Making the case for social media in PR

by Shannon Paul on September 1, 2008


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.

Remember history

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?
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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

September 1, 2008 Ari

One of the biggest mistakes people seem to be making is they take their message and think it works no matter what the delivery method.

Would you take your brochure and cram it into a 30-second TV spot? Of course not. So don’t try to cram your 2-page press release into a social media delivery method and expect bloggers and others to be receptive.

Communication is about the receiver, not the sender. It’s been true since the first smoke signals and continues today to the latest technological marvel.


September 1, 2008 Rick Weiss

Like you said, Shannon, it’s important to forget the tools at the beginning. They are fun; and as creative and experimental as we’d like to be, they don’t necessarily align with the objective.

I’m new to communications, but I’m quickly realizing for myself that the same fundamentals apply, no matter what the channel. The reasearch and planning will guide us to the right tools/channels when we get to that stage.


September 1, 2008 Tina Tessina

I’ve been around so long, I was working on a Kaypro CP/m processor to write my second book, and a typewriter on the book before that. I was an accountant in 1968, working with a room full of big, blue IBM boxes and punchcards.

New technology is always a stretch for me. But, I’m doing the best I can doing my own PR with social media. I’ve decided that the best thing for me is just to jump in there and see what everyone else is doing. You can see what I’m doing on, if you’re interested.


September 1, 2008 ceris62

Hi Shannon, great posts! Much of what you say is also of relevance to promoters of causes, especially newbies like myself. I find it’s a fine line between keeping the momentum going and overdoing things when using social media. Ari’s right about communication being about the receiver, and as your post below says, it’s about listening and responding, not about barging into people’s personal space and bombarding them with prompts and information.



September 1, 2008 Carri Bugbe

You make many good points. But based upon the ignorance about social media/networking that I see in many PR and marketing pros, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not enough to tell people they have to “listen first.” Most marketers can’t even grasp what that means. They think they can peruse a few blogs/social networks and dive in.

Not so much.

I’d say if you haven’t spent several months IMMERSED in this milieu (that translates to a few hundred non-billable hours), you’re not ready to “use” social media or networks on behalf of your clients. You’re certainly not prepared to recommend any solid strategies. There are few tried and true methodologies (certainly none with related metrics) out there, so how would you know what might work best if you haven’t seen those ideas in action? Granted, it’s the wild west, so savvy marketers can CREATE new ideas, but you still have to guesstimate how people will react to those ideas. And the best way to predict the future – even in social media – is to have some experience in the past. Even if the past is only three months old.


September 1, 2008 Jason Kintzler

While I agree with the “listening” aspect of your post, I think you’re missing the definition of social media in its entirety.

“The term most often refers to activities that integrate technology, social interaction, and the construction of words, pictures, videos and audio.” – wikipedia (

Shiny new tools are as much a part of social media as the conversations they generate. Without the tools, there wouldn’t be new ways to engage, or even listen, as you suggest. Without web apps and mashups, we would indeed be back to the older, traditional methods of PR – and communications in general.

As Carri points out above, we have to take steps -not leaps- to get everyone on the same level of understanding. It will come, in time, just as it did for each of us at one time or another. The more tools are available to help make the connection between business and communication the more adoption will ensue.

To answer your question – showing clients apps like Twitter seem to be the most effective way to open the eyes of the social media unsavvy. Run a Twitter Search on the brand’s product or topic and they’ll be impressed. Either way, without the tools, it’s just concept.


September 1, 2008 Lyn Mettler

Great post! As a PR professional, I do find myself getting stuck thinking about putting up a Facebook page for a client or getting them on Twitter. But you’re right, when I think about the successes I’ve had with social media, a lot of times it has to do with the network I’ve personally developed and spread the word to. I try to share my more interesting client news by posing a question or teaser and linking to the information/site/release on Twitter, by posting on Facebook, etc. I think that does a good job of spreading the word virally and has resulted in some good blog hits and traffic for my clients. Once I posted a question on LinkedIn related to politics for a client and got an answer from a US Representative. Pretty great exposure for them.


September 1, 2008 Gary Moneysmith


Great post! Thanks for writing such a nice piece — on a holiday weekend nonetheless.

I concur with your suggestion not to get hypnotized by shiny new media objects. Nor is it wise to ape what others are doing just “because my competitor is doing it.”

One of my first pieces of advice to PR professionals is to understand the “long tail” of communications nowadays. Quick explanation of Long Tail here:

Gone are the days of a limited # of high-power media outlets (the left side of the Long Tail chart). We’re now faced with the challenge of reaching a wide range of small niches which requires a completely different approach. Enter social media — but it DOES take a plan and it IS about people.

I heard a great quote once for some army general. “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”



September 2, 2008 ambernaslund

Shannon – fantastic post. There’s so much to be said about approaching social media strategy from the end first: who are we trying to talk with, and what are we hoping to get out of it (for us, and for them)? Then, and only then, should we be even close to talking about the “how” part. The “why” of participating in social media is so much more important, and the tools will continue to evolve and change.

You’re absolutely right that the better question is focused on creating valuable, useful content for the community its intended to reach. Thanks for spreading the good word, and for being such a valuable and engaged member of the community!


September 2, 2008 talktourism

Yes! Social Media is a challenge for us all and I find many of your comments very interesting. Many companies within the tourism sector for example have been relatively slow to adapt, with the exception of the airlines and the internationally branded hotel chains. I have been busy working with Small Tourism businesses in Ireland and have been introducing them to the opportunities that social media presents. Its not a success story yet, but its a start.
It is a new way to communicate! Thats it! And it is fun way to get your message out to your target audience. The best of all is that you can have instant feebback from your target audience and the community becomes part of your R&D team.
I think those that collaborate with others in using social media will gain the most…


September 2, 2008 Matt Hames

It comes down to this: what can you offer that a 14-year-old kid in their mom’s basement can’t. Short answer is, the thing you do with FB page after it’s live. Long answer is it depends. The longer the answer though, the better chance the client will bite regardless of whether you’re in PR or a former copywriter turned social media fella.


September 2, 2008 the_ten_minute_manager

Great comments all! This is not a new format to some but a very new format to others. Look at the numbers, in my opinion, even if you are not 100% correct in your assessment of a clients needs, this has to be a part of the mix. Not all of the mix, but, at the very least, part of it. I have just been engaged in blogging and facebook, my space, youtube for a very short period, a month or two at best, and the participation numbers are staggering to say the least. We can never fully be ahead of any new medium but we should get in front of as much of the people flow as possible early on and learn on the go. If not, you risk being left behind. Just look at this site, 18 million people, plus or minus, and I had no idea this existed a month ago. Am I an expert, far from it, but I am involved and learning every day.


September 3, 2008 ngwright

Great post. As a lot of people have commented, I totally agree with your description of social media as a tool that may not always be best for a given situation. It is simply a means to connect with a potential audience. It has very little power in creating that audience. That is the role of the receivers. They are the ones who are able to spread that message, often across existing networks. I constantly talk to people through work who are still not even on the internet and ask that I communicate with them by mail. When your audience is diverse, your methods have to be comprehensive and often across different kinds of media. And you have to accept that there are limitations.


September 3, 2008 shannonpaul

Thanks everyone for such thoughtful comments. They’re a lot of fun to read! I apologize for my delay in responding, but I’ve been very busy lately and I didn’t want to be too hasty in my replies. Forgive?

@ari – Sage advice – “Communication is about the receiver, not the sender.” Always good to remember.

@Rick – I agree that research and strategy should indicate the tools, not vice versa… you don’t pick up a hammer and walk around looking for something to use it on, right?

@tina, @ceris62, @the_ten_minute_manager Thanks so much for sharing your experience — I think we’re all trying to figure things out as we go along — I know I definitely fit into that category.

@Carri – You may be right in your assessment of *most* marketers, but I’m sure they’ll learn their lesson soon enough. Howeer, plenty of us are involved in social networks and are trying our best to figure things out before rushing to the scene with a big pitch. We’ll still be here, right?

@Jason – I’m very aware that social media is dependent on technology, but for most people who are completely uninvolved in social networks, the tools (no matter how impressive) are something that puts many off. Or, worse, makes them feel threatened. Often the response to being threatened is to pretend you “get it”. Many people feel the need to pretend they get it and that only puts off true understanding.

If you wait and introduce the technology *after* they understand the actual need for the technology, they’re much more apt to understand how it can best be used.

@AmberNaslund – I’m so glad you came by to comment! I love your insight and I think you make a very good point that the tools will continue to evolve and change. That’s just one more reason to focus on “why” and developing a good strategy.

@talktourism Thanks and please keep me posted on your success – feel free to drop me a line anytime at shannonpaul5 [at] gmail [dot] com.

@Matt If the long answers are also good answers, then it makes sense, but if the long answers are just another form of “tap dance,” then I can’t get on board whether or not the client will bite.

I hope that by participating in social media, marketers like us are providing a resource for potential clients to develop a solid B.S. meter when it comes to assessing whether a strategy is good or not.

@ngwright You make some very good points. I agree that engaging in existing networks is often the best way to go and that a diverse strategy across different kinds of media is necessary. I think we’re still in a transition phase and often multiple levels of engagement are necessary.


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