Thursday, October 18

Understanding Semantics: PR Students

“If A equals success, then the formula is A equals X plus Y and Z, with X being work, Y play, and Z keeping your mouth shut.” — A. Einstien

There are two things I always take away from teaching. First, semantics can sometimes mean the difference between discussion and dispute. Second, teaching, in and of itself, is learning (as long as the instructor listens now and again).

I have yet to teach a class where I do not walk away learning something new. Last night, I learned as much if not more from guest teaching social media for a Fundamentals in Public Relations class, normally taught by Keith Sheldon, ABC, APR, than the students. Then again, they were not only students. Most are also working professionals in media, public relations, and advertising. So it was in discussing social media with them that I learned about several social media roadblocks from the perspective of their respective employers. Here are four:

Social media practitioners claim comments are required.

If there is one stumbling block for companies and organizations it is the erroneous belief that blogs require comments. Concern over comment moderation is one of the largest roadblocks for having blogs deployed.

Reality check: the purpose of the communication dictates whether or not a blog is served by comments, not the medium in which the message is communicated. The conversation does not need to take place on one blog, but can take place across many blogs. (Living in reality: BlogStraightTalk members.) The root of the semantic confusion: practice vs. purpose.

Social media practitioners advocate complete transparency.

The erroneous idea in social media that all employees simply share their thoughts at random and ad nauseam, even if it means disagreeing or damaging the principles or principals of their company. Message control should be abolished, they say.

Reality check: Smart public relations firms never advocated message control; they advocated message management. Given the best communication occurs from the inside out, one wonders what consumers might think when different employees deliver conflicting messages. While some say this all equals transparency, multiple messages can shred authenticity. (Living in reality: Brian Clark).
The root of the semantic confusion: control vs. manage.

Social media practitioners support social media measures.

Across social media, including communication-related blogs, several practioners are pushing measures like Google page rank, Technorati links, friend/follower counts, and Alexa traffic (usually when it suits them). Currently, Alexa traffic is sitting at the top of the heap.

Reality check: The accurate measure of any communication is its ability to engage consumers, change behavior, and/or produce outcomes. While some people mistake the term “outcomes” to mean sales, it is simply means meeting the objective of the communication. In terms of traffic, blog dramas can create some interesting spikes, but if traffic really counts, we might all be better off blogging about Britney Spears. (Living in reality: Robert Scoble). The root of the semantic confusion: buzz vs. outcome.

Social media practitioners always talk about conversation.

Social media practitioners claim that it is all about the conversation and companies should be compelled to have a dialogue with them.

Reality check: If social media is all about the conversation, then why are so many practitioners talking and so few listening? Ergo, what seems to be is that some practitioners are more interested in driving their own one-way communication than they are willing to have a real dialogue with those they demand it from. Some practitioners create blog dramas or storm away in the face of fair criticism, the exact opposite of open two-way communication. (Living in reality: David Maister). The root of the semantic confusion: dialogue (communication) vs. dispute (non-communication).

"If you don't manage your message, then your message will manage you."

While the class revealed additional social media roadblocks, many of them can be traced back to a root cause related to semantics, including the difference between criticism and cynicism. However, I also noted a tremendous difference between these public relations students and communication practitioners and the class I taught just six months ago.

When I told these students that the communication landscape had changed, none of them looked slack-jawed, appalled, or bemused. While only three of them raised their hands when I asked if anyone was engaged in social media (not one blogger), the definition was already familiar to them. What is significant to consider is that participation in social media does not always mean practicing in social media, which again dispels the myth of counting blogs as a measure of acceptance.

More to the point, they made me wonder. Maybe the biggest roadblock that prevents social media from becoming mainstream is not the public as much as the practitioners. In other words, maybe social media is having trouble managing its own message. How ironic.



Rich on 10/18/07, 5:24 PM said...

Famous Last Words:

"According to my PR pals at Edelman, bloggers are the least-credible media information source says the PR firm’s annual stakeholder trust survey. Bloggers have a trust/credibility rating of around 3%, the Edelman survey of 140 Aussie opinion formers claims." — PR Diasters

Rich on 10/18/07, 5:46 PM said...

More Words:

"The customer is always right. When they're wrong, they're not your customer any more, because it's better to flee than be wrong." — Seth Godin

Maybe this is why I'm less inclined to simply go with the flow and force social media models on businesses. If it doesn't work for them when you're right, it certainly won't work for them when their wrong.

Social media applications for businesses need to grow out of a meeting specific business objectives. I'm not saying it to be right; I'm saying because business owners keep telling me that is what it needs to do.

Rich on 10/18/07, 6:26 PM said...

Brilliant words:

"Asked about social media return on investment (ROI), 35% reported positive ROI and 41% said that ROI was "unknown."

I think the 41% with the unknown ROI are at risk of having their social media projects drained of funds or discontinued. In this era, shareholders, stakeholders, CEOs, and board members, to mention a few, aren't buying the old "feels good, looks good, seems right" justification for marketing expense." — Sterling Hagar

Geoff_Livingston on 10/19/07, 4:28 AM said...

Good post, Rich. You are definitely a leading voice in driving pragmatism in social media. I know from my conversations with business people it always comes down to real marketing results, not Cluetrain Manifesto dreams. Hopefully, we can find a middle ground.

Rich on 10/19/07, 8:12 AM said...

Hey Geoff,

That is quite the compliment. Thank you.

I think the middle ground might come after we have led businesses into social media; it's part of effectively managing change. I also hope if the 41% who fail because they have no ROI measures, place the responsibility on themselves and the not the medium.

So, I can only hope my pragmatism about social media is viewed as what it is, a great passion for it as what could be a leading communication tool.

All my best,


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