Elevating PR in the Digital Age

18 December 2018
Sheri De Carlo

84% of Canadians use social media. Of these, 71% are accessing social media multiple times per day. Savvy communicators and marketers that are authentic and original stay ahead of the curve, not by merely writing values statements, but by fueling social good with not just their words, but their actions within their organizations and beyond. “Do you think Facebook is on its way out? Not so,” says Dustin Manley, Co-President of Canadian Public Relations Society Hamilton who discussed the latest trending topics, insights and best practices in public relations and communications management, along with guests from McMaster University’s Master of Communications Management (MCM) program, and a panel of leading speakers, seasoned practitioners and researchers at the third annual Elevate PR Conference on November 29, 2018.

Leo Johnson is the founder of Empowerment Squared and is currently working on the Liberian Learning Center, which will house the country’s first public library since 1989 when the war started, a community innovation center and the development of a young professional network for collective impact. Leo was one of the semi-finalists on the CBC Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister’s Competition in 2009 which featured thousands of youth across Canada. “I had to do much reading,” he says. “I arrived in Canada two years earlier as a refugee.” CBC’s Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister, a competition in which young Canadians discuss political issues in a bid to be named a great political leader, earned a nomination for an international Emmy nomination from a panel of former prime ministers.


“I have always felt other people gave so much during my time in the war zones and refugee camps to help me survive as a child and it was time to do the same for others, instead of worrying about myself,” Johnson says. “Through my life experiences, I learned that when the community gets better, we all become successful in ways that are sustainable. In other words, my immigration experience has been characterized by this fact; I could have chosen to be a victim of circumstances or a champion of possibilities – I chose the latter, and thus I am the person I am today.”

“There’s something about authenticity that people want. People want genuine and real. Great women and men make great institutions; institutions don’t make great women and men. There has been such a spin that some in public relations have skepticism. The negative information is easy to find; it’s positive that must be highlighted. The outcome should be a positive experience, even in times of crisis and conflict,” says Johnson. “Ask yourself why do you want to be on Twitter? Facebook? Who are you talking to on that platform?”

Dustin presentation

It’s interesting to note that people log into LinkedIn daily and that the average user has an average income of 70K. LinkedIn is using more video every day. “People will watch videos without sound, so use subtitles,” says Manley. People view landscape videos 78% more than square videos according to a recent study.

Pinterest is also a rising social media star with 3.9 million pins per day. “If you’re communicating concerning a product or service or company, you need to be on Pinterest,” says Manley. “You can narrowcast by catchment area if people see the name of the city or a local place that will grab their attention. Use social media as a narrow tool.”

I happen to believe strongly that social media can be used for social good, and I'm not the only one as Canadians admire most companies for their positive societal influence, as the recent 2018 CR RepTrak results show. The key is to align your brand to a purpose; it should be a personal, local, & relevant experience.

The 2018 CR RepTrak reflects public perceptions of corporate performance across three critical dimensions of corporate reputation: citizenship, workplace, and governance. The results show which companies Canadians admire most for their positive societal influence, environmental friendliness, openness and transparency, ethical behavior and concern for their employees’ well-being.

“Your values and principles will never fail you,” says Christine Szustaczek, Chief Communications Officer at Sheridan College, recently awarded two 2018 Bulldog Stars of PR Awards. Christine won Gold for Corporate Communications Professional of the year and Bronze for PR Professional of the year. Her team effectively communicated using honest, accurate, and timely two-way communication during the longest strike in the organization’s history, involving a total shut down of core operation with the cancellation of classes for 23,000 students due to a strike by faculty, library, and counselors.

“Authenticity is important to us as an institution – as I’m sure it is to all of you, and our approach to corporate communications. We did a number of things to be genuine and real, which was key to maintaining people’s trust in us,” says Szustaczek. "In addition to being authentic, we were always truthful and admitted when we didn’t have the answer. We also used different vehicles, like Instagram videos, to feature frontline staff who could speak empathetically and confidently to students, to tell them what services and supports were available on campus."

When I first took a break from journalism to work in the public relations department of a healthcare company, it was jokingly said I was joining the ‘dark side.’ However, now more and more journalists are taking a turn working in public relations, and more public relations practitioners are turning to journalism, perhaps the common element is the passion for story-telling or truth-telling, or that companies are taking corporate social responsibility programs seriously. Why do values matter in communication? It's about trust. Values can set a company apart from the competition; having strong values and sticking to them requires real courage. Communicators are often tasked to draft a company’s values statement; however, leadership commitment is necessary to make the values statements of an organization real.


Communicators with values who aspire to have pride in their chosen profession are choosing to work with companies that are ethical, transparent and accountable. Public relations leaders have an opportunity to make a positive difference in their communities and the world, and it is their words and actions which can deliver positive social change, often with their own personal signature, and flair.

How can you leave your signature on it? People know your signature based on your values, your style, your pizzazz. It’s you. Your creativity. It’s not the organization. People hold on to your character. As a PR person, you should look to have integrity, be real and honest. No one likes a fake. Don’t play games or try to manipulate. Be confident in who you are, and in the value of the message, product or service, or walk away. Being respectful, courteous, and consistent with how you treat everyone, online and offline, means everything. A little savoir-vivre takes you far in life. If your ultimate goal is money, it’s not about that at the end of the day. One can’t buy character. Your signature and authenticity are the things that define you and which you should drive to establish as your identifying mark. It’s important to have hope to change the world for the better. As a communicator, you can play a meaningful role.