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6 Ways Social Media Has Changed Public Relations

On a visceral level, most people understand that social media has changed the public relations discipline significantly.

 Maybe you have been in the PR field long enough to remember the more straightforward, pre-digital discipline, maybe you’ve learned about PR in an academic setting, or maybe you’ve just been witness to this incredible change to the way that people consume content and interact. Regardless of your experience or how you specialize within the PR discipline, social has changed what you do. And like retroviruses and Gary Oldman characters, the only constant for social media is perpetual change.

One of my all-time favorite books on social media is Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies, by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff. What I appreciate most about the book is how they approach social media technology, not to talk about specific platforms but to talk about the characteristics of the most prominent platforms from a user’s perspective. The value of this thinking is to tactically consider the social media agnostic of platform:

  • How can I listen best using social media?
  • How can I engage people best using social media?
  • How can I energize people best using social media?
  • How can I support people best using social media?

What I want to do in this piece is look at the broader characteristics of social media as an aspect of the PR discipline, and (in the same spirit as the Groundswell tactical questions) attempt to try to answer the question:

“How can I leverage this best to control my PR message?”

1. Full integration with PR

Social and PR Sitting in a Tree

This weekend, I spent an embarrassing amount of time watching (American) football. I didn’t watch it entirely on the television, though. I had my ESPN app open on my iPhone and I was following other games, paying special attention to the Twitter feeds. Ten years ago, I would have simply watched the game. As social is increasingly integrated into the ways that interact with people and with media, those behaviors must be take into account.

In other words, social media is an inextricable aspect of nearly everything, public relations included. PR expert and author of Women in High Gear Amy Howell warns against thinking about them as separate entities:

“Social media does not replace traditional media…. traditional media is still very important, when paired with social media, it’s even more powerful.”

The integration of traditional PR and social isn’t merely a philosophical discussion: nearly 65 percent of all PR departments are responsible for the social media presence of their companies.

How can I leverage this best to control my PR message? Keeping up to date on social media technologies and frequently measuring the effectiveness of digital and traditional tactics to communicate your message.

2. User co-creation of PR messages

PR and Social Media - Doctor

In the book Free: The Future of a Radical Price, Chris Anderson discusses the advantages of Microsoft’s Encarta over the crowd-sourced website Wikipedia:

  • Microsoft had comparatively limitless resources
  • Microsoft had nearly all of the market share (after effectively cutting printed encyclopedia companies out of the market)
  • Encarta was a qualitatively better product

Yet, Encarta was discontinued by Microsoft only eight years after Wikipedia was created. Despite all of the advantages that Encarta had over Wikipedia, Wikipedia persists as one of the most influential websites in the world because it leverages the resources of its users to create its content.

Facebook posts, Tweets, YouTube videos, Amazon reviews, Yelp reviews, blog posts and everything similar are co-created messages that you don’t have the capability to control (or at least it is quite limited). The key for PR professionals is to interject your point-of-view into this process. It is such an important aspect of PR that in the text book Public Relations Theory II, professors Carl H. Botan and Vincent Hazleton say this about co-created messaging:

“We are confident that co-creation – the ideas that publics are self-standing and often a self-directing force in public relations — will be at the core of developmental theory in the next decade or two.”

How can I leverage this best to control my PR message? Use social tools to proactively be accessible to your audience, and use advanced tools to monitor for user-created social messaging.

3. Perpetual vigilance

Eye - PR and Social Media

“If you’re 29th in the queue on a phone call, only you know that. It’s you and the person who’s keeping you on hold. But if you tweet, it’s public and it could be picked up, and I think companies are very aware of that,” – David Schneider in a BBC article on social complaints.

The quote above eloquently summarizes the shift in consumer power that social media has enabled. You may never know how many people will be influenced by my Facebook complaint, and that is the impetus for businesses to set a high-standard for their social care programs.

As PR expert Matthew Royce points out, public relations has increasingly become a two-way conversation:

“PR pros can no longer blast out information about their brand or client and expect to succeed. Consumers and journalists have come to expect that they won’t be ‘spammed’ and will be answered quickly and in a personal manner.”

How can I leverage this best to control my PR message? You must plan to monitor and respond to social complaints and questions in a reasonably fast amount of time (PR expert Matthew Schwartz suggests “nanoseconds,” while Lithium Technologies suggests you may have as much as an hour to respond).

Impossible to monitor traditional and social media? See how Cision can help. Take a demo now!

4. Hyperlocalized PR messaging

Hyperlocal - Social Media and PR

Consider the advanced parameters that you can use when targeting an audience on Facebook:

  • Behavior
  • Interests
  • Education
  • Connections

All of this as well as being able to target to a zip code level, along with traditional parameters such as gender. Twitter and Google offer the same sort of targeting options depending upon the information that they have.

Before the mass-adoption of social media, such precise messaging was never possible to the degree that it is now. And it will get more precise in the future: a new wave of targeting options based upon your proximity to a particular business or location are on the horizon.

This level of precision allows for more sophistication and efficiency in PR campaigns.

How can I leverage this best to control my PR message? Leverage segmentation tools on social media platforms as a tactic within your PR plan.

5. Unprecedented journalist access and insights

Journalist Access - Social Media and PR

Just as social allows for sophisticated targeting of people, it also gives unprecedented insight into journalists.

“Social media (makes) it easier to find out more information about journalists.” – PRSA study on the impact of social media on media relations.

PR expert Mia Pearson says that the value of social media for media relations can be to understand the journalists specific beats, when their deadlines are, their personal and professional interests and to have informal conversations with them.

How can I leverage this best to control my PR message? Use social media to build relationships with key journalists (and bloggers) to help understand what they write about, when they need resources, and how they prefer to work with you.

6. The rise of citizen journalists

Citizen Journalist - Social Media and PR

In 2006, there were 3 million blogs in existence. In 2013, there were 152 million. In a longitudinal analysis of social and traditional media from 2006 to 2014, a group of researchers found a continuing decline year-over-year of the influence of traditional media sources:

“The internet’s rise in importance is even more pronounced among younger Americans with 71 percent of those aged 18-29 now citing the internet as a main news source. Additionally, these Pew studies report more and more people are receiving news via social media such as Facebook and this research also reports the number of Americans using tablets and mobile devices to receive news continues to rise.”

Social media’s role in the emergence of blogging is important as a source of distribution. Networks, such as Triberr, show the amplification potential for small-publishers to gain distribution almost exclusively through social channels.

How can I leverage this best to control my PR message? Do not overlook bloggers in your PR plans, especially consider targeting those with larger social distribution.

What I wanted to do in this piece is explore how social media impacts PR practice today and give some practical considerations for how practitioners can use these to their advantage. That said, if I wrote this six months ago or six months from today I wonder how different it might be?

Jim Dougherty is an expert on social media and technology who blogs at Leaders WestFor more marketing advice from Jim, click here.

About Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty is a featured contributor to the Cision Blog and his own blog, leaderswest. His areas of interest include statistics, technology, and content marketing. When not writing, he is likely reading, running, playing guitar or being a dad. PRSA member. Find him on Twitter @jimdougherty.

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