Will Social Media Kill PR?

Last week I had the pleasure of once again joining Al Krueger, Jennifer Leggio and almost Brian Solis (something came up) for Comet Branding Radio to talk about potential threats to the PR industry-at-large if not able to grasp social media or how it incorporates into business strategies. The topic spawned an engaging discussion that took a step back, looking at social media’s place within the larger map of communications, marketing, the sales cycle and branding.

All participants are fans of social media and have a solid grasp on how to make the PR/social media integration a smooth one but many PR people don’t have that grasp, as Jennifer pointed out. Part of what’s holding PR back from evolving away from current prejudices is reluctance by the old school to give way to the new school. There is still a total lack of understanding by the majority of PR people regarding WHAT their role is when it comes to contributing to the organization, which goes back to education, which is a much larger topic for another time.

Social media has clearly emerged as a powerful communication tool on multiple levels.. The amount of information collectively generated has unearthed a treasure trove of insight that helps companies with lead generation, customer service, market research, and product development. It’s become such the shiny toy of the marketing world that it’s birthed an entire industry, but should it stay a separate practice or become absorbed into an existing one, if not several? Is Social media, in the long run, going to claim a new distinct discipline to join advertising, marketing and PR?

Some highlights of what was discussed:

Social Media is a Channel

All agreed to the notion that social media has become a bit of a runaway train. It’s the hot IT kid of tech business practices. Todd Defren recently pondered if Shift Communications should move from being branded a PR agency to social media agency. I say stay a PR agency and spend your time re-branding what PR should mean to your clients instead. Let’s get the train back on track. Social media is a new channel for communications.

As I’ve said before, PR is a multi-pronged business weapon. It has channels of support like event management, market research, media relations, guerilla marketing, or customer relations. Social media is joining that arsenal, bringing a new distribution avenue, the social media channel that serves a function within larger business development and communication efforts. It’s a new channel an entire workforce need to master, which they will in time.

Social Media Exposes a Weak Side of PR

The emergence of the channel of social media has exposed a weak area within public relations. Because PR has long been pigeonholed into focusing on press while the marketing department was the one out connecting directly with consumers, PR professionals (agencies and in-house alike) were suddenly confronted with a direct-response communication channel. But most PR folks don’t grasp (or have nearly enough time to try) the big picture impact of communicating through social media, let alone the right tone and approach to use when doing so.

Jennifer is conducting an impressive industry research report that involves surveys and phone interviews. Conversations with Fortune 500 CMO’s about use of social media returns a pretty consistent measurement test: Is it mapping back to lead generation? Good question. “PR” has become known for creating “awareness” not lead generation. That was marketing or sales or business development. But now PR is being taxed to show metrics that feed leads. It’s not just about brand awareness anymore.

Social Media is Still Very Young

Yes, this is no-duh for a lot of you but a surprising number of marketers (and the population at large) have no idea what social networking, let alone social media, is. Early adopters are caught in an echo chamber regarding the importance of twitter followers or technorati rankings. Many brands have lost sight of who they really need to be wooing, Joe-public, not investing everything into someone who preaches to the choir.

Then there’s those people in social media that don’t get it yet either. Issuing press releases to trumpet their high twitter ranking. You didn’t get there on your own, pal. Al Krueger made the comment that “Social media is about we. It should be called Social We-dia because it’s not about me, it’s about us.” Well said.

Social Media “Experts” are Doing Themselves a Disservice

Social media has fractured into it’s own segment with self-proclaimed “social media experts” popping up in mind-numbing amounts. Everyone is a social media expert if they know how to become part of the conversation and advise others how to do so. It’s a boom market escalated by people quick to take some cash to educate the big slow guys to the new order. And more power to them. However, many PR and communications people are consistently incorporating social media when putting strategies together. Their PR knowledge base is expanding to include social media expertise to keep up with client demand.

When a person labels themselves “social media experts” it gives the impression they only understand one aspect of reaching consumers, even if not true. Can these same social media experts also put together a comprehensive communications plan that encompasses the many other levels of promotional tools? If so, then are they still social media experts or now more of a marketing or communications professional?

At what point do social media experts stop being needed once traditional disciplines get comfortable with the practice? Will companies continue to pay “social media experts” a portion of their precious marketing dollars or put it all with “communication experts” who offer social media expertise along with media strategy, market research, events, etc.?

Will Social Media Kill PR?

No.

But it is forcing the PR industry to work harder to reinforce its positive role within the business environment. Most savvy PR people I know LOVE the Internet. LOVE social media and the interaction it brings. And it shows. PR programs are expanding rapidly with more comprehensive communication techniques being recommended. Social media will become part of a broader knowledge base of PR and communications and marketing professionals. Whatever those distinctions are these days.

Social media is revolutionary. Don’t get me wrong. It will become an extremely important funnel that touches all levels of the business. But it’s going to take smart people who get it to explain it to those that don’t, like the CEO’s and those CMO’s that just don’t know better. Communications departments are the obvious choice where social media responsibilities would lie, or would it be marketing? Or is it all just headed to being the same thing, serving the same purpose- communication and lead generation.

The interaction with social media channels creates more information to be distilled through the organization for response. Over time, people in every department will access and use social media as part of their job, be it customer service, market research, product development, engineering, promotions, etc.

So What’s Next?

Al Krueger threw down this big nasty gauntlet on our last radio show for Comet Branding. We were discussing social media’s impact on the PR industry and today’s definition of PR came into question (again) he challenged all three of us to expand on what we shared and declare our vision or online casino australia definition of an evolved PR.

Wow.

That’s a HUGE question that’s going to take me a little while.

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