Social Media’s Role in Transforming Public Relations

The growing popularity of social media is likely to change the role of public relations—if it hasn’t already. Goals will turn from number of newspaper article placements to number of Twitter re-tweets, or from TV ad time to YouTube video counts. The number of Twitter followers someone has might even become more important than newspaper circulation and readership.

This social media surge, however, does not appear to be merely a popularity fad; social media is taking off because of its functionality and business benefits. According to Nielsen’s Global Faces & Networked Places 2009 report, two-thirds of the global Internet population visit social networks and visiting social sites is now the fourth most popular online activity, even ahead of personal email. What does this mean for PR agencies? Many will have to abandon, or at least modify, their traditional media tactics to incorporate this lasting trend.

Traditional media channels like TV, radio, newspapers, direct mail and cold calling are like a sledge hammer. They keep banging people over the head with their messaging, which is often more expensive and less effective. Companies that are prime examples of this tactic include McDonald’s with its “I’m lovin’ it” campaign and Allstate’s “you’re in good hands” promotion.

Traditional marketing, however, is falling by the wayside as companies are finding ways to leverage social media tools instead. Tools such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube, are less like a sledge hammer, but more like a magnet, drawing people, and potential customers, in. This technique is called inbound marketing and examples of companies that have used this tactic to their advantage are Google and Amazon—no surprises there.
Inbound marketing is like a funnel. At the top there are all the people coming in to your Web site through successful “magnet” approaches like press, promotions, and optimization—made all the more successful through tools like content management, blogging, social media, SEO and analytics.

To achieve the magnet effect through the funnel with social media tools, you must work to build relationships and trust with clients. It’s not only important to join and listen on social media sites, but to participate as well. Participation is easy through things like Facebook discussions, Yahoo! Answers, and LinkedIn Q&A’s. By answering questions and making contributions, you build a reputation and, eventually, relationships with influential community members and potential clients.

Participation is something new for media. In the days when traditional media like TV, radio, and newspapers dominated the media scene, all people could do was listen and observe. But now with social media taking hold, people cannot merely stand back and listen if they want to make the most of these tools—they now have to participate as well. Cone’s Business in Social Media Study (September 2008), revealed that an astounding 93% of social media users believe a company should have a presence in social media. However, they also found that 85% believe that a company should go further than just having a presence and should also interact with its customers proving that participation is a fundamental aspect of social media success.

The combination of talking and listening is difficult when one strategy has been so ingrained for so many years. Advertising, PR and promotions are typically the “talking” channels whereas “listening” channels have traditionally been things like customer service, research studies, and focus groups.

The strength of social media, however, is in the combination of the two. Companies can use what they glean from listening to these channels in their own promotions and campaigns while also contributing back to the media community—and their contributions are that much better from their listening experience. But as soon as you start listening, you’ll want to participate, and as soon as you start participating, people will expect you to listen. The key is to strike a balance between observing and participating. You have to take into account what everyone else is saying in order to make the most of your contributions and get others to observe you and take account of what you’re saying. After all, social media is supposed to be a dialogue, not a monologue.

Good content spreads fast, so you’re not only reaching a select group like with a traditional ad. Worthy contributions not only reach the people associated with your social media accounts, but also everyone associated with their accounts— that is, if they deem your content good enough to be shared.

Content that gets shared is interesting, fresh, useful, and relevant to target audiences. New data, top blog posts, and funny videos are among the top things to get redistributed. Product info, free trials, or software documentation is typically not redistributed, though it can still be useful and interesting—so this is where striking a good balance comes into play. Blogs, podcasts, videos and photos in combination with presentations, eBooks and press releases will generally achieve a good mix of information that people will want to share. Above all, you need to give your (or your clients’) followers a reason to stay engaged.

Many PR agencies are touting their social media experience and expertise, but with the onslaught of social media tools and the relatively new acceptanceof social media, how can agencies differentiate themselves? It’s often difficult to separate social media from traditional media, but a good campaign isn’t about separating the two; it’s about integrating them. Agencies need to evolve their practice to incorporate social media on the client side and the media side. Media often use social media as a way to find sources and expert opinions for their articles, so staying on top of the social media press is key for client campaigns. A good way to incorporate social media is to think of it as HD for your television—it makes the channels better, but isn’t the real substance.

No company in the technology sector should entertain a PR proposal that lacks thorough consideration of how social media fits into the program—including an explanation of how social media participation will be integrated with the rest of the media relations, marketing and lead generation strategy. Social media is here to stay —its ease and accessibility make it virtually unlimited for PR and marketing opportunities—so PR agencies need to jump on the bandwagon and bring their firm into the modern era of PR strategy, using every outlet to effectively distribute new campaigns.

This article appears in PR News current Guide to Best Practices in Digital PR. It was written by Cheryl Gale, managing partner of March Communications. To find out how to order the guidebook, go to

  • David Soxman

    This is one of the best written and well documented articles on the reason to implement a social media strategy that I have read. So many business owners are still saying about social media, “I just don’t get it.” The thing is, if they don’t “get it” soon, there won’t be a reason to “get it” later.