How PR has changed in 25 years

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Kelly Scotney
Kelly Scotney

This is an article by Kelly Scotney.

Twenty-five years ago, in 1992, the European Union was founded with the signing of the Maastricht treaty and Bill Clinton became the 42nd President of the United States. Freddie Mercury gave his last live performance at the opening ceremony of the Barcelona Olympics.

But perhaps most importantly of all, Leeds Metropolitan University (now Leeds Beckett) launched a new public relations degree course.

Fast forward a quarter of a century and much has changed in our world, with the UK voting to leave the EU, Donald Trump succeeding Barack Obama in the White House and Leeds Beckett now regarded as one of the leading PR educators in the UK.

And as we celebrate Leeds Beckett’s rich history of PR education, we are also reflecting on the way our industry has evolved over the last 25 years. From the impact of technology, to the supposed ‘death of the press release’ and the increased focus on engagement and need to understand and interrogate data.

  1. Fax behind the headline In a world before email (a truth hard to acknowledge for most current undergraduate PR students), press releases were usually distributed via the trusty office fax machine. If you were working on a major national story this could be incredibly time (and paper) intensive, with paper jams potentially leading to lots of #$@&%*!.
  2. A picture is worth a thousand couriers Images to support PR campaigns can today be shot, processed and shared with a global audience in a matter of minutes on a range of connected devices. Twenty plus years ago, in the pre-digital age, commissioning and distributing a photo was a more time consuming affair. After a photo shoot had taken place, PRs would wait for images to be developed and then sent as transparencies, before being distributed to news organisations by bike couriers.
  3. No smoke without getting fired. In 1992 smoking at work was still pretty commonplace; and nowhere was it more evident than in PR agencies and on Fleet Street. People smoked at their desks and they sometimes smoked in meetings. They even had the audacity to make non-smoking staff request to work in designated non-smoking rooms!
  4. LMGTFY. Google and other search engines didn’t exist back in the early 90s – students had to actually physically visit the library to complete their assignments! For those working in PR this meant research had to be done in person, via the telephone or by using books (you know, those heavy, dust covered things?). Before the advent of online media contacts databases, PRs used giant, paper bound directories to compile media lists, and your contact book really was your bible!
  5. Expenses – not a scandal in sight. Whilst we may be looking at the industry through rosé-tinted glasses, it’s true that long ‘networking’ lunches and ‘meetings’ with key contacts in drinking establishments used to be more prevalent. Now it’s more likely that those working in the PR industry will grab a sandwich at their desks, whilst typing emails and constantly checking their Hootsuite deck!
  6. The social network. Twenty-five years ago Twitter and Instagram were yet to be born and Mark Zuckerberg was a school child. It wasn’t until five years later that the first recognisable social media site – Six Degrees – was created, allowing users to upload a profile and make friends with other users. Now it seems that social media and PR are intertwined in most agency and in-house communication teams.
  7. Eight reasons you should read this post. There are well over 150 million blogs online today but it was only in 1994 that the first blog was created by student Justin Hall. It wasn’t called a blog though; it was referred to as his personal homepage. It wasn’t until 1997 that the term ‘weblog’ was coined. Twenty-five years ago reporters were in control of the news – they were the gatekeepers and the only way to get your message out. Now you have direct access to your target audience. Maintaining relationships with your bloggers is just as important as your news contacts.
  8. Is it contagious? Twenty-five years ago if you said you were going viral, people would probably have looked at you with a worried expression and sent you to the nearest doctors. However now if you say you’ve gone viral you’ll receive pats on the back and well dones!
  9. I’m a celebrity: get me in there! Twenty-five years ago it was only the biggest PR agencies who could afford celebrity endorsements, whereas now in our celebrity saturated culture it’s easy to engage the services of a Z-list ‘I’m a celebrity island, get me the only shore way out of here’ star.
  10. Big is not always better.  In presentations 25 years ago you would have presented your ideas using acetate transparencies or printed posters. Now you present using PowerPoint or other presentation software – a lot easier to carry and a lot cheaper to produce.
  11. The country has changed a lot in 25 years. In 1992 diversity wasn’t particularly considered in the workplace but fast forward to 2017 and all staff receive specific diversity training – it’s all about being inclusive. Tellingly, just 25 years ago, companies such as MI5 operated a blanket ban on employing openly gay men and women which today would be a PR disaster! Now, like all companies, they actively encourage LGBT workers to apply for jobs.
  12. Sleepless in the newsroom. News is accessible to everyone at the touch of a button or a screen now but 25 years ago it was very different. Traditional media was the only way to access news – newspapers, radio and television and there was no 24 hours coverage as there is today.
  13. The good old days when phone batteries lasted a week without charging! The very first smartphone was introduced 25 years ago but wasn’t known as a smartphone but a Simon Personal Communicator – catchy! It wasn’t until years later that smartphones became widely available and changed the way we communicate in both personal and professional life.
  14. Keep calm it’s only a crisis! Twenty-five years ago in a major incident the PR people and the journalists controlled the story. Now anyone can instantly tell the world what is happening through social media. An organisation’s own communication channels – website, Twitter, Facebook etc. – are now critical for providing up-to-date and accurate information to the public as well as the media.
  15. A joined up approach. Public relations is now more integrated. Twenty-five years ago it focused mainly on communications whereas now it covers many other theories, including behavioural psychology and economics.
  16. You have mail. Twenty-five years ago, as well as using couriers, your only other option was to use ‘snail mail’ to post things out. As the name suggests, this was slow, time consuming and more expensive. Now you can get your information out instantly at the touch of a button.
  17. Internal focus. In the 1990s public relations was very much seen as a traditional external communications function. Now, with growing emphasis on ’employee engagement’ and the need to cater for Millennials and Gen Z who rely heavily on feedback and interaction, internal PR is growing in its strategic importance.
  18. #badservice. Twenty-five years ago if someone didn’t like a service or product they probably told a friend in private but now with social media you can instantly praise or criticise a company in public.
  19. Media monitoring. Back in the 90s junior PR account executives could be found putting together huge press coverage boards, often becoming intoxicated after using copious amounts of spray mount in poorly ventilated rooms. Nowadays coverage is delivered in real time through online media monitoring platforms and alerts.
  20. Reach for the stars. Twenty-five years ago target audiences tended to be regional, possibly national at a push, whereas now with the internet and social media it is very easy to target an international audience as well, meaning a move from local to global PR.
  21. News-fix and chill. Twenty-five years ago you had to wait to watch the main news of the day on the evening news bulletins. In reality you set the news agenda overnight and the newspapers and early morning breakfast programmes fed the other media. Now you have 24-hour news coverage on many different television channels and internet sites. You no longer have to wait and can have news in an instant.
  22. Keep your eyes on the prize. We can now track our PR coverage and measure the effectiveness of any campaigns easily and much more accurately, (whilst no longer using AVEs as a measurement of course!).
  23. Keep on fighting for change. Salaries have increased over the last 25 years in line with inflation, however last year saw a drop in average PR salaries when compared to 2013 – a sign of the times we have been going through. Unfortunately, despite much work there is still a disparity between what men and women are paid for the same job.
  24. The Internet gets personal. Early search engines like Yahoo!, InfoSeek, AltaVista, Lycos and WebCrawler made significant strides in the digital evolution of search but the golden years didn’t start until Google launched in 1998. Search engines started using advanced ranking algorithms and browsing became more personal. The impact this had on business is immense. Being able to target people and develop strategies based on search patterns led to a whole new way of selling and communicating. A brand can reach anyone, anywhere at any time, and that’s powerful.
  25. UK textbooks. In 1992, the only academic textbooks in the public relations field came from the US. Since then, we’ve had five editions of Alison Theaker‘s The Public Relations Handbook, four editions of Anne Gregory‘s Planning and Managing Public Relations Campaigns and we’re about to see the fourth edition of Ralph Tench and Liz Yeomans‘s Exploring Public Relations. All these authors have taught public relations at Leeds Metropolitan/Beckett University.