Taking a Skeptical Approach to Social Media

In developing communication plans today, one specific question commonly arises: What emphasis should be given to social versus traditional media? The reality is that it is a matter of perspective, and that perspective seems to be skewed heavily now toward using social media as if it’s the only media. It seems that every conference and seminar only covers one topic, or some variation thereof: How to use social media, why it’s important, how it will change the world, etc. etc. It seems to be the only subject that public relations professionals can talk about or want to talk about. Communication planning, in truth, hasn’t changed much. In reality, social media is simply that—another medium or channel through which information may be distributed and by which we may reach and hopefully have an impact on target audiences. The danger is letting the pendulum swing too far away from the consideration and use of other media and allowing ourselves to be dazzled by the new technology to an extent that is detrimental to the plan itself. The challenge is not to let the newness and the celebrity of social media overshadow the fact that our jobs as counselors, public relations specialists and change managers have not changed simply because we have a new communication channel. For those who have been in this business awhile, it isn’t the first time such a revelation has occurred and it’s likely not the last. To effectively plan successful communication efforts still requires the research necessary (and all of it isn’t online) to determine the level of knowledge, attitudes, opinions and understanding of our targeted audiences. It requires the determination of the psychographic and demographic profile of those within those audiences. It also demands a willingness to look clearly at the limitations of each communication channel and balance them to the overall effort. It remains vital to determine and understand where target audiences get their information and, more importantly, where they get the information that they trust. Some of this information exists online and in the social media environment but, believe it or not, there still exists a great mass of people out there who neither own a computer nor participate in social media. True, that number may be dwindling as the population ages. But for now, we ignore them at our peril. And even those who use the social media seem skeptical of its ability to provide valid, vetted and trustworthy information. Communication planning continues to depend on determining, refining, crafting and creating messaging that relates to key targets and postulating positions that educate, inform and affect them. Such messaging can often not be relegated to 140 or even 160 characters. Social media can and should be part of the mix in the message delivery mechanisms that are determined in the plan. It is a reality and it cannot be ignored. But here again, caution is the watchword until it can provide proven methods of measurement and metrics. Some key communication leaders with whom I have spoken seem to be in consensus that: • Social media seems to have some useful impact, especially when messages are used in business-to-consumer communication. • Social media, in their experience, has little or no impact when used in business-to-business communication. • There currently are no proven metrics to determine how social media moves the needle of public opinion beyond a finite group that tends to use that medium as their primary or even one of their primary communication vehicles. • Clients and management, while captivated by the potential of social media, still have a healthy skepticism regarding its use and viability as a delivery mechanism that can affect the bottom line. Specifically, some of the comments that were repeated often enough to bear scrutiny included: • “Just because everyone can blog, tweet or post their opinion doesn’t mean that such opinions should be viewed as valid.” • “Social media is not used or trusted widely enough to provide a valid reading of a broader public opinion. Too many people are either unaware of it or distrustful of it.” • “Social media seems to be used and trusted mainly by those under the age of 40. By those in the 40-60 age groups, it seems to be mainly a way to catch up with old friends.” • “I’ve never had a client see a measurable impact on their bottom line using social media and, therefore, I find it difficult to advocate its use to any significant degree.” • “I’m afraid that Twitter’s incessant messaging and lack of depth will simply turn off my key audiences.” • “I think it’s just too early to place too much faith in its effectiveness.” The remaining key activities in communication planning seem not to be as affected by the social media phenomenon as those mentioned above, with the exception of message distribution and timing. Once again, though, in distributing messages it would appear that some of the concerns just listed with regard to Twitter and other social networks should at least be considered. The key, it seems, is not whether it can be used or even should be used, but whether or not it can be shown to be effectively measurable as it relates to return on investment and the bottom line. Those who are skeptical may not be Luddites but simply are keeping a healthy perspective on social media and its uses. It can be and probably is a valuable tool for the public relations counselor. It may, however, lend some perspective to employ a bit of cynicism until its value is proven. PRN CONTACT: Mike Herman is CEO of Communication Sciences International, and a member PRSA’s Counselors Academy. He can be reached at mlherman@comsci.biz.

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