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.