American Marketer


Public relations in a mobile world

July 6, 2012

Vanessa Horwell is chief visibility officer of ThinkInk


By Vanessa Horwell

For an industry grounded in image-conscious communications, today’s mobile devices are many things to many people.

As message disseminator, mobile devices’ reach is unmatched. As message muddler and overwhelmer, their impact is equally great. It is as if the communications dam has finally ruptured and all the benefits and drawbacks that gushing words, thoughts, pictures, videos and animation offer has flooded the human experience all at once.

After centuries of humans striving to communicate detailed messages with each other over long distances rapidly, mobile technology in many ways, perhaps short of telepathy itself – a capability still in our distant future – seems the ultimate technological and communicative achievement and one that is unlikely to be eclipsed for some time.

Clearly we all have a lot to say.

Say it ain’t so – in 140 characters or less
While it is hard to gain perspective when living in the moment, smartphones and tablets, for the reasons just stated, will likely go down as groundbreaking as Gutenberg’s 15th century printing press and as important as Morse’s 19th century telegraph and Bell’s telephone – inventions that will likely be read about on the very devices – or derivations of them – that I am currently describing.

In just one decade, the world shifted from a largely newspaper-driven and landline-based wired culture into one where even television’s 24-hour news cycle pioneered by CNN some 32 years ago already seems very antiquated.

So why the build-up on putting mobile in such broad historical perspective? Just as people have had to adapt to the realities of an everywhere and anywhere connected culture, so too, has public relations.

Media kits may still need be created, brochures designed and press releases written, but the fact that more people are viewing these documents on teeny screens while simultaneously sending text messages, making phone calls, Skyping with colleagues and friends, retweeting Twitter posts or checking their Facebook or Tumblr accounts, means that our collective attention spans are fractured as never before.

And after reviewing a seemingly lengthy 900-word article like this one – even under what remains of ideal conditions – what are the chances that today’s readers will glean that required call to action? That is, if they even make it past reading the first 50 words at all.

Today, public relations companies are coming to the realization that what worked in print and on the desktop no longer applies in the mobile world. Copy must be shorter, ideas more focused and language crisper.

Just like the instant gratification culture we live in, press releases intended for mobile readers should highlight the immediacy of an event or happening – and not the stereotypic company “announcement about an announcement,” or an event slated to happen XX-months down the road. Been there. Done that.

Mobile Web copy should rely on bullets, an economy of words and simplicity for use with mobile search. And while Pew Research in its State of the News Media 2012 report finds that only 9 percent of mobile users get their news “very often” from Facebook and Twitter, the report is careful to point out that the caveat is likely to change.

In other words, the public relations industry would be wise to continue their efforts in the social media space as it is where the bulk of the population is going – and fast.

How mobile is remaking our minds
The mobile changes underway are not just about a small screen size and the need to package information differently.

A growing body of evidence suggests that mobile technology and the way it delivers information is fundamentally rewiring our brains.

An infographic by Assisted Living Today that compiled multiple news stories on the subject reported that the average attention span has fallen to 5 minutes, down from 12 minutes, a 58 percent decrease from a decade ago and that younger people have shorter attention spans than older people.

And then there are the distractions: the average office worker checks his or her email inbox 30-40 times an hour, 12 million Twitter followers follow 64 or more accounts and people spend some 700 billion minutes on Facebook per month. If our collective attention spans drop at the same rate over the next 10 years, they will have atrophied to just over 2 minutes.

Two minutes to get ones point across is razor-thin and if there is a fundamental remaking of our brains underway, something that we are only just beginning to understand and measure, what can the public relations industry do to remain ahead of those changes?

How can our role as media message creator, manager and distributor benefit from these changes? And how can we use our existing skillset to advance how others communicate, namely our clients?

These are the types of questions affecting all of us today – not only in the communications industry but nearly the entire planet, especially as United States smartphone and tablet adoption rates surpass 46 percent and 19 percent respectively and other countries such as Australia, Britain, Sweden, Norway, Saudi Arabia and UAE see smartphone adoption rates above 50 percent .

At my agency, we have been tackling this issue for some time.

Thirty to 45 seconds to hook a reporter on the phone, or around 300 words in a pitch. It is not easy. But then communicating a message is not, whether we are talking about PR/media interactions or brand/consumer interactions. It is understanding what is relevant and what resonates – mobile has forced us to rethink the way we do this once again.

Consider this article a critical conversation-starter and primer for an in-depth look at the mobile sea change underway and how public relations is both reacting to and shaping it in my upcoming book, “Public Relations for the Mobile Era,” being released by Mobile Marketer Books in September.

Vanessa Horwell is chief visibility officer of ThinkInk, Miami Beach, FL. Reach her at