Switching Channels: Social Media First Model Starting to Accelerate

Singer-songwriter CeeLo Green last summer was featured in a PR campaign for Discovery Doors, an online video game on the Renaissance Hotels’ website, where gamers compete for 500 prizes. The Renaissance Hotels brand is owned by Marriott International.
Singer-songwriter CeeLo Green last summer was featured in a PR campaign for Discovery Doors, an online video game on the Renaissance Hotels’ website, where gamers compete for 500 prizes. The Renaissance Hotels brand is owned by Marriott International.

The social network fever that’s gripping PR and marketing pros isn’t likely to subside anytime soon. As social media platforms move to the epicenter of marketing communications, brands and organizations of all stripes are starting to ramp up the amount of content and messaging catering to social channels.

HLN, which is part of CNN Worldwide and reaches more than 100 million households, is now taking the trend to a new level. In early February the cable news outlet rebranded itself as “the first TV home for the social media generation.” Some of the new shows HLN is developing include “Keywords,” a game show of search and tag trivia; “#What’sYourFOMO,” an app enabling users to personalize and share their list of FOMOs (fear of missing out) and “Videocracy,” a countdown of the most talked about stories culled from social media.

HLN’s move underscores several questions that PR pros need to contend with: How do brands and organizations develop and distribute social media programming and make sure they don’t throw out the baby with the bath water? And by going with a social media first model, do brands risk alienating their traditional customers?

HLN (an acronym for its former name, “Headline News”) launched in 1982 as a 30-minute newscast delivering the top stories of the day.

But since the mid 2000s, the station has trafficked in tabloid- and entertainment-related fare. Now it’s rolling out a new incarnation rooted in social media. HLN was unavailable for comment.

“It looks like they are trying a reverse Jimmy Fallon,” said Jay Hamilton, senior director of digital public relations, Marriott International. “Whereas Fallon is driving people from TV to YouTube, maybe the plan here is to drive people from YouTube (and other social channels) to TV.”


HLN is betting it can tap into a younger demo with social media programming “as long as it doesn’t get too cutesy,” Hamilton added.

“As the gatekeeper of the brand, my job is to make sure that what we’re putting out there is in the brand voice,” he said. Hamilton stressed that PR pros need to maintain brand integrity, but also design their content for different audiences.

For example, last summer Marriott recruited singer-songwriter CeeLo Green to help plug Discover Doors, an online video game promoted by the Renaissance Hotels, a Marriott brand targeting the Gen X and Gen Y crowds.

By going with a social media first model, HLN could be the canary in the coal mine for other consumer-oriented brands.

“The danger for HLN is that it just does what the audience tells it rather than cultivate what HLN can bring to the table,” said Tim Marklein, founder and CEO of Big Valley Marketing.

He added: “How do you balance customer service with customer leadership? Customers want something from brands, and in some cases they tell you exactly what they want and can express it—and in other cases they don’t.”

Marklein said that it’s important for communicators to project where their audiences may want to go, in terms of content, but not get too far ahead of them.

“What behaviors does your audience exhibit and what behaviors do you want to encourage your audiences to engage in?” he said. “Too often companies push out content from their perspective and what they want to promote, as opposed to thinking about what behaviors their audiences are exhibiting.”


However, things shake out, HLN is probably onto something, as traditional media becomes subordinate to social channels. With any significant change in the brand, the role of PR managers is to provide counsel for senior management and the context for consumers.

“They wouldn’t make the change unless they had the data,” said Helene Solomon, CEO of Solomon McCown & Co. “PR’s job is to interpret and explain what the value proposition is for audiences, and that could include social advertising as well.”

Solomon added that HLN’s move could provide a “wake-up call” for brands and organizations trying to position their communications for the future.

“Instead of the networks and cable stations being the first channel that people go to and social second,” she said, “social media is becoming what the networks were at the dawn of broadcast journalism.”

3 PR Tips to Maintain Brand Integrity

By Lisa Rosenberg, chief creative officer at Allison+Partners; lisa@allisonpr.com

When an organization undergoes a massive rebranding it risks alienating its core audience and eroding brand equity. In today’s hyperconnected world, PR professionals must help clients navigate the complex relationship a brand holds with its stakeholders, looking to both engage and inform.

Following are a few tips on how to successfully navigate the potentially choppy waters when a brand changes its stripes:

Be mindful of your core audience and make sure you communicate with them early and directly using both traditional and social channels. Explain the changes you are making and why. Clearly demonstrate how these changes benefit them. Better yet, allow them to engage in the process, ensuring the revamped brand feels like it’s theirs.

Be transparent about what you are doing and be clear about whether it’s an update to your brand or a radical overhaul. If you are rebranding, explain why. If you are fundamentally changing your offering and whom it is being targeted to (as in the case of HLN), in essence you are introducing a new brand. Weigh the pros and cons of treating this as a rebranding initiative versus something bigger. Remember, if you don’t call a spade a spade, someone else will do it for you.

Be prepared to lose some or all of your core audience and face criticism from those who loved the old brand (think back to the backlash when Gap changed its logo). Make sure you’ve thought through and developed an extensive Q+A, and that your spokespeople are prepped to address the questions that are sure to follow from the media, investors, customers and employees. And expect that everything you say or do will be amplified socially.


Jay Hamilton, jay.hamilton@marriott.com; Tim Marklein, tmarklein@yahoo.com; Helene Solomon, hsolomon@solomonmccown.com.

This article originally appeared in the March 3, 2014 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.