PR Roundtable Discussion: The Challenge of Social Media

Last week was a tough week for the public relations community dealing with social media. I even contributed a bit to the fuss, though independently of Chris Anderson or anyone else. It’s really quite easy to flame people and make bold statements like, “PR people, You’re blocked“. It’s quite another to try to facilitate healthy dialog and discussion to try to help the PR industry acclimate to a social media environment and getting bloggers to understand that the buck doesn’t end with us! In fact, both the PR community and the social media community need each other for different reasons.

I decided it would be useful to try to pull together some respected voices on both sides of the game and have a bit of a “roundtable” of discussion. We’ve discussed five questions, and I’ll be sharing their responses to these questions over the next week. I hope you find something useful in the discussion here. If you have anything to contribute, you’re welcome to do so in comments or on your own blog. I usually turn off trackbacks, but for these entries I will turn them on so you can join in the discussion any way you want.

But first, the participants.

Doug Haslam is a public relations professional with Topaz Partners, specializing in technology clients in the Web 2.0, mobile, storage and networking industries. Doug comes to public relations after a decade in broadcast journalism, and has spent his years with Topaz putting to practice his observations on how new media affect branding, reputation and communications.

Marshall Kirkpatrick lives in Portland, Oregon, has written for some of the top blogs on the internet and consults for companies who want to rock online. For more info see marshallk.com

Cathryn Hrudicka started her original company, Cathryn Hrudicka & Associates, working primarily in public relations, marketing, record promotion, arts management and event production in the entertainment industry. She has also worked on projects for technology and other Fortune 500 companies, universities, museums, major nonprofit agencies, trade associations, entrepreneurs, artists, performers and authors. She was recently quoted in Fast Company by Robert Scoble, about her use of social media, including to brand her new company branch, Creative Sage™, offering creative thinking and innovation training and consulting. She is also an executive coach and management consultant, a blogger, journalist, editor and media producer. She is on the planning committee for the San Francisco Social Media Club. See http://www.CreativeSage.com and http://www.CathrynHrudicka.com.

Marc Orchant is an independent consultant working with a number companies in the areas of new media integration, market and community development, and enhancing personal and team productivity. He is the Technology Editor for blognation USA, part of a global network of blogs focusing on emerging trends in technology and mobility. Prior to blognation, Marc wrote blogs on the Weblogs, Inc. and ZDNet networks. He was named a Microsoft MVP (Windows ““ Tablet PC) in 2006 and 2007. Earlier this year, Marc wrote The Unofficial Guide to Microsoft Outlook 2007 for Wiley and Sons, which was published in April 2007.

Brian Solis is Principal of FutureWorks, a PR and Social Media agency in Silicon Valley that “gets it.” Solis also runs the PR2.0 blog. Solis is co-founder of the Social Media Club, is an original member of the Media 2.0 Workgroup, and also is a contributor to the Social Media Collective.

What do you think the biggest challenge is for the Public Relations industry to fully embrace social media?

Marc OrchantMarc Orchant: Pinning down the single biggest challenge is a tough question to answer but I think it essentially comes down to redesigning a game plan that better addresses the scope and scale of the social net compared to the relatively smaller field of play in the mainstream media world. The fact is that there are millions of blogs, discussion forums, wikis, and other conversation spaces available to PR practitioners if they know where to look. This demands a bit of “long tail” thinking on their part and I’m not convinced, based on my personal experience, that they have, as an industry, figured out how to do this well.

Pitches that are broadcast to all possible outlets rarely achieve the desired effects. Most credible bloggers who have established a solid readership have done so not by not cutting and pasting press releases but by offering analysis and opinion. So research needs to be done to craft effective pitches that speak to a blogger and, by extension, to their readers.

The best way to ensure that a client’s story is told well is to get into a 1:1 conversation with the top tier bloggers in a particular product space. But setting up briefings with bloggers is difficult because of scheduling difficulties and the payoff is often difficult to measure because the traffic benefit might not be immediate.

Doug HaslamDoug Haslam: The biggest challenge for PR at this stage is to stop treating social media as an orphan, distinct from the “traditional” media. While pitching blogs may be different from pitching, say, a business weekly, so too is there a difference between pitching one blog vs. another blog, or one weekly vs. another. The larger point is that all pitches need to be properly targeted, and individualized for the recipient. So, those who would treat blogger relations as a separate effort form other media relations are, in my opinion, making a mistake.

This leads back to all the talk about “relationships” and conversations.” This isn’t something new, but the need to pitch bloggers and other social media has brought us back– or should bring us back– from the brink of “spam pitch” hell.

Brian SolisBrian Solis: What if we asked the question this way, “Should the PR industry participate in Social Media at all?” There are several pundits who have flatly said that “PR is too stupid to participate in Social Media” and therefore shouldn’t have a seat at the new marketing table.

After all, Social Media is about people.

In the eyes of many PR is associated with used car and snake oil salesmen or far worse, lazy flacks that have no clue what they’re talking about.

Yes, it’s true many PR people simply don’t or won’t ever get it. The other thing is that, as in any industry, there are also opportunists in PR who simply see Social Media as a new golden ticket and in turn, are selling a new portfolio of services without having a clue as to what Social Media really is and how it works.

The challenge for PR in Social Media isn’t any different than the challenge that already exists for them in traditional PR. For far too long PR has taken comfort in blasting information to the masses in the hopes that something would stick. Until recently, the industry really hasn’t seriously considered requiring people to learn about what it is they represent, why it matters and to whom, how it’s different than anything else out there, where customers go for information, and how it benefits the customers they’re ultimately trying to reach.

The lack of presence or the drive to inject these questions into the PR process and also take the time to answer them genuinely, without marketing hype, is perhaps the greatest inhibitor of PR’s legitimate entrance into Social Media.

Marshall KirkpatrickMarshall Kirkpatrick: For many people the biggest challenge will be getting over their tendency to have only two, often overlapping, modes of communication: being condescending and kissing ass. Engagement with social media, like many things in this world, is all about adding value.

In order to add value, PR people should get in touch with their own personal strengths. Are you particularly good at coming up with helpful metaphors or translating between two different people in a conversation? If so, save me from CEO hot-air. Are you particularly fast at what you do and consistently in the know about breaking news, early? If so, help me be early in the news cycle and get your client’s perspective in before the most competitive writers consider
the topic old news. Can you drink more than a normal person can and still be pleasant in conversation? All of these are ways you can add value to the work lives of writers online. When clients will let you add these different types of value, instead of offering nothing more than “access” (the importance of which is rapidly declining) – then I think things are good.

Cathryn HrudickaCathryn Hrudicka: I find that some of my public relations and marketing colleagues “get it” and some don’t. Some are still debating whether they should be writing blogs, let alone participating in a true conversation (not just posting links and events in a promotional manner) on Twitter, Jaiku, Pownce, Facebook and others. I’ve been making a lot of noise trying to educate them. One key is that we do need more specific case studies using social media examples and hard data to show numerical (or even qualitative) benefit to clients. We’ve been starting to produce such data, but it’s difficult, and a bit slow in coming.

In addition to PR and social media consulting, I also do innovation consulting and training in creative thinking, as well as executive coaching, I see similar barriers to innovation in the PR industry as I find in other industries. Ironically, success can be a barrier to innovation. Some of the “late adopters” are actually very successful in their practices and are unwilling to tamper what’s worked in the past to try anything new or relatively unproven. Since PR pros are under intense time and budget pressures, and they are often working in hierarchical agencies that don’t allow them room to experiment and “fail” on specific pitches, they don’t have as many opportunities to experiment with social media. Younger PR pros need ongoing mentoring, training and coaching, and judging from the programs I see at some traditional PR agencies, they are not getting enough forward-thinking training. It is essential to get the C-level principals at a PR agency into social media first.

I have always been on the edge, in that I built the PR side of my business in a maverick way. My earliest PR pitches were more conversational in style, with outstanding results, so social media conversations with media people were always natural for me. You must know how to craft story angles and what each individual media source really needs from a PR professional; do your research on specific media targets and keep up to date with contacts; and have ongoing conversations with media contacts, so they also get to know you and will come to you when they’re looking for an interview subject or story angle. It is vital to view media people, social or otherwise, as colleagues, not just the targets of a “pitch,” which really seems like an outmoded word to me now.

If you found this article notable and you want to hear what the folks have to say on other topics, make sure you subscribe to the feed or come back tomorrow. The conversation tomorrow will deal with the issue of brand in the internet era.

Aaron Brazell

Aaron Brazell is a Baltimore, MD-based WordPress developer, a co-founder at WP Engine, WordPress core contributor and author. He wrote the book WordPress Bible and has been publishing on the web since 2000. You can follow him on Twitter, on his personal blog and view his photography at The Aperture Filter.

15 thoughts on “PR Roundtable Discussion: The Challenge of Social Media

  1. Thanks, Aaron: This is a terrific first step in getting the conversation started about PR’s role in Social Media, given so many PR folks are already involved! I do think it’s less about the applications (press, crisis, etc.) and much more about re-engineering trad PR attitudes from being directive to the new connective. In this regard, as Doug Haslam points out, the big retooling will need to happen from broadcast to narrowcast, from spam release to socnet participation and conversing with your blogger contacts.

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  3. Nice interview – the answers were all insightful and informative. I think its as easy as – They have to accept social media as a strong medium that can bring great results – Things change and industries need to realize that, even the seasoned vets.

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