Is Social Media Transforming Public Relations?

Social Media Public Relations

The increasing trend of social media is already changing the role of public relations.  Goals are shifting from number of magazine article placements to number of Twitter re-tweets, and from TV ad time to YouTube video counts.  The number of Twitter followers or Facebook connections someone has might even become more important than newspaper circulation or readership.

This social media surge, however, is not merely a fad; social media is taking off because of its practicality and business benefits.  A recent report by Equation Research predicts that within one year, 82 percent of businesses will be using social media to promote their brand, goods, and services.  Additionally, Nielsen’s Global Faces & Networked Places 2009 report found that two-thirds of the global internet population visit social networks and visiting social sites is now the fourth most popular online activity, even in front of personal email.

So 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 can continually bang people over the head with their messaging, like a sledgehammer, which is often more expensive and less effective.  Companies that are prime examples of this sledgehammer tactic include Visa’s “It’s everywhere you want to be” campaign and Verizon’s “Can you hear me now?” promotion, which are seen almost everywhere you turn.

However, as companies are discovering more ways to leverage social media tools, traditional marketing is falling by the wayside.  Tools such as Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and LinkedIn, are like a magnet, rather than a sledgehammer, as they draw people and potential customers in.  This technique is called inbound marketing, which companies such as Microsoft and Google have used particularly well.

Inbound marketing is like a funnel.  Proven “magnet” approaches like press, promotions, and optimization help funnel people through to the company website or end goal.  And these tactics are made all the more successful through tools like content management, blogging, social media, SEO, and analytics.

Using social media tools to achieve the magnet effect requires building relationships and trust with clients.  With social media, it’s more important to participate than anything else.  Simply joining and listening on social media sites won’t cut it.  LinkedIn Q&A’s, Yahoo! Answers, and Facebook discussions all provide easy outlets for participation.  By answering questions and contributing to discussions, you build a reputation and, eventually, relationships with influential community members and prospective clients.

Participation is new for media.  When traditional media ruled, people could only listen and observe.  But now with social media taking hold, people cannot merely sit back and listen if they want to make the most of these tools – they have to participate as well.  Cone’s Business in Social Media Study (September 2008), revealed that an overwhelming 93 percent of social media users believe a company should have a presence in social media.  However, more importantly, they found that 85 percent believe that a company needs to have more than just a presence and should also be interacting with its customers.  These results prove that participation is an essential part of social media success.

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

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.  Once you start listening, it’s only natural that you’ll want to participate, but as soon as you start participating, people will expect you to listen.  The key is to strike a balance.  You have to take into account what everyone else is saying in order to make the most of your contributions and get others to take account of what you’re saying.  After all, social media is about having a dialogue, not a monologue.

Achieving this balance generates good content, and good content spreads fast.  But with social media, you’re not only reaching a select group like with a traditional ad, you’re reaching a multitude of networks.  Worthy contributions not only reach the people associated with your social media accounts, but also everyone associated with their accounts, but only if they deem your content good enough to be shared.

Many PR agencies are touting their social media experience and expertise, but with the onslaught of social media tools and the relatively new acceptance of 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.  Mike Spataro of Visible Technologies commented at the Social Media Club Boston event back in May that “social media is the A1 sauce, not the steak.  Social media is a supplement, not a substitute.”  Agencies need to evolve their practice to incorporate social media on both 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 important for client campaigns.

Social media is not only useful for finding media opportunities, but also to glean insight on target audiences.  With participatory media, people can tailor who they want to hear from and what kind of information they want to receive much more easily than ever before.  They no longer have to dig through countless sources to find what they want; now, people can select what they want and get it to come straight to them.  This selection process is helpful since you’re now able to see whose following or subscribing to you and your content (or your clients’ content).  This provides immediate insight into who is interested in what you have to say and your audience research is practically done for you!

For example, if you create a Twitter account for your wireless client, but notice that many of the client’s Twitter followers are in the financial sector, now you know a good industry to pitch that’s already interested in what you’re doing.  Once you know someone’s interested, it’s a lot easier to influence them.

Companies, especially those in the technology sector, should only consider PR proposals that include social media and how it 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.  PR agencies need to stay on top of new media trends to stay competitive and keep their clients competitive in their respective industries.

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