The ‘social media is a fad’ idea seems to have gone out of the proverbial window. Indeed, PR has become amongst the first of the service industries to jump on the social media bandwagon and take ownership of it.
There seem to be countless specialist online, digital and social media agencies cropping up, but an increasing number of more traditional agencies seem to be getting in on the action too, offering services along the lines of ‘online PR and social media initiatives,’ ‘social media campaigns,’ and ‘digital media.’
Despite this, the suggestion to integrate social media into PR continues to receive a mixture of reactions from clients and industry leaders. PRs are frequently coming up against clients who still question the return on investment of social media and whether there’s any point in engaging in it at all. A comment on The Independent’s recent feature on the future of the PR industry reinforces this:
PRs should fear this: Journalists are decreasing, but this is precisely why PRs are becoming redundant too. Without journalism and the magazines that support them PRs lose not only a channel but the notion of control. Who needs expensive PR people to post a few tweets?
New discipline, or just more media?
It seems that there is a noticeable split developing within the industry between those who think that the practice of PR is having to shift completely, and those who think that ultimately the role of PR is the same since the web 2.0 boom.
A recent BBC Radio 4 debate hosted by Evan Davis saw some of the industry’s top practitioners at loggerheads over the state of the PR industry. Julia Hobsbawm (Sarah Brown’s former business partner) maintained that there has been a movement on from the common definition, “the use of third party endorsement to inform and persuade” to a new culture of engagement, where the public can now “answer back” in a way that was not previously possible. This, she argued, means that the PR discipline is having to become more specialised to cater for increasingly fragmented audiences forming via social networks.
Lord Tim Bell of Chime Communications hit back at this idea arguing that there’s a danger that people are rebranding the industry which is ultimately the same. He posed the question, is there actually any difference between so called engagement and relations? The role of PR, he purported, is the same, there are just ‘more media’ through which to communicate with target audiences.
As this debate about the future of the PR industry rumbles on, it seems that the potential and very real threats of social media to brands have not been realised, and in many cases are being ignored. Waiting around to see what might happen to your brand via social media is not worth the risk.
There are now countless examples of social media being used badly or not at all in the wake of a crisis, and in many of these cases this has caused irreversible damage to a brand’s reputation. The danger is that companies will hold the attitude that social media is easy and it’s not worth investing money into “just a few tweets.” But ultimately the aims of PR remain the same.
Social networks are now undeniably part of the mainstream media, and do add to the ways in which key messages can be communicated to the public.
The recent Paperchase plagiarism ‘Twitterstorm’ is a prime example of how ignoring social media can be detrimental to a brand’s reputation. Once the blogosphere got wind that a small independent artist’s work had allegedly been “badly traced” and printed onto Paperchase products being sold in its stores and online, the backlash began.
The allegations had gone viral, so Paperchase’s people were forced to think fast and attempt to neutralise the situation as best as possible. Misguidedly, they posted a statement on their website denying the whole thing, and ensuring visitors that they were looking into it. Paperchase’s absence on Twitter and lack of immediacy became all the more apparent as a barrage of tweets, retweets and blog posts laid into the company.
This YouTube video shows the escalation of the issue on Twitter.
The artist concerned, known as Hidden Eloise, blogged and tweeted every detail of the saga and it seemed that Paperchase’s voice could scarcely be heard above the negative internet noise.
Whereas in the past a large company such as Paperchase would probably have been able to cover up and divert media attention away from this issue, ultimately they were overwhelmed by the power of social media chatter. Despite the fact the Paperchase hastily created their own Twitter page FromPaperchase, it seemed that it was too little too late for the company.
This is also an example of a social media storm crossing over into traditional media as a number of national newspapers also covered the story.
Arguably, this is not something that a communications novice could have salvaged in “a few tweets”. All brands should take heed of this, along with the countless other examples, and ensure that social media is taken on board and incorporated into a new or existing crisis management pack.
It should be a sobering thought to any brand that your consumers can have such a powerful and potentially detrimental impact as this. Social media is enabling individuals to draw power from each other meaning consumers are looking to each other to get the things they want, rather than to organisations or institutions. What’s more, the fact that social media is causing audiences to become increasingly fragmented is posing a threat to large mainstream brands that sell to mass audiences. Smaller ventures can now directly access niche networks.
Social media is undoubtedly here to stay, and now is the time to embrace it, or at the very least monitor what is being said about your brand before having to dig yourself out of a very deep hole.