PR’s Evolution into Activation

Back in the day—a little more than a century ago—what later became known as public relations had its genesis on Broadway and in Hollywood with the rise of press agents. Characterized as enthusiastic, energetic proponents of plays, movies and actors, these press agents nonetheless were stereotyped as scrappy, fast-talking hawkers (with dubious fashion sense!). The term “flack” was coined after Gene Flack, a notable theater agent of the day. The mission of these individuals was to sell tickets and gain celebrity for the talent they represented. They did so using tactics from the ridiculous to the sublime.

PR as a profession took hold in the early 1900s thanks to pioneers including Edward Bernays, who began to hone his craft while employed in Woodrow Wilson’s administration during World War I. As part of the Committee on Public Information, Bernays (a nephew of Sigmund Freud) was charged with communicating a message of democracy in the U.S. and abroad. Impressed with its effectiveness and convinced that this practice could be used in the private sector during peacetime, he decided to open his own company after leaving government work. His first PR initiative was to rename what had been referred to as “propaganda” during the war to “public relations.” The name change was intended to eliminate any stigma attached to the word based on Germany’s negative reaction to this communications practice during the war.

Bernays, who had emigrated from Austria to the U.S. with his family as a young child, hung out a shingle in New York City and became one of the world’s first PR practitioners. To this day, he is considered the father of modern-day PR. Over several decades, his company introduced PR strategy and implemented tactical programs for many organizations, including General Electric, CBS, American Tobacco Company and Procter & Gamble. He served as the catalyst for a fledgling industry that grew and matured as organizations realized the value of positive publicity for their businesses. The field drew communications professionals, both in house and in agencies. And PR solidified as an increasingly important tool in the field that was becoming known as Marketing.

Today, the Public Relations Society of America defines public relations as

“a strategic communications process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

It is a definition that fits both the propaganda days of World War I and today’s sophisticated techniques aimed at building awareness, providing information, educating and persuading consumers to buy.


Hospitality Embraces PR

In hospitality, the practice of PR took hold industry wide a little later—about four decades ago—as owners and operators began to understand the value of “third-party endorsement.” This is what distinguishes press coverage—publicity—from paid messaging, such as advertising. A feature article in the travel section of a newspaper or magazine, or coverage on national television, would spark calls to reservations lines and, with the advent of the Internet, online bookings. PR was seen as a sales support tool and a practice that, if done well, could positively influence business. The third-party endorsement fostered credibility and trust because it was provided by informed individuals not directly connected (nor beholding to) the recipients of positive press coverage.

In relatively recent years (when you consider that Hospitality dates back to Bethlehem days before B.C. became A.D.), PR has expanded to include not only “traditional” PR—outreach to media editors and producers—but the communications tools spawned by technology and culture. These include social media platforms and blogs that allow two-way and multichannel communication. No longer is the messaging hotel-to-consumer only. It works both ways, creating a two-way dialog between hotels and guests. And as consumers share their opinions and experiences within their social media communities, messaging is subject to expanded exposure and can even go viral—with good or bad consequences, depending upon the sentiment being expressed.

Enter Brand Activation

The blending of traditional PR with web-based platforms forms the foundation for what is now called brand activation, which is aimed at inspiring constituents to become actively engaged with the brand. When handled properly, a brand’s constituents become brand ambassadors. When ignored, or handled in a tactical manner not based in brand-focused strategy, a hotel or resort can lose control of its brand to the public, which takes the lead on defining the brand, for good or ill, accurately or inaccurately.

Is this a long-term reality? Should hoteliers care?

The answer is “yes.” Social media is here to stay. The latest edition of an annual report by Simply Measured, an analytics and monitoring service, indicates that more than 2.2 billion people used some form of social media last year. Ad revenue for these platforms was expected to reach $32.91 billion by year-end, an almost 31% increase over 2015.

In the hotel industry, the relatively mature staples—Facebook and Twitter—are beginning to lose a bit of ground in favor of the more visual media of Instagram and Snapchat. And, increasingly, the PR effort—focused on “earned media”—is being supplemented by social media ads and boosts that are “paid media” as well. Video content is on the rise and could become the most important factor in conveying the hotel experience.

Here is a look at some of the trends for 2017—with the caveat that new channels are likely to appear out of nowhere, and quickly evolving consumer preferences are likely to change in the blink of an eye:

SnapchatGeofilters with hotel branding allow the Millennial guest to share photos touting where they are, and hotels can measure how many people are Snapchatting from their properties. The result? More hoteliers are getting into the Snapchat game.


InstagramThis new and increasingly “mature” channel is becoming more and more like Facebook. Not long ago, Instagram targeting/ads were pricey, and only big brands could afford them. Now Instagram is tapping into Facebook’s algorithm, and is gradually making it so brands will have to put just a few dollars behind every post to make themselves seen. Instagram for Business launched last year, creating an opportunity for hotels to target users with paid messaging. And Instagram’s new video features have proven to be valuable additions to the platform. These include Boomerang, which loops video clips, and Instagram Stories, which acts as a Snapchat alternative. Both acknowledge the growing use of video. Instagram Stories also acknowledges the desire to post non-permanent content, because the posts disappear after 24 hours.

FacebookRetargeting Facebook ad campaigns is becoming an effective way to turn awareness into reservations. Posting an ad on a Tuesday can create awareness, and an updated ad posted on Friday (perhaps on payday for a person with a weekend getaway in mind) can encourage interested guests to book. Retargeting campaigns with refreshed messaging from one post to the next have become crucial.

Facebook Live (the new video feature) is also worth addressing. Facebook has said that people watch more than 100 million hours of video on the platform each day, so it’s an opportunity for hotels to show off their property experience through this channel. Livestreaming is on the upswing, and hotels are finding engaging ways to tap into that option. And for hotels with their own PR campaigns, it’s useful to note that many media have their own Facebook Live channels, which can feature a hotel’s story much as print and broadcast media have, and continue to do. So media tour outreach should include this option in addition to the traditional deskside briefing with an editor.

Use of video across platformsIn our work on behalf of hotel clients, we’re seeing many property videos being shared, and more videos featuring the property itself (rather than talking heads) and nearby attractions. Increasingly popular drone videos can be shared on any platform, though, to date, we’ve seen the most on Facebook. A drone captures a property from all different heights and angles, and it seems to get people especially engaged. This includes new guests, who think it looks exciting, as well as past guests who experience nostalgia from the views. In this same category we’d include the 360-degree photos on Facebook. People are drawn to them and can’t seem to get enough. We anticipate seeing more of this technology—that is, imagery and video that make people feel like they’re actually on site.


TwitterTwitter is more of a broadcast than an experience channel. It is good for disseminating news and is less visual than the channels mentioned above. Limited sales messaging should be used here, as following and unfollowing is much easier and quicker to do than Facebook. Still, it’s an effective medium for sharing live and candid updates, recipes from chefs, travel and wellness tips, and other useful and original content. The recommendation is to provide followers with something they can learn from or use in their everyday lives.

As always, content should be unique to the platform. While the same topic can be covered across all platforms on the same day, the way it is provided—visually and in written form—should be fresh and appropriate to the channel in which it appears.

What’s certain about PR, including earned and paid media, brand activation and specific social media channels, is that it continues to evolve at almost break-neck speed. Keep a keen eye on trends and have fun experimenting—keeping it always on brand—with the many options at hand that hold promise for communicating your brand and attracting brand ambassadors and guests—both new and repeat—to your property.

If I can answer any questions on the topic, please feel free to contact me at mgendron@mower.com.

This article previously appeared in Hotel Business Review on Feb. 12, 2017. HotelExecutive.com retains the copyright.