If you’re struggling to understand how social media changes the role of PR, rest assured you’re not alone. The best way I’ve found to explain social media to those who feel challenged and even threatened by new media is to break it down in terms of the long view:
First, stop thinking about the tools associated with social media — stop asking about how to get your clients on Facebook and ignore all other shiny objects like Social Media Press Releases, YouTube, MySpace and Twitter. Forget about all things viral and simply focus on the task of communication.
Social media enthusiasts and evangelists, myself included, tend to get excited about tools and new technology, but it’s important to understand that the rest of the world is not like us.
New tools and technology-powered social networks strike fear and frustration in most hearts. Seasoned PR and marketing professionals new to Web 2.0 strategies are better off forgetting about the tools until they understand how this stuff fits into the big picture.
Amber Naslund had some similar ideas in one of her blog posts for those interested in using social media to enhance customer service.
Imagine the earliest days of PR when it was first practiced by a radical few. Back then, there was no multimillion dollar industry built up around the distribution of information. Newswires didn’t exist, nor did media databases like Cision, and the PRSA was still a long way away from developing best practices and ethics guidelines.
Imagine this period in time as a sort of wild frontier.
The first PR practitioners took it upon themselves to establish relationships with thought leaders of that time by any means necessary and to create compelling content that made it easier for those thought leaders to write about their company/client. They were creative.
Over time, the paths they forged became worn from others who followed in their footsteps. The worn paths were then paved to speed the delivery process, and soon, sophisticated highway systems evolved to facilitate the distribution of information from company, to media, to general public.
PR became a highly developed industry complete with the procedures and processes associated with the industrial revolution and perfected during the 20th century. The Internet, in its Web 1.0 stage helped facilitate this process with the establishment of media databases, direct uploads to newswires and email delivery (a vast improvement over messenger, fax and/or snail mail delivery).
Where we are now
If we return to the metaphor of the highway, over time, these sophisticated channels intended to speed delivery of a company’s content to the thought leaders, aka mainstream media, became congested. The PR industry continued to expand into the beginning of the 21st century as the traditional news media industry continued to contract and slash the number of journalist positions.
And, at the same time that there is this reduction of people covering news in the traditional media, there is also a migration and explosion of content and readership in the online environment for both the traditional and non-traditional media — aka bloggers.
Now, this highway that was originally constructed to deliver information in an efficient manner is becoming increasingly inefficient — there are more cars on the road and fewer exits. The road has become a parking lot.
In this scenario, journalists receive hundreds of relevant and irrelevant pitches and press releases in their respective inboxes each morning from PR professionals trained to deliver information in what they still believe is the best way possible.
The policies, procedures and rigors designed to create and deliver information are becoming increasingly antiquated for this reason. It’s not that there’s never a reason to issue a press release, it’s just that it’s not ALWAYS the best way to deliver information, nor is it the ONLY way to deliver information any more.
Once again, it’s time to get creative.
Use your understanding to adapt: Ask better questions
In the online space, all media outlets are now multimedia outlets, and with increased acceptance of visitor comments and user-generated content, they are quickly evolving into social media outlets.
Publications once dedicated to delivering news in a print format now have the ability to compete with broadcast outlets with streaming live video, embedded audio and video clips and images.
Broadcast outlets are also devoting much more attention to their websites, too. Giving them A.P. style formatted text alone is not going to be enough to keep their web-based visitors engaged.
You no longer own your message, but you’re being asked to share it. What is the best way to share your content in a way that will generate the most sharing, discussion and feedback in an online environment?
Some may still be thinking about how to get their clients on Facebook. But, isn’t the better question, how can I create content that people on Facebook will want to share with others? Or, how can I help bloggers and journalists create content that people in a wide variety of social networks will want to share with others?
Having a Facebook page is great, but too often when people don’t understand the tools, the only reason they have for encouraging a client to be there is that everyone else is there. You put a page up and then what?
Understanding social media’s impact on the flow of information is often the first step toward awareness and cooperation.
This approach is what I’ve found works best for me so far. Are there ways you’ve found to help others understand the role of social media in communications? Any success stories? How have you encouraged companies/clients to adapt?