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First and foremost, what does public relations do for a business? Its function, which is a branch of marketing, is to manage media relationships and brand promotion and to develop relationships with various interest groups both internal and external.

Previously, public relations used primarily printed communications for promoting its internal and external messages, managing relationships with agents (the word agent is used in a very large sense to include all leaders that have some influence on the company or market conditions in which the company operates), sponsorship and media relations activities, and networking activities to promote the corporate message. Because of this reliance on the printed medium, communication was typically unidirectional; from the company to the client. The only entry point for the customer was via customer services. 

Now, thanks to the growing popularity of social media, some sectors have experienced a revolution. This is particularly true of the relationship with the customer. Now, if a client wants to be heard, there are many more entry points than simply customer service - for example, corporate social media platforms and forums or customers pages organized by the clients themselves.
Even the way to contact customer service has changed; the day of waiting on the phone is over - now, you visit the corporate website and use the live chat function. The information is no longer controlled and managed in the same way by the companies.

Another significant change is in the democratization of the public relations function. Previously, managers controlled the company image. Now this feature is shared by all employees of all services that have contact with the public, whether it be your sales department, communications, e-marketing, customer service, purchasing, investor relations, or human resources. This opening of the company doors generates broader goals for public relations: get everyone on the same page and manage crises quickly and effectively.

To do this, we now see companies investing in the development of corporate policies on the use of social media, courses are offered on how to provide good customer service and internal communication is increasingly important. All this to make company employees ambassadors for the brand and company’s image.

Also, in the past, the crises to be managed were large, and companies could see them coming. Now there are lots of different kinds of crises. The problem is not as important as the influence of the person that has the issue; details can take a significant importance when placed in the hands of a person who wants to be heard, who knows how to be heard and who has a public that wants to listen.

Several other changes stem from the growing importance of social media, but for the customer, the company is listening now more than ever.

Stéphane Elmaleh-Riel, B.Ed., MBA
Marketing consultant