Teaching at the Intersection of Online and Offline Public Relations
Note: reposted from an article in Media Bullseye.
Technologist, Teacher, Translator
I have had the pleasure of teaching a course at Georgetown University for a while and was fortunate to have the latitude of creating the course myself called “The Intersection of Online and Offline Public Relations.” I enjoy teaching it immensely. To be successful at “riding the public relations wave,” teaching a course in online public relations efforts must be rooted in the basics of offline public relations. Below are a few guiding principles that I use when teaching.
Build the house on a firm foundation
In my course, my approach is based upon the fact that students cannot firmly grasp the value of online public relations without a good understanding of the history and principles of offline public relations. Many of the theories of public relations pioneers like Edward Bernays and Arthur Page have stood the test of time, must be understood thoroughly and are completely relevant to the online world. For examples, two of Arthur Pages’ key principles include:
- “Conduct public relations like your business depends upon it” – This isn’t just about crisis communications. It’s about how people perceive you in the one window that is open 24/7: your online presence. Spend the time and resources to ensure that your Web sites, blogs and other public-facing, online tools reflect the professionalism of your offline public relations.
- “Tell the truth” Ask Wal-Mart or any other large corporation that has stumbled in the online world. An IP address is a powerful tracking tool – remember that if someone wants to find out who is really conducting your public relations efforts, they will. In all public relations efforts, the protagonists should tell the truth early – but remember that it’s a lot easier to “get busted” in the online world.
When possible, avoid techno-babble – and then be a translator
At Georgetown, we have a wide variety of online experience in our student population, so I begin with the understanding that not everyone else thinks like I do. It’s important not only to explain the technical aspects of things like Twitter and RSS, but to tie them into how they can be integrated into in an effective public relations campaign. The magic of online is not in the technology, but in its strategic application. For example, while most people have seen the little RSS icon at the bottom of a page, people’s eyes will glaze over during a discussion about producing an XML feed. The point about the value of RSS that I try to make is the “push vs. pull” argument of public relations and ensuring that information is available when key audiences want it – especially members of the media.
For years, public relations professionals have used statistics like “impressions” to measure success. This is among the most unreliable of any statistics used in our profession, but one of the true advantages to an online campaign is measurement. When talking about online measurement, I counsel to try not to use words like “hits” (Shel Holtz says that this is an acronym for “How Idiots Track Success”). For measurement, there are many either free, publicly-available measurement tools (like Blog Pulse for blog mentions charting) or more expensive but extremely useful tools like Atlas that track a users’ progression through your Web site – and even let you know when someone mouses over one of your ads and doesn’t click through!
Give real-life experience
In my class, I stress practicing the tools of the trade that enable one to successfully “ride the wave” of online and offline. One of the best assignments that we work on is to analyze a prominent public relations campaign or issue, track it for a set amount of time, and declare a “winner,” using relevant online or offline measurement. This analytical exercise brings together many of the offline public relations world (like the Arthur Page principles), along with ability to quantify measure tone, favorability, reach and impact of both online and offline voices. One of the best compliments I ever receive from a student was just last week when, after going through a sample exercise like this, she told me “I am now 100 percent smarter than anyone in my [public relations] department.” Nothing makes a professor feel better than that.
My time at Georgetown has taught me that to successfully help reach and teach the next generation of public relations professionals, one must have one foot firmly planted in the past but still be reaching for the “next great thing” in the online world (and my sincere apologies for anything remotely resembling a Casey Kasem sign-off).
Mark Story is a part-time, adjunct professor at Georgetown University and a full-time communications professional at a government agency in Washington, D.C. Prior to the government, Mark worked for 11 years in some of the largest online public relations shops in the world.