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Technical communication problems?

Technology is changing how PR advisors and marketers influence our perception of companies and brands. Researchers at BI share insights on how to keep up with the new developments.

PR and marketing in a digital age:

Customers have long entered arenas where brands can be praised or mercilessly outed to the open public. Now robots can also affect corporate reputation.

In a not-too-distant past, brands were mostly built through one-way mass communication in the form of advertising. Similarly, the news media was the primary source of information that could weaken or strengthen corporate reputation. With social media, we as customers gained a great deal of influence by taking part in these conversations.

This is an example of technological development that not only causes PR and marketing to change, the two fields are increasingly converging. With more and more new media channels that businesses have to maintain and fill with content, it’s becoming harder and harder to distinguish between editorial and commercial messages.

To understand how digitalisation is changing brand and reputation building, we must first understand the fundamental differences between the fields in which these concepts belong. Because although the purpose of most of these messages is to influence our perception in some way, the underlying motivation to do so, can be quite different.

Yes, PR and marketing are still two separate fields

There is a certain mystique to Public Relations, but the reality is that it’s about facilitating good relationships between actors that are relevant to each other. This is done through strategic communication, that is, communication to achieve the goals of the company or organisation.

Public health awareness campaigns to stop us from smoking is also an example of PR. In short, the key is communication that creates change, that being in the form of opinions, behaviour or action.

The basic idea of marketing is a little different. Here too, there are misconceptions. One is that advertising and marketing is the same. However, this discipline is about creating value for customers and society as a whole.

Everything from strategic choices of markets and customers, to overall strategies for pricing, distribution, product development and communication are examples of marketing activities. In other words, communication is one of the tools marketing deploys to create value, and marketing communication is the subset that converges with public relations. A key difference between the two is that PR is rarely directly linked to sales.

Do we really need brands in a digital age?

One phenomenon that is closely related to market communication is branding. Professor Lars Olsen points out two things that are the most crucial to the strength of a brand:

  1. Customers' ability to recognise them in a purchasing situation
  2. How it positively stand out from competing brands

Creating such a position for a brand is partly the result of advertising and a long strategic process. But in a world where everything we need to know about a product is a few clicks away, are brands even relevant? There is a wealth of information to be found on almost anything you can buy, but that's why precisely why brands are still relevant, explains Olsen. When faced with copious amounts of content and opportunities, strong brands make our choice easier.

The professor points to two other changes that challenges brand management. First, we have easy access to huge amounts of data and analysis tools. However, data is not the same as insight, and a short-term focus can be harmful. Marketers must therefore balance long-term strategic thinking with the benefit of the new technology.

Olsen finally highlights how customers' participation in digital meeting places entail new opportunities for brands. Positive stories that go viral can have a formidable effect, but negative publicity spreads just as fast, and demands increased accountability. Therefore, all brand builders today need be concerned with things like transparency, sustainability and ethical business conduct.

In this new media reality, where customer feedback can easily create problems, it might be difficult for companies to disassociate from their brands. This is where PR comes in.

Robots can damage reputation

Simply put, reputation could be described as PR's counterpart to brands, with the main difference being that reputation applies to the entire organization. That means PR advisors have to analyse all external and internal stakeholders to assess reputation – not just the customers.

This exercise entails a profound knowledge of every aspect of the organisation. That’s why companies should be sceptical of "reputation experts" from the outside who offer to help, explains Professor Peggy Brønn.

As with marketing, big data is a trend that is changing public relations profession and how it thinks about reputation. Companies are leaving more and more important decisions to artificial intelligence systems. Regardless if these robots can be trusted to provide better results than humans, they pose a reputation risk because exactly how they work is often not clear.

Professor Christian Fieseler and associate professor Alexander Buhmann have studied this topic and found possible solutions. The biggest risks are the robots relying on incorrect data or producing incorrect results, and the public’s lack of opportunity to gain insight into the technology. The latter is a challenge because the systems might be difficult to explain.

The researchers have found three possible solutions to decrease the new risks that artificial intelligence and rapid digitalisation poses to reputation: Companies that use AI should strive for transparency by always including stakeholders in the conversation, try to explain how the technology works, and contribute to ensure a continuous and open debate about its challenges.


Did you know that Professor Peggy Brønn has helped build the academic field from the ground up in Norway? Or that our marketing department has some of the best researchers in Europe?

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