Social web and the evolution of PR

This is an article by Adam Coulter.
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Web 2.0 social media is driving the evolution of communications and therefore changing the worlds of transparency, engagement and public relations as we know it.

In the early stages of this evolution, because of its speed, reach and consequence, affecting all business practices and values, it sparked a need for redefinition of the stale practice of public relations.

Although a large number of PR practitioners, marketers and analysts use social media for various objectives, there are a few savvy thinkers who are attempting to discern and foster its best practices. Yet, it may not be clear what in particsular about the creation or practice of social media itself has made it a must have for public relations.

This article seeks answers to the question of why social media has required public relations to evolve and what the end result of this evolution will mean for the profession.

Direct access to new influencers

First and most significant we must mention that people, with opinions, expertise, passions and power now want to be able to control how, when and where they consume, create and spread information or news. New and social media allow them to do just that. People collectively spend something like 500 billion minutes per month on Facebook.

This fact coupled with the opportunity that social media now opens up to provide the customers that define your brand with the information and news that they want to engage with, when they want to engage with it and the platform from which to discuss it with them, has contributed to PR’s evolution.

For example, a fan of a certain brand or organisation can now choose to follow that brand’s Twitter stream and re-tweet news to their own personal communities that they find especially valuable or interesting. Or they can so choose to ignore it.

The dynamics of influence have therefore changed dramatically and PR pros now can and should access that magic middle of people who directly reach and influence their peers through social media. But how should PR pros and marketers accomplish this?

Connecting to customers in direct and meaningful ways

It may seem hard to imagine now, but before the evolution of democratised content, businesses had no choice but to go through gatekeepers, such as news editors, to get their one-way, one-size-fits-all messages across. This is no longer the case.

Because of social media, PR pros now have the ability to cultivate the channels in which to shape and direct conversations with their publics. And yet, attempting to push and control all aspects of organisational news or brand messaging can be ineffective and even damaging to the organisation.

This has meant that after discovering and segmenting our markets and listening, we can hopefully provide individualised and useful content, to be distributed in ways that the those publics and influencers favour.

Social media has allowed enlightened PR pros to take the lead role in branding and has provided them with the rewarding opportunity to interact purposively and directly with their key publics – by answering customer questions, while responding efficiently and genuinely to complaints.

On the flip-side, those not practising social media ethically or effectively with two-way communication and those that continue to ‘mass blast’ their messages toward faceless ‘audiences’ will soon discover that these approaches no longer work. In effect, social media has, as Brian Solis and Deidre Breakenridge presciently wrote, made it essential to put the public back in public relations.

Goals have changed

Just as we can now bypass the gatekeepers and access our key publics directly with targeted content, so organisational goals have also changed.

Because of social media, campaign objectives have shifted from the number of media mentions to Twitter re-tweets, from page views to authentic participation and overall, from selling to engagement.

Since dialogue has taken centre stage, the best PR strategy (as long as you have concrete goals, baselines and a clear idea of what you want to measure) is planting and managing seeds of conversation. Having the patience and know-how to generate relationships from these seeds is key.

In the end

PR in the age of social media should still practise all the traditional methods in creating awareness (such as the press release) and managing relationships, but now we must also help to build and cultivate communities of people who will then evangelise for us and the brands we represent.

This is not easy and takes hard work, but it is worthwhile. We must discover and listen to our relevant publics first, and then create valuable content around their needs and wants, which will hopefully lead to mutually beneficial conversations.

This is different from the old-school method of hiding behind the brands we represent, not interacting with the people that matter and consequently being immune to changing for the better.

Do you think we were better off then or now as a profession? I know my answer.

Adam Coulter is a graduate student at Suffolk University in Boston, USA.  He blogs at Conduit for Young Communicators and you can follow him on Twitter @AdamSuffolkU.


  1. Perfectly summed up the necessity for two-way communication on social media sites.

    I pay far more attention to tweets/posts which at least seem personal than I do updates which are just a reminder to go see a certain film or buy a new cd.

    Ed Miliband’s recent text message campaign has proved effective by asking for a response as opposed to simply a bombardment of faceless messages.

    People are far more likely to respond if they feel involved. Social media should not just be treated as an omnipresent billboard.

  2. Paul,

    First off thanks for the comments. Also, I agree with you wholeheartedly that personal, transparent tweets/posts that engage people are going to be more effective 9 times out of 10 then the old-school ‘interruption advertising’ with no soul.

    I am actually excited to be embarking on my professional career at a time when its now recognized to be advantageous to and even possible that we can reach individual people with quality content and conversations.


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