our approach is to ensure that the first people to know about difficult news like that should be those most affected – the employees themselves. We will work with organisation leaders to prepare a comprehensive update for employees, and ensure that information is delivered sensitively and professionally. If your circle is too large at the outset, there is always a risk of information leaking out. In any walk of life, rumours can be dangerous. They can be shared without full context and lead to employees hearing half a story rather than getting the full picture first-hand.”
Although it can present challenges, speed does not mean that Ann-Marie deviates from the beliefs and values that underpin her approach to strategic communications. “The fundamentals remain the same no matter how much time we have to react and respond. Who are we trying to communicate with, and what are we trying to tell them?”. It’s not all bad news for public relations professionals, however. Ann-Marie sees a value in being able to reach audiences across multiple platforms with a consistent message. “As much as it has brought a new challenge, social media is obviously a really helpful tool for our clients. It gives businesses another channel to share key messaging that augments the impact of a press release or broadcast interview”.