Described as ‘the greatest evolution in the history of PR’ (Solis & Breakenridge, 2008) there is no question to social media’s impact on the public relations industry. You only need to pick up the latest issue of PR Week, read a PR blog or a related-Twitter stream to see the latest development, opinions and expertise regarding social media and PR. To this statement, we can all agree. However, a question mark does remain. If the internets impact on the industry is so powerful – what does this mean for the day-to-day operations of PR and more specifically – the role of the PR practitioner?
According to Philip Sheldrake (2011) ‘the PR role encompasses aspects of publicity and practitioners invest much of their time wielding the tools of publicity: press releases, pitches, interviews etc’. This definition depicts a one-way process of public relations, utilising ‘traditional’ tools to utilise the media and persuade and influence our audience with a message. A method which is not mentioned here but is certainly a dominant process within public relations is media relations – defined by Tench and Yeomans (2006) as ‘managing relationships with the media – all the writers, editors and producers who contribute to and control what appears in the print, broadcast and online media.’ The use of the word ‘control’ again suggests a manipulative process to control messages sent out to the audience.
My dissertation – which focused on Grunig & Hunt’s two-way symmetrical model and its relevance in the digital age – found that social media is rendering a complete shift away from the one-way ‘spin’ process which Sheldrake describes to a two-way communication process. As Levine et al (2009) said in The Cluetrain Manifesto, ‘markets are conversations’ and trying to engage in these new conversational markets and online communities through a one-way paradigm will lead to a very negative outcome. Furthermore, if we ever thought we had control before, we certainly don’t have it now and active audiences and the speed of the internet is creating further challenges for brands. Take the Toyota Camry Effect for example. During the Super Bowl, Toyota created a series of somehow verified Twitter accounts called CamryEffect, Camry1, Camry2 (you get the picture) and subsequently spammed a load of users on Twitter with an impersonalised, repetitive message.
Not cool. In the end Toyota had to issue an apology due to the backlash it received from consumers and anyone else connected to the internet. This is a fantastic aid to Grunig’s comment that despite two-way being ideal, ‘practitioners are merely flattening communications of old onto social media.’ What does Grunig mean by ‘old’ communications? Is it the ones that Sheldrake described – press releases, pitches, interviews, media relations? By referring to them as old, we end up back to the same question – in this new digital age should they remain and be adapted, or forgotten altogether?
Whilst Earl and Waddington (2012) believe that ‘shedding the shackle of media relations is vital to the success of the public relations industry’, there is argument to suggest that the internet and social media is changing and improving media relations. The accessibility through more professional social networking platforms such as Twitter and LinkedIn is leading to easier development of informal relationships between public relations professionals and journalists, and also a better way for savvy PR’s to research the publication or journalist they want to talk too before approaching them.
What about press releases and pitches? Personally I believe these are strong tools within PR and will remain. Providing you have established an appropriate relationship and the story is relevant to the journalists interest, and the journalist has expressed interest in the story, a press release is a fantastic way of getting over information in a timely, efficient manner. This is what I believe – social media will not be the ‘death’ of these tools, and it won’t even change them. What it will change is the communication process that a practitioner adopts – engagement, dialogue, two-way conversations, research and the monitoring of feedback. Adopting these principles will lead to improved use of ‘traditional’ tools such as media relations and press releases, and they should be used appropriately to the situation (rather than the one-way, impersonalised mass send-out of a non-relevant press release) and hopefully improve our reputation as an industry. As a very wise man once said to me; ‘the most common mistake PRs make when it comes to digital is thinking that digital operates under different rules to ‘traditional’ PR. It doesn’t.’
It should be a very integrated process, with digital complementing and expanding traditional methods rather than replacing them. Whilst a press release may be sufficient at times, an online media centre for journalists to access is a fantastic timely on-going source of information. The internet offers a plethora of information and ways to connect with a variety of industry professionals, but sometimes meeting face-to-face with a journalist or picking up a telephone cannot be replaced. Rather than trying to apply our old methods straight onto social media (I’ve actually heard of PR practitioners sending press releases to journalists via LinkedIn!) we should use the Internet to establish two-way relationships and a communication process designed to enhance our skills, knowledge and existing methods. A fantastic example of this is the Domino’s ‘Think Oven’ campaign, an innovative idea sourcing app on Facebook which encouraged users to be involved in the business process by influencing projects, leaving feedback and submitting ideas.
It’s a fantastic campaign as Domino’s utilised the internet for what it is truly best at – talking to the people that are important to your business and building strong relationships through mutual dialogue (what PR is all about) so you see it’s not about what is ‘new’, it’s about utilising new tools to do what we have always done.