Expert interview – Scott Guthrie on PR in the Digital Age

Who is Scott Guthrie?

Scott Guthrie helps companies accelerate their profitable growth with integrated marketing communications strategy and know-how.

He consults for public relations firms systemizing their approach towards influencer relations and works directly with companies helping them better articulate their business objectives along with what they stand for and then build a tactical path for realising these.

He’s contributed chapters to several books on progressive public relations and writes regularly at

What do you think are the biggest (digital) challenges the PR and corporate communication industry faces today?

Too many public relations practitioners still think in terms of an online/offline world. But, today, it’s about having ideas fit for the digital world we live in rather than about having digital ideas.

PRs need to understand that ‘digital’ is not a specialised activity. It’s a fundamental requirement to doing our job today. Understanding big data, how to shoot video, build compelling content ‘marketing’ and then optimise that content for search are some of today’s necessities for any PR person.

The biggest digital challenges centre on fake news and how we make decisions in a post-truth era.

In an environment where audiences and content consumption are increasingly fractured and attention spans keep shrinking, how can PR maintain its influence? 

Nurturing influencer relations as a discipline and placing corporate values at the heart of client work are two ways in which public relations can maintain and grow its influence.

A 2015 Microsoft report shows that people now generally lose concentration after eight seconds. This highlights the effects of an increasingly digitalized lifestyle on the brain.

Attention spans have dwindled this century falling 4 seconds from 12 seconds in 2000.

This means we’re led by soundbites and taglines. We live in a time where most people don’t want to do the heavy lifting involved in thinking about concepts. Instead, we want to be served up information in snack-sized portions. We remember these phrases by the way they make us feel rather than their veracity.

Naturally, this is a challenge. But this also presents opportunities for public relations. Not to manufacture more slick-sounding sound bites but to place eloquence in action. To place our client’s values at the heart of what they do. To use a phrase coined by C.G. Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, “you are what you do. Not what you say you’ll do.”

At its core the PR industry trades in trust. We seek to earn positive reputations for our clients by aligning client expectations with the expectations of publics. The tools of our trade are information. But if fake news has eroded the value of information to such a degree that nothing is taken as fact (yet at once everything is taken as fact) then public relations — and society at large — faces a monumental issue.

This does present an opportunity for PR, though. Today, in the social age, public relations practitioners have the opportunity to be ethical guardians.

We have grown weary of spin. We are skeptical of much that is ‘official’, be it politics, business or traditional masthead media. We do, however, identify with online influencers. We find them more relatable; more engaging than traditionally authoritative voices. A less polished, more authentic, intimate voice which moves us to change.

How do you think PRs can benefit from incorporating social media into their workflow?

The social web has democratised communication. It allows brands to be able to speak directly with their customers or wider — with their publics.

It has allowed organisations to develop a human voice.

The social web has given a voice to everyone with an internet connection.

Because of this democratization, social media shouldn’t be the preserve of the public relations or marketing departments within organisations. The ability to use social media well should permeate into every corner of the organisation. From customer service to HR, from the C-suite to logistics.

This isn’t to diminish the role of public relations in the context of social media workflow. Rather it is to elevate it from the tactical to the strategic.

Responsibility for stakeholder communication (including but not confined to social media comms) should shift from being the preserve of the PR department towards being embedded as a general managerial competence.

HR and Finance have already ‘pulled off this trick’ of devolving powers (or empowering managers, depending on your world view). For example, managers are expected to make financial forecasts and control their budgets. They’re expected to play major parts, too, in the recruitment, development and appraisal of their team members.

Communications professionals should follow suit setting the agenda, laying down processes, providing support and training, but ultimately delegating day-to-day communication activity to managers in all functions.

In a way, PR has always been doing influencer marketing: contacting key journalists to get them to talk to their audience about a product or organisation. Do you feel the industry has applied this expertise effectively to new, online influencers or is there still work to be done?

I don’t think PR is about coercion but for sure a bedrock skill of the industry is influence. This has been played out in forming mutually rewarding relationships with journalists via media relations and is blossoming into the new discipline of influencer relations.

Public relations is well-placed to lead influencer relations. The vehicle shaping messages has altered from newspapers, television and radio to include social media influencers. Reaping the highest rewards from influencer relations means building mutually rewarding long-term relationships — a bedrock skill of the PR industry.

Mutual reward comes from understanding what each party needs from the other party and works together to bring the most from the relationship. Just as PR practitioners cannot tell journalists what to write or broadcast so PR practitioners understand that for their clients to benefit most from an influencer relations programme they need to relinquish control and allow influencers to create compelling content which resonates with their distinct community.

Sure there is work to be done. Influencer relations is a relatively young discipline. It’s maturing quickly but there are growing pains.

PR realises that influencer relations is more about the level of engagement between and influencer and his/her community than it is about potential reach. Marketers and advertisers come to this nascent discipline from a different angle. They are used to measuring success by CPM and writing scripts for spokespeople to deliver.

Are there things you think PR could learn from content marketing? 

Creating content is the public relations practitioner’s meat and drink. But we need to equip ourselves with a new set of technical skills beyond writing. As former Financial Times journalist Tom Foremski puts it: “the complexities of managing fragmented media channels and user interfaces across many devices requires integrated tech, media, design, SEO and communications professionals on the same publishing teams”.

In today’s digital world, an organisation’s stakeholders have an increasingly strong voice. What role do you see for PR in fostering quality relationships with an organisation’s audience? 

Our world is complex, dynamic and hyper-connected. Public relations professionals have the ability to act as trusted advisors to company leaders offering advice on how to cope with the growing amount of accountability faced by companies from social-media-empowered stakeholders.

It starts with listening; listening to all the conversations held inside and outside the company’s moat. By gathering relevant information upon which to make decisions. And then by helping decision makers act on this. It’s the essence of the public relations profession — after all you can’t hope to maintain goodwill and mutual understanding with your publics without first hearing and understanding all the conversations being held about your company. This is a business fundamental — not a ‘nice-to-have’. Enduring relationships with stakeholders are the basis of long-term sustainability for the company.

Besides giving a voice to (potential) customers, the Internet has also empowered a less obvious group of stakeholders: employees. Should PR play an active role in driving employee advocacy? If so, in what capacity and how would they best go about it?

In the social age if a company is good, its employees will say so. If the company isn’t good, employees will say that, too.

Employers can’t ‘control the message’. Organisations are now what people tell them they are not what they tell people they are. Potential employees now expect employers to engage with them through social media. They expect the two-way conversation to be spoken in a conversational tone; human-to-human, not via bland, corporate speak or hyperbolic spin.

Business has to be authentic. Being authentic means being the same on the inside as you are on the outside otherwise employees, customers, suppliers, society as a whole, will detect a legitimacy gap. And social media will blow that gap wide open.

Employees are an organisation’s most potent channel of communication with the outside world because they appear more authentic than the official mouthpieces of PR.

As external communicators we should realise that good corporate reputation is no longer a ‘nice to have’. It is a licence to operate. As internal communicators we should be helping empower employees to become advocates. Today you can’t have one without the other. Harness the two and let social media spread the good word.

An organisation has to live and breathe its corporate values and ethics as bundled into its culture. Internal and external communicators need to work together to help employees lift the mission statement off the page, off the intranet and off the ‘about us’ section of the internet and embed it as part of the organisation’s DNA.

Idries Al-Bender
Idries Al-Bender

Idries works at Prezly, helping clients get their story told.