The future of PR

‘We used to say seeing is believing. Now we have to say experiencing is believing.’

Shuhei Yushida
(Head of Sony Worldwide Studios as cited in McGee, 2016)

Yushida is referring to the virtual reality (VR) experience, which according to McGee (2016), will transform the way we consume media. For those not familiar with VR, the following video explains what it is and how it works.

Up to now, virtual reality has been commonly associated with gaming (McGee, 2016), but there is growing recognition that it has vast mainstream applications. Tim Hughes from Hughes PR, a  communications and public relations consultancy, says that virtual reality is one of the next big things in PR, and believes it will become a mainstream device similar to mobiles (PRIA, 2016). Kara Alaimo, a global PR consultant says that virtual reality will alter PR in a number of ways. It will:

  • Provide PR practitioners with an opportunity to enhance their relationship with stakeholders by engaging them in a greater sensory experience of their brand. For example, a travel agent will be able to take potential clients on a virtual tour of holiday destinations; a person looking to buy a new car will be able to use VR to inspect a vehicle from a 3D perspective – like Volkswagen did with its Golf Cabriolet – and also simulate the driving experience before visiting the vehicle showroom; people will be able to take a virtual tour to inspect a house –  if you’re looking to buy or rent, imagine being able to a take a virtual tour without having to physically be at the inspection (which can often be at a time that doesn’t suit) or needing to arrange a time with the agent. Start VR, a Sydney based company, created a VR experience for a property development called Edge 28 in St Leonards, Sydney.
  • Put audiences in other people’s shoes – this would be a useful tool for non-profit charity organisations who could use VR to relate human stories. VR can be used to ‘elicit greater empathy and spur people to action’ (Alaimo, 2016). The New York Times launched the following 10-minute virtual reality film called ‘The Displaced’ which gives viewers an insight into the life of three children who are war refugees (Alaimo,2016).
  • Deliver captive audiences, because while wearing a headset, people cannot be distracted by anything else.
  • Change the way stories are pitched to journalists –  traditional methods off photos and videos may well be superseded by VR footage.
  • Change the dynamics of physical meetings –  while skype has been used to connect people situated at different locations, VR can allow them to feel as though they are in the same room.
  • Position brands as innovative, and connect with tech-savvy audiences -PR practitioners can use  virtual reality as a way  to make their brand standout to a younger and more tech-oriented audience.

Describing it as a powerful tool, public relations firm, MSL Group say VR  ‘…can transcend space and time. It can transport people to a different world with a level of realness never before seen. Adding VR engagement to a campaign will help it to be more immersive, more intergrated and a more complete experience’ (PRweek, 2016).

Devereaux & Pierson-Smith (2009, p.217) say that PR professionals will need an understand how they can use the communication technology to be best achieve their goals. They say that virtual reality will offer an alternative to traditional PR communication activities such as launch events and product giveaways.

Despite all of the digital communication tools, Devereaux and Pierson-Smith (2009, p.217) point out that the traditional skills of writing listening and speaking are still crucial to PR efforts to ‘devise and implement effective Public Relations efforts and nurture relationships’.



Devereaux, M & Pierson-Smith, A 2009, Public relations in Asia Pacific : communicating effectively across cultures, John Wiley & Sons (Asia) Pte. Ltd. Singapore.


Crisis Management

‘The phone in our pocket is our portal to the world’ (Bell, 2016)

Yes, that device in your pocket – now commonly referred to as a ‘smartphone’ – is now the number one choice of digital device when it comes to accessing social media networks and the news according to a Deloitte Media Consumer Survey (see videoclip below).

Sensis Social Media report provides further evidence of the massive popularity of the smartphone, and explains why Samsung’s recent recall of its Galaxy Note 7, was a major blow for a company that is the global leader in a fiercely competitive industry.

Released in August this year, the flagship phone received rave reviews for its capabilities. However, by September there were reports of the phone catching fire and in some cases exploding.

The company announced a replacement program,  but was forced to issue a recall by the US consumer product safety commission.  The drama surrounding the phone soon turned into what Hern describes as a ‘fully-fledged crisis’.

Coombs (as cited in Coombs and Holloway, 2010, p. 238) defines a crisis as, ‘…an unpredictable event that threatens important expectancies of stakeholders and can seriously impact an organisation’s performance and generate negative outcomes’.

Image source

A crisis can place enormous stress on a company’s finances and reputation (Johnston & Sheehan, 2014). Samsung had already produced 2.5 million phones, and 1 million of these had been sold, only few weeks after its release. It is estimated that the financial fallout will cost them $3.9bn over the next six months, but an even greater concern, is what impact it will have on the their reputation moving forward.

The ramifications of a crisis highlights the importance of organisations having a crisis management plan to ensure they maintain relationships with stakeholders (Johnston & Sheehan, 2014). In a crisis, stakeholders are very vocal and are seeking information quickly and truthfully (Johnson & Sheehan,  2014) . Disgruntled consumers can use social media as a forum to very quickly spread news of their dissatisfaction, which can have serious consequences for a company’s reputation. As stated by Johnston and Sheehan (2014, p. 323), ‘social media platforms breathe life into issues. Viral videos, rumours, misinformation and gossip can quickly spread world wide, providing the organisation with an unprecedented threat’.

Coombs and Holladay (2010) say that a response to a crisis needs to be quick, accurate and consistent, with most experts recommending a response within the first hour. Samsung’s initial handling and response time has been widely criticised. Rather than issue an immediate recall, the company offered a replacement, but these phones also malfunctioned.

Devereaux and Pierson-Smith (2009, P.113) say there are three guiding principles when facing a crisis. They are: (1) show concern about the situation (2) tell people what you are doing to resolve the situation (3) tell people what you will do to avoid it happening again.  A spokesperson for Samsung has since come out and said, ‘Putting consumer safety as the top priority, we have reached a final decision to halt production of the Galaxy Note 7s’ (Hern). In terms of rectifying the situation, they have advised that customers can apply for a full refund or swap it for another Samsung product (Hern). They have also set up a webpage dedicated to providing consumer guidance.

When it comes to crisis communication, PR practitioners need to implement  strategies that aim to ‘…reduce uncertainty, maintain the the support of stakeholders, protect the organisation’s reputation and work towards rebuilding the organisation to a stronger position than it was in before the crisis'(McLean & Power as cited in Johnston & Sheehan, 2014 p.333).

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Johnston and Sheehan (2014, p.342) emphasise the importance of the recovery phase of a crisis, saying it is just as important as the other stages of crisis management. It involves the company ultimately asking itself, ‘what have we learned from the crisis?’ It can do this by addressing questions such as, what caused the crisis? how effectively did we communicate with stakeholders? what steps were used to manage it, and were they effective?, and what can we do better in the future?



Coombs, W & Holladay, 2010, PR strategy and application: managing influence, John Wiley & Sons, UK.

Devereaux, M & Pierson-Smith, A 2009, Public relations in Asia Pacific : communicating effectively across cultures, John Wiley & Sons (Asia) Pte. Ltd. Singapore.

Johnston, J & Sheehan M 2014, Public relations theory and practice, 4th edn, Allen & Unwin, NSW.



Corporate Social Responsibility

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More and more businesses are embracing the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility, and for the Buttery family who own and operate Gemtree Wines in McLaren Vale, it acts as a the guiding principle that drives their business practices. Before getting into the detail of how they do this, it’s worthwhile explaining what Corporate Social Responsibility means (CSR). It’s a concept ‘…generally understood to mean that corporations have a degree of responsibility not only for the economic consequences of their activities, but also for the social and environmental implications. This is sometimes referred to as a ‘triple bottom line’ approach that considers the economic, social and environmental aspects of corporate activity (Human Rights).

According to George Kell, a journalist for The Guardian, a company’s long-term financial success is influenced by its commitment to ‘social responsibility, environmental stewardship and corporate ethics’. He says it’s no longer just an ‘add-on’ service and highlights several trends that suggest CSR is here to stay. They include a shift toward greater transparency, a growing awareness of the impact that business has on society and the environment, the recognition that resources are limited and under ever increasing pressure, the ability to gain access to new markets by behaving in a socially responsible manner, and the growing number of businesses across the world that are actively engaging in corporate sustainability. Kell’s comments highlight the need for PR practitioners to incorporate CSR into the organisation’s overall business objectives and its PR campaigns.

Overlooking Gemtree winery from the cellar door (Image Source)

Gemtree Wines is an impressive example of an organisation whose CSR activities span the entire business, from the construction and design of their impressive cellar door right through to the labels on their bottles. Below is a list of some of the many CSR activities they engage in:

  • Plantation and recycled timber make up most of the cellar door building – no slabs or concrete footings were used in the building process
  • Two large water tanks means that the cellar door doesn’t have to be connected to the mains water
  • The landscaped gardens surrounding the cellar door comprise of drought resistant and native plants
  • A solar panel system offsets energy use
  • The gardens are irrigated from the dams on the property and a water treatment system makes best use of waste water
  • All food scraps are put into a worm farm – this generates a high nutrient organic liquid that is then fed to plants
  • No herbs or pesticides are used on the vines – Gemtree is an ‘organic certified’ wine grower
  • Biodynamic farming practices are used to improve soil fertility
  • A biodiverse wetland was established on a 10-hectare parcel of land that has now become a ‘haven for native birds, plants and animals’.

(Gemtree Wines, 2016)

Full details of Gemtree’s sustainability practices can be viewed here.


In addition to their environmentally sustainable practices, the Buttery family also support a variety of groups, charities and partners. The family is also keen to promote other food and wine producers in the region who are committed to sustainable practices. This desire to help the broader community extends to local artists with the winery giving them an opportunity to showcase their work at the cellar door

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By engaging in sustainable and socially responsible activities, Gemtree Wines clearly recognise that their role as a business extends beyond the financial bottom-line. The family is not only passionate about the environment and the vineyard ecosystem, but they’re also happy to help others who display a similar commitment within McLaren Vale and the broader Fleurieu region. The Gemtree example allows PR practioners to appreciate how an organisation has wholly embraced the practice of CSR. It is not merely an ‘add-on’ as George Kell (2016) describes. In Gemtree’s case, ‘it symbolises everything that they stand for’ (Gemtree, 2016).



Fleurieu Film Festival, 2016 Gemtree wines on going organic and the McLaren community, 1 January, viewed 22 October, 2015, Link to video


Media management & agenda

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It goes without saying that the media landscape over the last decade has changed rather drastically as a result of the Internet and social media. It has shifted the way people source news and information and how they communicate with one another. The Internet was very much a ‘game changer’, and it didn’t take long for traditional mainstream media to adopt an online presence in response to the overwhelming shift in how people were now accessing information (Broom & Sha, 2013).


Feeling the pressure (Image Source)

Public relations practitioners are now faced with the challenge of dealing with audiences that have become increasingly fragmented and far more active in how they source and engage with the media (Broom & Sha, 2013). One of major challenges for PR practitioners in this new landscape is to manage media content across numerous platforms. They also need to be highly cognisant of the values associated with the news coverage in order to cut through the infinite volume of information that confronts the public every day. News and information is more likely to harness interest and attention if it is a human-interest story, is close to home, involves conflict, is unusual or remarkable, or has significant impact or consequences (McLean & Phillips, 2012).

Today’s journalists are under pressure to constantly generate stories, particularly in a 24/7 news cycle. As a result, they are now turning to PR practitioners to source content. This offers PR practitioners an opportunity to have greater input into the process of developing content for use through various media channels. John Schwartz (2005) from the Swinburne University of Technology, is dismayed at how mass media in Australia is so concentrated. He says that even though we are living in an information age, and are promised greater diversity and opinion, ‘…the reality is that mainstream audiences are still getting most of their information from very few – nonetheless very powerful – voices’. Take media tycoon Rupert Murdoch for example – he dominates news readership in Australia with over 70% of readers (Schwartz, 2005). It’s further reflected by the fact that Australia also only has three main free to air television networks. Such a strong concentration allows the mass media to set the agenda by shaping the extent to which the public considers an issue to be important. In public relations this is referred to as the agenda setting, and it looks at how the mass media selects and prioritises news (Johnson & Sheehan, 2014).

Who owns what media in Australia?


An example of agenda setting at play is the recent power blackout that that affected entire state of South Australia.


The story dominated coverage across all forms of mainstream media, and much of the discussion in the aftermath of the event was devoted to the conflicting views amongst key politicians as to how and why it occurred. Australian Senator Nick Xenophon and National Party leader and deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, attributed the blame to the state’s transition to renewable energy sources (Riordan & Evans, 2016). Mr Joyce, ‘who has previously been critical of clean energy’, said the state was overly reliant on renewables and wind power (Riordan & Evans, 2016). This he claims resulted in the electricity grid becoming less resilient (Ten Network Holdings, 2016). South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill took a swipe at Joyce’s comments labelling them as ‘ignorant’ and told the ABC, ‘when there’s a crisis people pull out their agendas…Barnaby hates wind power so he pulls that out’ (Hutchens, 2016).

David Washington (2016), reporter from Indaily, said that South Australians should feel ‘aggrieved’ by the political debates – at both the State and Federal level – that took place in the week following the event, ‘… our political class is no longer paying heed to the facts – rather they prefer to cherrypick fact-like pieces of information, to suit their particular ideology or political purpose’. In other words, what Washington is effectively saying is the motives of people like Barnaby Joyce are driven by their own personal agenda.

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One of several collapsed pylons (Government News, 2016)



The commentary surrounding the power blackout included opinions and views from numerous industry experts, politicians and journalists – many of whom were driven by their own agenda. The story gained traction as it contained many of the news values mentioned earlier. It was local, significant in terms of its reach and impact (affected the entire state), remarkable in nature (natural disaster) and involved conflicting views (amongst politicians) as to the cause. With information coming from all directions, PR practitioners play a vital role in ensuring that they keep abreast of the dialogue that is taking place. By working closely with journalists and editors, PR practitioners can help develop content and strategies that align with both the discussion and the relevant publics.



Broom, G & Sha, B 2013, Effective public relations, 11th edn, Pearson Education Limited, England.

Johnston, J & Sheehan M 2014, Public relations theory and practice, 4th edn, Allen & Unwin, NSW.

McLean and Phillips, (2012). ‘Engaging with the media’, in J. Chia & G. Synnott (eds), An introduction to public relations and communication management, 2nd edn, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, VIC.

News Video 2016, South Australian weather: widespread blackout in Adelaide as storm hits state, September 28, viewed 18 October 2016, video link

Schwartz, J 2005, ‘Pot and prejudice: media coverage of the Corby saga’, Metro Magazine: Media & Education Magazine, Issue 145, pp 138-145.

Ten Network Holdings Limited 2016, National news: wind war, Ten Network Holdings Limited, viewed 15 October 2016, Link to video clip

World News 2016, SA Storms: entire state of South Australia loses power, 28 September, viewed 22 October 2016, Link to video clip