The importance of Traditional PR: Why it’s still Relevant in today’s Digital Age

Sola Abulu is the Principal Consultant of Sola Abulu & Associates (SA&A) a Strategy and Communications Consulting and training firm focused on enabling businesses, brands and organisations to achieve their desired outcomes through strategic communications, organisational effectiveness and reputation risk management.


I am probably one of those who at some point thought that traditional PR methods may eventually be completely overtaken by digital and social media communications.

However, looking back at the events of the past few years, I think I can confidently say that we will see traditional PR methods co-existing side by side with online/digital and social media communications for certain types of communications to specific audience groups for the foreseeable future.

Why do I say this?

Let us first start with the definition of terms:

  • Public Relations is defined by IPRA as “a decision-making management practice tasked with building relationships and interests between organisations and their publics based on the delivery of information through trusted and ethical communication methods.”
  • The digital age is defined by the Cambridge dictionary as “the present time – when most things are done by computer.” This is an excellent definition because it captures the keyword in that sentence which is most.
  • Social media is defined by Investopedia as “digital technology that allows the sharing of ideas and information, including text and visuals, through virtual networks and communities.”


The keywords in the definition of Public Relations is building relationships and nurturing interests through trusted and ethical communications methods. I would add “inspiring required action” to that for completeness.

It is also instructive to note that we are in the digital age when many or most things are done by computer, but not all things are done digitally for all people in all places at all times.

The definition of social media is also instructive because it highlights virtual networks and communities. In other words, social media communications in the current digital age is most effective to directly build relationships, nurture interests and inspire action with people present and/or active in virtual networks and communities; or indirectly through those who can influence them in the specific area.

The nature of social media pre-supposes the existence of a network and community that is a gathering point for people of a certain demographic, community and platform affinity that is relevant to the interest of the communicating party or entity that seeks to reach them.

As ground-breaking as social media is, it is limited in terms of its reach with regard to influence and impact on those communities that are outside of its reach, either by virtue of income, digital literacy, location, age, physical ability etc.

What this means is if you need to reach a broad swathe of people who are not active on a social media platform, or cannot afford digital access, or there is no gathering place for the kind of information you seek to share within a very short time, you may have to resort to traditional PR methods. Eg TV, radio, newspapers, roadshows, public events, house calls, hand-out fliers, community events, old-school town halls etc.

This is “bread and butter” Public Relations: still very relevant for mass communications campaigns like political campaigns, health outreach programmes, vaccination programs, public health information campaigns, policy and public-sector campaign communications.

Photo by Bank Phrom on Unsplash

Political Communications: In recent times, there has been a trend where public officers appear to lean more towards communicating on social media as a tick-the-box public engagement campaign strategy – e.g. one post on twitter to communicate a far-reaching strategy like introduction of a tax levy on bank withdrawals, announcement of a major coastal road with massive environmental, social impact implications.

This has sub-optimal outcomes because some level of engagement or information cascade may be required for implementation of public sector communication in order to achieve the desired outcomes. Depending on your stakeholder mapping, this would definitely require some “old-school” PR engagement like face-to-face connects, market square engagements etc.

Even in developed societies in Europe and America, townhall face-to-face engagements are still the preferred method for connecting with traditional communities, farming communities, local groups, unions etc. Even in the corporate world, some situations require in-person town hall engagements and it is deemed as disrespectful to communicate said information via an email or on a virtual call where there is limited interaction.

Traditional PR methods are therefore the bridge to fall back on when your audience requires more of an in-person experience fuelled by interaction, messaging, live questions and responses, eyeball contact etc. Understanding this in political and policy communications makes the difference between success and failure for public sector and political office holders.

Business Sector: Also in the business sector, it is important to know the events that require traditional PR methods eg.

  • Annual General Meetings
  • Investor Roundtables
  • Parliamentary Conversations
  • Customer Relations Forums
  • Supplier Relations Forums
  • Industry, 3rd-party & Trade Events
  • Regulator Events
  • Community Forums
  • CSR campaigns and interactions


Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

All of these events can be supported by social media for amplification of content but they are in-person, relationship-building events that require presence, participation, poise and positioning in-person.

In all of the above cases, what is required is an integrated PR and strategic communications approach which will integrate traditional PR engagement methods with social media content communication for online engagement and also as part of widening the organization’s online footprint.

The objectives of the PR strategy would also determine what levers would be used e.g. for advocacy and influencing, you would need targeted conversation sessions; whereas for relationship building, presence, participation and meet and greets may be enough depending on the stage and state of the relationship with the target audience or stakeholder.

Media Relations: The use of traditional media methods would depend on the desired outcomes. For example, if you would like to share your perspective on an issue i.e. make a strong thought leadership contribution to an issue in your industry, then TV may be a good option for you. You could secure a slot with one of the top TV stations with a strong online presence and, that way, kill two birds with one slot.

  • You speak on air for the traditional audience and then also commission a sponsored post on the primary channels with your feature slot emphasizing the key message you would want to amplify.
  • You could even make a round of several TV stations depending on how much mileage you are seeking to get. Select the shows that are most relevant to your audience and content/message and desired outcome. You can also continue to amplify the content on your own channel.


Photo by Bank Phrom on Unsplash

Traditional media probably provides the best example today of how online and offline media methods have merged. People like me never watch TV but always get a curation of the best political and business conversation interviews on my twitter feed and on instagram – simply by following the pages of all the national news outlets. (and these slots are available at a cost by the way).

Outdoor advertising is also something that refuses to die. Even in the developed world, we have the famed Times Square visual board in New York which has become an iconic symbol of “having arrived” in terms of what it means to be featured on that electronic billboard.

In-person events: The pandemic also showed us that even though we like to work from home and join virtual meetings, people still like to be invited out for a fun night and actually meet people in person – in the spirit of old school PR events. This means that no matter how virtually connected you are, depending on your audience and objective, you may need to consider having some in-person events to achieve that connection and engagement that moves people from advocates and allies to ambassadors.

Major brands understand this, which is why they organise in-person connect events for their brand influencers and ensure that there is some eyeball contact beyond the usual virtual and remote connection that is typical of the lives of social media influencers.

Protocol Management: People working in government and international organisations and hierarchical/traditional cultures will tell you the importance of understanding how to work within the expected protocol in international business relations, political conversations etc, especially when working across national borders or engaging traditional institution leaders. The advent of technology and westernisation has done nothing to reduce the protocol requirements in traditional cultures in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. If you work within those cultures, you need to understand protocol and how to manage it in real-life without causing avoidable offence with unintended business consequences.

Traditional PR is therefore going nowhere.

If you are considering a career in corporate communications, political or public-sector, business/financial, risk/public health, faith-based/NGO communications etc, it is important to develop your skills and competence in traditional Public Relations through training, courses and also working in professional associations where many of these practices are still in use.


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