How can things change — and still stay the same?

This was the question running through my head as I got off a conference call in preparation for the Adobe Digital Marketing Summit panel I’m joining in London next week. I will be discussing how the role of digital marketers is changing rapidly — and how to address this.

The digital landscape has changed the rules fundamentally, not just when it comes to how to influence publics, but how to re-organize corporations around a digital-first approach. You know this, I know this. We all know this.

However, when I advise businesses on digital PR and organizational change, I often find myself going back to basics. I return to the same old “old-school” PR theories.

Why is this?

Old-School PR: Same Same But Different

I used to binge-read everything by genius scholars such as Marshall McLuhan, James E. Grunig, John Fiske, Walter Lippmann, Ivy Lee, and Edward Bernays. But, I do come back to them quite regularly.

I find their usefulness in modern society to be interesting. Their fundamental communication concepts seem to be even more relevant today than they ever were before.

These days, I enjoy reading popular thinkers like Seth Godin, Gary Vaynerchuck, and Malcolm Gladwell just as much as the next guy. But to find good thinking, we can also choose to revisit the sources.

It can be about learning from the great masters of classical direct marketing for creating converting online copywriting or going back to the rhetorical analysis by the Ancient Greeks.

Or as in this case, revisiting classic PR theories:

The Voices of PR Students

So, with the annual Swedish PR conference Communicare 2014 coming up, I thought about making a little experiment:

Communicare is arranged by the Mid Sweden University and their Public Relation Program students. They are in many ways digital native communicators now studying classical communication theories.

Ergo: They must be in a very good position to speculate in what classical PR theories can teach us about today’s digital communication landscape, right?

So I asked a few of them to share their takes on a classical PR theory of their own choice.

And here’s what they came up with:

Linn LundbergLazarfeld’s Two-Step Flow of Communication (1944)

You can apply Lazarfeld’s two-step flow of communication on the world of social media. A click on the share button is as easy as talking to your best friend about things that interest you. Anybody can be the first one to share and who can say that they never wanted to be the first one with the latest news?

Nowadays it only takes a second or less before you can discuss the latest news, photo or article with the whole world. That is how the two-step flow of communication works today.

— Linn Lundberg, 24, PR Student

Untitled1Functions Inside a Message (1958)

Roman Jakobson’s theory still applies to this day, just look at the metalinguistic function, this function refers to the way the sender often creates a “code” for its message. These “codes” are things that our brains automatically seeks to recognize and relate to. Things like colors, music and settings, things that we can relate to a certain type of media or brand.

Take the car brand Volvo as an example; what do people think of when they see a Volvo? Expensive, Swedish, safety, mountains, forests … Zlatan Ibrahimovic?

— Thomas Jonasson, 23, PR Student

Sumenta Tran

The Four Models of Public Relations (1984)

Grunig and Hunt’s symmetrical two-way model have become the ideal for organizational communication around the world as they strive to achieve maximum efficiency. These days, media technologies and social media have made most PR efforts more global, strategic, interactive and symmetric, thus making the symmetrical two-way model a norm for sustainable long-term communication. The audience is seen as individuals with different needs, where each and every one of them has the capability to influence their peers.

This, in contrast to before, when the audience instead was seen as an anonymous and homogeneous group. One way to put it is that two different theories have changed places with each other over time, the traditional publicity model is out — while the two-way symmetrical model is in.

— Sumenta Tran, 21, PR Student

asdfInformation Processing Theory (the early 1950s)

Are you sure the receivers get the message if you only have 140-characters? In today’s society, as social media is just getting bigger and everything must happen so fast, one feeling, one radical moment can change everything.

So think twice before you write something online, someone might just misunderstand it.

— Emilie Lindqvist, 29, PR Student

sffgsfgLasswell’s Model Of Communication (1948)

How people interpret different messages is impossible for the transmitter to know. Like Volvo Cars’ recent commercial with Zlatan. The message “Made by Sweden” has both been criticised and loved, and it became the commercial on everyone’s lips. But is it how many people talking about the commercial, or what they really say about it that is crucial?

If a message isn’t clear enough, people will tend to interpret it in different ways. That’s why it’s so important that we always think through what we say or write in public. In the end, it’s the effect of the message that really matters.

Maria Rumm, 24, PR Student

And Here’s The Point: PR Still Rules!

So it seems like classical PR theory ages with elegance. Instead of going out-of-date, communication theories seems to be amplified the more we communicate with each other as a society.

Because there are a wealth of PR theories that shouldn’t be forgotten. Are YOU familiar with the Bandwagon Effect (1848)? Noelle-Neumann’s Spiral Of Silence (1974)? Card-stacking (1939)? Festinger’s theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957)?

I could go on and on about various PR theories and their origins, but the point is this; if you aren’t familiar with classic PR theory, then you should assign yourself some homework.

Because they’re all powerful PR tools. And even if you aren’t planning on putting these theories to work for you or your brand — at least, you’ll know when someone is trying to influence you.