Thursday, November 12

Rushing The Net: Public Relations

According to a new study by Vocus, an overwhelming 80 percent of public relations professionals see social media as a key focus in 2010. And as these professionals move toward social media in 2010, public relations may never be the same.

Why? Because when most public relations professionals think about supplanting public relations with social media relations, all they are really supplanting is media relations. And, as a result, the profession is setting its sights in a more competitive space that takes them further and further away from work that adds value to a comprehensive communication plan.

While there is significant overlap between public relations and social media, the perspective is not the same. In fact, many modern public relations professionals — especially those who tout relationships — tend to confine their relationships to people they perceive as having influence over the public they intend to reach.

Right. This was the same perspective that moved so many of them to overemphasize media relations because the tactic was simple: develop relationships with members of the media who had already captured the interest of a specific public and then add the total number of impressions to excite the client.

That model doesn't work as well anymore, because mainstream media seems to be hemorrhaging. So suddenly, those oh-so-important relationships with influential media as defined by 80 percent of the industry just doesn't seem to matter that much anymore.

Neither will most of those relationships in social media, as popularity tends to wax and wane. It's one of several flaws in the influence construct, made popular in part by Edleman. The irony is that it is also contrary to an effective social media program, which tends to allow people with seemingly no influence to become influential overnight (or vice versa) within specific publics.

You see, effective social media relies on the ability to see the world from varied degrees (e.g., one-to-one, one-to-many, and one-to-all) at the same time. And that often requires different skill sets that are not scalable for public relations firms alone (unless we are destined to see increased automated push communication, which is the worst possible practice being put into play today).

Most public relations professionals misdefine social media as a communication tool.

Social media is not a tool as much as it is a tactic, but there are tools within the space in which it occurs. More than anything, social media (people and technology) is what happens on the Internet, which is an environment in and of itself.

Until communication professionals understand this, their social media programs will be no more than either an extension of everything they did wrong with media relations or, worse, everything marketers do wrong with automated spam messages.

Quick Example: Yesterday, I wrote "Donations made at Who Will Stand screenings today benefit Help USA Las Vegas, which finds housing for homeless vets" on Twitter, to which Uloop replied "here's lots of available housing near CSN on Uloop." Um, right.

Not surprisingly to me, Jennifer Lawson, a non-communication professional, demonstrated to me over dinner that she has a better understanding of how things work more than most of the top communicators currently engaged in social media. Specifically, she understands that she writes for different destinations on the Internet and each content destination attracts a different group of people.

"Very, very few of the people who read what I write read everything I write," she said. "Some of them even have a hard time believing that I'm the same person writing about being a mom and then writing about sex. Whatever. I'm just me. Multidimensional."

When I teach social media, I try to impart a spatial concept to students. I suggest they think of the Internet as an environment. Within that environment, there are destinations much like we see in the physical world (e.g., we wake up at home, go into our car, drive to work, go to lunch, go back to work, head to the gym, attend an event, and go back home).

Online, it's the same. We wake up, check Twitter, connect to Facebook, check our reader, bookmark some pages on Delicious, share our findings on Twitter or Digg, leave comments on a few blogs, spend time on our own blog, etc., etc.

All the while, public relations professionals are now scrambling to drop us messages along the way, even when we are not traveling in the same destination loop or orbit. They don't often pay attention to what we are doing either. Ultimately, they simply deliver the same message over and over.

The message is to add their client's destination to our orbit OR convince someone else (presumably someone with influence) to do so. While they deliver their message, they ignore the obvious. The average blogger already participates in 10 social networks beyond their blog and those networks have multiple destinations too.

Bad news for them. People have a finite amount of destinations they can visit in one day. And, as Lawson seems to know, people don't want to visit them all, especially if you deliver diverse content. (There are a few who will, and those people are your true evangelists or, in some cases, fanatics.)

So how does an organization develop successful relationships on the Web?

I have a great deal of respect for many social media professionals. Please keep that in mind while I point this out: Most social media professionals are attempting to overlay individual communication models on organizational communication. And, frankly, that just doesn't work. They are not the same. Authors, entertainers, speakers, etc. are different.

If you don't believe me, ask Chip Conley who is discovering that his customers might not want to see his pics from Burning Man (not that there is anything wrong with Burning Man.) Go figure. And, as Bill Sledzik called it right: just because they buy your product, it doesn't mean they want to be your buddy.

While every social media model is different because all communication in an expansive environment (just like the physical world) is situational, online organizational communication also needs to be delivered differently depending on the destination in which it occurs. (e.g., you wouldn't put a television spot on highway signage, would you?)

So some social media programs might need banner ads in one destination, conversation in another, and community activities in another. If this is true, then it is also true that different deliverables in different destinations might require different communication professionals or different skill sets. And those skill sets range from direct marketing and advertising to public relations and customer service. Probably more.

As a result, if someone is hoping to develop a relationship via communication in these varied destinations, then focusing on those with perceived influence doesn't hold up. It's just more of the same. It's an attempt to rely on someone else's brand to peddle your stuff.

In reality, genuine relationships occur when you have an opportunity to touch people in various destinations that may or may not be your own destination. You know, just like real life.

If I see someone at work, at lunch, at the gym, and at some event later that night, I'm much more likely to develop a relationship with them (unless I'm constantly pressuring them to go somewhere else). Unfortunately, too many public relations professionals don't understand this (or at least not those who assume every relationship is just another opportunity to add one more body to an event). So before these public relations professionals rush the net, I suggest they change their thinking.

You see, the real challenges in social media is not attracting more followers, friends, fans, or whatever. The real challenge is having the ability to remove degrees of separation between the people you want to reach and the message you are trying to share. But to explain that, I'd need a new post. This one is too long as it is.

Suffice to say for this one, it seems to me that of the overwhelming 80 percent of public relations professionals who are planning to set their sights on social media, a mere 5 percent or less will survive such a transition. And, if they are not careful, they will damage their entire industry.

In some ways, they may have taken the wrong path already. Based on the rest of the survey, the writing is already on the wall.


Sean Williams on 11/13/09, 9:17 AM said...

Rich, a very interesting post on so many levels (one of the perils of lengthy posts...), and I'm responding in rather lengthy fashion; my apologies in advance.

The PR conundrum these days is how to help clients use social media, when the client frame is so firmly embedded in the mainstream media view. On the surface, it seems like another tactic for dispersing messages, similar to other similar efforts to "get the word out."

If we too quickly attempt to break the client frame, we leave them behind, trying to rationalize the new paradigm. We need to facilitate them through these changes. A challenge is that our marketing cousins are able to simply lever the frame -- giving the client clarity of understanding: the new world of marketing is similar to the old, esp. regarding advertising.

The influencer model is not limited to PR, either. Sales departments rely on it too. So, the sales frame accepts the influencer model easily, again making the new world seem a lot like the old.

As social media -- which is inherently a one-to-one or many-to-many tactic, not a one-to-many tactic -- continues to gain users, new methods of measuring effectiveness will have to emerge. Right now, most people are using MSM metrics adapted for SM use; some fit, some don't.

If these new effectiveness measures do not quickly arrive, businesses will conclude that social media is not a serious business tool. Unenlightened organizations already feel that way about public relations (apart from the reputational and crisis response aspects of the practice.)

It's the need to understand the impact of social media in a business context that is critical. As someone wrote earlier this year, "being part of the conversation" isn't a business solution. It may become part of some kind of business objective, but the dots are unconnected at this point.

There are cases of social media success, and I don't denigrate them at all. I have had similar arguments about internal communications -- most of it is nonsense that has no impact, but we can develop strategic plans that DO have impact. That's likely the case for social media as well.

Sean Williams
Communication AMMO

Rich on 11/13/09, 12:37 PM said...

Hey Sean,

No need to apologize for the lengthy comment here. I welcome it.

The conundrum could easily be solved by allowing public relations (not publicity mind you) partnering with communicators who specialize or at least have an emphasis in social media so any program has an opportunity to bring those best assets together, and allow people to do what they do best.

For example, an integrated campaign might include a combination of marketing components (ranging from hyper-local ads and online targeted ads), public relations (offline and some online outreach to specific groups, including media), and social media (direct contact with consumers on a one-to-one or one-to-many conversation) to create a maximum impact.

Is public relations, which has generally become a specialist field, suitable to manage what constitutes a generalist approach? Probably not, at least not today.

The need to understand social media is clearly critical, but it cannot be owned because as it is a completely new environment or media, it requires all communication professionals to have a stake in it based upon the tasks at hand. If we don't come to realize this, it would be like saying that television can somehow be owned by a specific discipline despite its need to managed by marketing, advertising, public relations, etc. based on what you are trying to do in that space — appear on an interview or produce a spot or make a direct sale offer or any number of other opportunities that present itself in that space.

You're very right in your assessment much of this comes down to developing a strategic plan before anything. And in developing a strategic plan for communication, and thinking of social media as part of the overall mix, it's much easier to wrap our heads around what needs to be done and where.

All of it is measurable and beyond a conservation, assuming the people placed in charge have some semblance of setting clear objectives that lead to measurable outcomes.

That is, and always will be, how businesses measure the success of any communication effort, even public relations. That's not old business thinking but common sense thinking.

After all, not all my friends (online or off) have any need of the services we might offer. But for me, I have the luxury of setting an objective that moves well-beyond sales as an outcome. Most businesses, and certainly most communication managers, simply do not have that luxury.

And thank you. Your thoughts are very insightful and I value that you took the time to share them as they lend well to the discussion. I have more specifics on this mode of conceptual thinking for communication and can only hope you're willing to do so again.

All my best,

Sean Williams on 11/13/09, 2:42 PM said...

Rich - it's a rare thing, as you might notice, to find conceptual thinkers in PR. We get tagged with that "academic" moniker as a pejorative. My "thing" has long been the need to think carefully prior to acting; that seems a luxury in our 24/7, short-staff environment and has been so for a long time. Even the relatively simple matter of setting objectives seems beyond too many of us.

One part of my own practice is helping people think differently about their work -- that's the stuff that fires me up, the conceptual and critical thinking part of our profession. To be able to get into that head space, I need to read interesting thinkers from across the spectrum of business, politics, arts, etc., otherwise, I'm just another voice in the echo chamber -- and that ain't me.

I remember some years ago, when the Internet was so new that people needed explanations to understand what it was, hearing the phrase, "digital water cooler." Of course, the only way an organization could control conversations around the actual water cooler was to walk around and by force or presence, shut them down. We're seeing that behavior among some companies now, now that the water cooler is electronic and global.

We have more growing to do in the socmed space before we'll have a clear understanding of 1) how to use it effectively in business; and 2) how to judge consultants and companies which are trying to sell-in socmed services. I am a participant, not a socmed consultant, and am comfortable in that space, but recognize how these resources are changing the perception of value of corporate communication. Thus, I have to keep participating and learning, which may well be a good metaphor for how our profession needs to behave over the next months and years.


Bill Sledzik on 11/14/09, 6:46 AM said...


It is exactly this type of conceptual thinking that the profession needs. The social-media books being written by the "evangelist" wing have been, so far, shallow and disappointing. Why? Because so little critical thinking goes into them.

Reading this post took me back a few years to a blogosphere in which people often wrote "long" and commented thoughtfully, as Sean has done here. My own views on social media emerged from those conversations -- not from the 200-word life-stream notes or 140c Twitter messages or 2009. This will sound soooo 2006, but the conversation ain't what it used to be.

Is there an organization -- professional or academic -- that is having these kinds of discussions on a regular basis? That's a conference I'd love to attend.

I know I didn't comment on the topic at hand. I do appreciate the link and the intellectual level of discussion. I took a lot away from it.

Nicole DeFalco on 11/14/09, 8:14 AM said...

When it comes to Social Media, it seems there's a rush to be "in it" just to say you're in it. Sean has made some powerful points about this regarding the need to think carefully and set objectives first. Clear goals that encompass measurable objectives in terms of organizational and customer value, become the framework by which to determine the best venues for achieving those goals and assessing the quality of the providers offering to help in each of those venues (SM, PR, Advertising, consultants, etc.)

Rich, nice job sparking a meaningful conversation. Sean, thanks for supporting the "longer post" format.


Unknown on 11/14/09, 11:23 AM said...

Post is long or short it doesn't matter till it is related to the topic and all of the posts are very much helpful as what i see.

Public relations is necessary as it helps to boost up the business opportunities as well as to get right jobs.

Amanda Chapel on 11/14/09, 3:24 PM said...

I TOLD you this would happen. But did you listen to me? Noooooooooo.


Beth Harte on 11/14/09, 5:52 PM said...

Rich, this is excellent! Thank you for bringing up the topic.

I'm not going to leave some 'smart' comment here...probably just a rant. Hope that's okay. ;-)

I hadn't heard the term "social media relations" and now I am sorry I's making my head hurt.

I think my personal frustration with this space is that terms like "social media marketing" and "social media relations" somehow give license to people who shouldn't be driving. Just because you are on Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn doesn't mean you understand marketing or PR. And what's worse are the companies scrambling to get millennials or SM 'experts' to do their social media marketing and now what?! Their 'relations' too?!

I think there are two issues that I have seen over and over for years... "Anyone can be a marketer" and "PR = Media Relations." Both are totally inaccurate.

I am bringing up marketing because I am an integrated marketer and for me PR isn't a stand alone silo, but a function of marketing. That's not a debate for now, but just to clarify.

It's a tragedy to me that people are so willing to throw out traditional marketing and PR when it comes to the social media space.

I am putting my soapbox away now... Thanks for getting me all spun up on a Saturday night Rich! ;-)

Have a great weekend!

Michael Sommermeyer on 11/14/09, 10:01 PM said...


I tend to view the Social Media space as layered, like a 3-D chess board. It requires multiple angles and views to understand the complete game.

As you do, I fear social media has become akin to media relations - broadcasting to the largest common denominator and failing to listen. It is the easy way out and it leads to spam, multiple messaging and one-dimensional representations of the company or organization engaged in the practice.

That's why I harp about strategy before tactics. I want to see the complete picture and then act.

After a while, the PR professional quickly realizes that it just feels wrong to mass broadcast to the social media community; cross-posting to various feeds, spaces and utilities. Chasing followers on Twitter and developing influence is incomplete. You must work on relating to others.

That feeling of emptiness and incongruence should be a clue to those who are chasing followers, signing up for too many Social Media spaces and cross pollinating to each. Return to thinking about relationships and proven PR strategy. If you're engaged in Social Media begin to look at it from an integrated approach and draw on various specialties to build a solid strategy, whether it be marketing, PR, advertising or word-of-mouth.

This is an excellent post and I'm looking forward to what you build upon. Thanks for sharing your insight.

Beth Harte on 11/15/09, 8:57 AM said...

Michael, the problem with just focusing on tactics is that PR, marketing, communications folks aren't focusing on:

A goal and measurable objectives
that are THEN supported *each* by strategies and tactics.

I think if more folks knew how to write plans, they would be amazed to find out that social media might not be in their future at all. Just a thought...

Rich on 11/15/09, 1:00 PM said...

@Sean There is a lot to be said for doing in the social media space, especially if that doing is not on the client's dime (as some firms do). However, I think as people do more in the space, then it creates a greater need for those doing to understand at least the basic elements of strategic communication, planning, and measurement. Glad to have met you someone not afraid of the "academic" moniker, because conceptual thinking it not limited to academics.

@Bill I share your sentiment in a general lack of applied conceptual models and text. I remain confident that will change someday, but business card books seem to be the rage in a world that would rather apply the quick fix (how do I get more followers?) stunts that are summed up as "comment on other people's blogs" instead of "remove degrees of separation" from your most important publics, and be prepared to have one-on-one discussions too.

@Nicole I think most of the people would agree that setting objectives is mission critical for any communication plan. I don't expect the bulk of firms to be pick up on that criteria in social media. After all, most didn't pick up on it for what is called traditional media either.

@Amanda Ha. I always listened to you. I just didn't always agree with you, but only because I found myself, like a few people here and there, falling somewhere in-between the devotees and cynics.

@Beth You know as well as I that applying the quick tips can lead to some striking fishbowl successes in social media, but never really amount to a single tangible organizational benefit. Unfortunately though, the quick tips and gimmicks tend to be more like gambling, which continues to impact all areas of communication. Throw it up and see what happens. Ho hum. Enjoyed the rant, as it leads to other topical considerations.

On that other point, in response to Michael's comment, it is increasingly hard for me to imagine a company without something available in this environment. Where people are making the bigger mistake is leaping in before they know "why" or "how much." Of course, that is precisely why strategic planning is so important.

@Michael You already know that I harp right along with you on that topic. Interesting analogy using a chess board. I can see that clearly and adapted slightly, it really drives the point home ...

Why on earth are people moving their knights forward without checking to see where any other pieces might be in the game? And more along that line ...

Where I think Beth is right in her response to you is that you cannot look at the social media as a game in of itself, but rather only a single piece of the entire set.

I suppose that would upset some people to think of it that way, because what it suggests is there is no "social media strategy." There are only strategies that might include social media.

Thanks everyone, for making this a lively conversation. There is so much more to consider in attempting to pinpoint any truths that might be out there.

All my best,

Sean Williams on 11/15/09, 2:11 PM said...

Several quick responses to the responses (part of the point of socmed, right?)

@Rich and @Bill - definitely need a solid conversation surrounding the concepts and theories, as long as they're in service of our practice.

@Beth - we all make the mistake of thinking hierarchically about our respective disciplines. Integration in practice has led to subordination of subpractices rather than the true conceptual integration of them. Our language here is somewhat difficult, too, as "integration" should mean the creation of something new from the combination of two or more items. Similarity of tactics shouldn't imply similar objectives. And, enlightened media relations has been specific and targeted, with strong relationships marking the discipline; but, you're correct that PR does not equal Media Relations, as important as third party objective endorsement may be.

@Rich, there indeed is nothing wrong with doing, provided the actions are properly aligned with objectives. The issue in socmed is that the objectives too often aren't aligned, and too often are based on assumption rather than research. The entire practice of PR is guilty of unresearched action, so this shouldn't surprise.

I'll add my thanks, too, to everyone weighing in on such an interesting discussion.

Anonymous said...


Not sure I get your point. When I say "integrated," I am referring to integration marketing communications (Schultz, Percy, Ogden, Caywood, et. al.), which has been around for a long, long time.

There isn't a hierarchy because all disciplines are integrated. Meaning, one should understand direct mail, email, branding, PR, marketing (research, pricing, etc.), social media, Internet marketing, etc. and how to manage the message across all mediums (offline and online) as well as knowing which mediums work best for conversation/response. (Deciding which medium comes during the planning process.)

Perhaps it's just me and the 'age of marketing' I cut my teeth in... I've always done IMC. As well, I've been fortunate to have never worked in a siloed marketing atmosphere. I know that's not the case for most marketers and/or organizations/agencies.


Blog Archive

by Richard R Becker Copyright and Trademark, Copywrite, Ink. © 2021; Theme designed by Bie Blogger Template