The use of communication technology is ubiquitous in contemporary public relations practice, and often there’s no choice but to adopt the newest communication technology.
For example, even the smallest and most traditional businesses require the Web sites that their customers expect, and the submission of a simple news release to a mass medium’s electronic newsroom must satisfy the technological requirements of that medium. Organizations must continually monitor blogs, recognizing that harmful rumors can spread worldwide in minutes. The contemporary practice of public relations requires practitioners to immediately respond to emerging issues and crisis situations via Web sites, blogs and other new media. Today, the choice of communication channels is dictated by technology: a practitioner must seriously consider which message forms and channels would be best for specific publics. Often, new technological forms and channels, such as electronic pitching, podcasting and blogging, prevail over traditional news releases and media kits.
Thus, students must know how to use today’s communication technology and must monitor and most likely adopt rapidly and unpredictably changing technology. Equally important, public relations students must be taught to appreciate and to continually explore the societal ramifications of continually emerging communication technology. Students must learn strategies, not only for using this technology, but also for dealing with its effects, ranging from the ready availability of virtually all types of information to questions of personal and organizational privacy.
Public relations practitioners are among the heaviest users of today’s communication technology. However, technology remains simply a tool–albeit an important tool–that practitioners must manage. This means public relations professionals must not be unduly constrained by technology in developing their communication strategies, nor must practitioners’ strategies and tactics be restricted by the technicians who develop and maintain organizations’ communication technology infrastructures. Rather, public relations practitioners must be the managers of how their organizations strategically use communication technology to affect public relationships. Within their organizations, public relations practitioners best understand that communication technology that conquers time and space by permitting instantaneous communication worldwide not only can create understanding and cultivate harmony and empathy between an organization and its publics, but has great potential to generate misunderstanding and to exacerbate disharmony and conflict. With considerable prescience, Edward R. Murrow identified the inherent dangers and limitations of today’s communication technology over 40 years ago, in October 1964:
|The speed of communications is wondrous to behold. It is also true that speed can multiply the distribution of information that we know to be untrue. The most sophisticated satellite has no conscience. The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end, the communicator is confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it.|
Thus, public relations educators must assure that their students are prepared not only to be proficient in the use of the most recent communication technology, but also to understand and appreciate the societal ramifications of its use. Educators also must use this technology to maximize the effectiveness of their own instruction.
Summary of Recommendations in the Commission’s 1999 Report
The 1999 Commission report said one factor that was causing the impressive incremental growth in public relations was communication technology that had enabled a veritable explosion of one-to-one communication leading to an uncontrolled, gateless dissemination of messages. Communication technology-related skills the Commission regarded as necessary included the management of information; technological and visual literacy (including use of the Internet and desktop publishing); and public relations writing and production for new media. Instructional recommendations included a greater variety of teaching methods and technologies that might be appropriate in continuing education courses.
Progress and Change Since the 1999 Report
Changes in communication technology have been both immense and obvious since the October 1999 Commission report. Public relations educators are not alone in their inability to reliably predict what tomorrow’s technology will be, what will be the societal effects of this technology and how it will affect different societies and cultures. Problematic because of these unknowns, of course, is what educators should teach their students. Virtually all public relations education programs in the United States, as well as elsewhere throughout the world, recognize that their curricula must keep pace with the continuing developments in communication technology to the fullest extent possible, given the financial and other resource limitations that commonly restrict the intentions of higher education.
The implications for public relations of changes in communication technology have been profound. Students’ reliance on electronic databases in their research, rather than on traditional library holdings, has become the norm. The implications for public relations practitioners can also be mind-numbing; instantaneous communication through multiple channels creates the expectation of immediate feedback, eliminating opportunities for prolonged deliberation in decision-making.
Largely unappreciated is the contention that technological developments do not inherently provide meaningful social benefits, as well as the likelihood that adoption of new technology may influence different cultures in different ways or to a different extent. Fundamental questions remain worldwide about the access to and control of communication technology as well as about which parties benefit from advanced technology usage.
New Research Findings and Analysis
Two-thirds of the participants in a qualitative research study conducted by the Commission emphasized the challenges of today’s technological advances. A related trend that participants identified was the contemporary proliferation of media outlets.
Quantitative research identified rapidly changing new media as a trend. In this research, educators and practitioners viewed as highly essential public relations course content such as “New PR tools and technologies,” e.g., podcasting, blogging and video blogging, RSS feeding, Internet conferencing, e-networking, interactive media kits and e-mail. The research indicates that all these tools should be clearly presented to students.
Undergraduates and graduate students alike should be aware how public relations practices can benefit from use of these high-tech tools. At the same time, educators should lead classroom discussions that explore any adverse impact of technology on society and should challenge students to critically think about use of new technologies to reach public relations goals and objectives. The questions about credibility and ethical usage of new technology should also be at the center of all discussions about the role of technology in public relations practice.
- The Commission recommends that the latest communication technology used in the practice of public relations be integrated into all public relations coursework to the extent that institutional resources allow. Technological support of education has become a priority among virtually all colleges and universities, not only in the United States, but worldwide. Colleges and universities have been generally forthcoming in their recognition of the importance of information technology in higher education and in its support, and much instruction is available (and should be recommended to students as needed) in university short courses and other venues that most educational institutions provide outside public relations coursework.
- Most students have learned basic information technology proficiency before arriving on their college or university campuses. Nevertheless, deficiencies in communication technology should be quickly diagnosed and remedied. The Commission recognizes that some communication technology that is important to public relations education may be so specialized or so expensive that its use by students may only be possible at internship sites. To ensure that their students learn such communication technology, educators should explore a range of educational opportunities that might be available in cooperation with practitioners. At the least, awareness and basic understanding of such technologies should be taught, even if hands-on use is not possible.
- Finally, the Commission is equally committed to addressing the philosophical, theoretical and ethical issues related to communication technology. These issues include societal implications and ramifications of new communication technologies. Particularly at the graduate level, such questions should be explored as components of theoretical coursework as well as in seminars that are wholly dedicated to the topic of technology. Such scholarly inquiry can be facilitated through close communication and cooperation with the practitioners who use the latest communication technology in their day-to-day practice.
Kendrick, Alexander, Prime Time: The Life of Edward R. Murrow. (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1969, p.5.)