- November
Posted By : Adrian Chan
TheHornGroup panel on PR and social media: an email

This an email exchange between myself and Edelman Sr VP Christel van der Boom on last night’s panel at the Horn Group. We thought it would be worth sharing. I’ve simply copied the final email into blogger, placing Christel in web-ready tangerine.

You seemed annoyed about what was said on the
panel last night. What was it that none of them got?


It wasn’t so much that I was annoyed — I thought it was an excellent panel, not to mention a timely one, and I had a great time — but it often seems that we’re not thinking big enough. It was a PR panel on use of social media, and yet a lot of folks seem more concerned with what social media will do to their own profession and practice than on how they can craft new and compelling ways of using social media.

I was annoyed by the audience comment that social media are just tools in the PR professional’s toolkit. I couldn’t disagree more. Ok, they are “tools,” but they’re tools belonging to users and used for the purpose of the everyday: chatting, sharing, staying in touch, etc. The question of Who Owns Social Media comes up here. Chris Heuer and Cathy Brooks just moderated a discussion on this that I missed, but the question is important. Users own social media — without us there’s no point in talking about tools. Companies that build social media own social media — without them there’s no point in talking about users. But does PR, or do marketing and advertising own social media? No — they have rights of access and if they use our talk tools respectfully and give us something compelling to engage with, they’re welcome to count social media as part and parcel of an outreach toolkit.

I could not agree more and it’s very frustrating when PR folks don’t get this… especially since I work at a PR firm and get lumped in with the rest of them 😉

Jeremiah put it well when he said that the PR industry does a better job of representing its clients than it does of representing itself. He’s right. I suspect that PR professionals are good at what they do because they are attentive and concerned, responsive to a client’s needs, interests, and goals, and more interested in doing that job well than stumping for their own reputations. But in the case of using social media, which are not just another distribution channel, don’t PR professionals need to take end users (the client’s potential audience) into account? Isn’t there a third party at the table here? We have tracking and measurement tools in order to listen in on social media PR pickup. So shouldn’t it be important to designsocial mediaPR campaigns that not only please the client but are appealing and compelling to social media users? Isn’t this a programming and content creative challenge, more than just a distribution problem?

I agree with the person that said that PR is about public relationships. The problem is deeply rooted if you ask me. PR practitioners should always take the third party at the table into account. That also counts for reporters. My personal philosophy has always been that reporters are more important contacts to me than clients are. It may sound naive or arrogant, but in the end everyone is better served. I’ve always seen my job as a facilitator between organizations and the outside world. My role is to help build trust, credibility and mutual understanding. That is done through communication, building relationships, creating awareness and delivering on promises. I don’t want to brag, but I feel lucky that I work at a company that has this view of PR.

You and I have talked about this, and I’ve pitched the idea that PR and marketing on social media should move from a brand impression model to a conversational, or participatory branding model. That consultants such as myself, hailing from the social media industry, ought to draw inspiration from content creatives, and not tool builders. Those who make our TVs don’t make our TV shows. It’s the task of PR to invent new kinds of “commercial conversation” appropriate for use in social media. Give audiences something to get involved in. Like that “packaged care” care package idea i threw out for UPS. Story lines and meaningful brand initiatives that complement a brand, enhance and attach to its image, but which are rooted in the everyday. Branding in social media should, I think, start with the audience (users) not with the brand. It’s a shift of perspective, from talking about the brand to talking with consumers.

I think these two go hand in hand. First, I don’t think that brand advertising will be replaced by conversational marketing — they’ll exist side by side. Second, even if you start with the audience, a company has to think about who they are in the relationship with their audience. What is their identity, what do they have to offer, how are they different from others… in other words branding and positioning questions. Having said that, because a brand is not a person, the identity of a brand can be defined by its users/customers/fans… and the two worlds start to blend.

What do you think? Am I off base on this? Is it not a matter of a new community of practice within PR agencies, possibly working with social media experts, and a new breed of social media content creatives? Is this possible? Can PR agencies, as Jeremiah suggested, develop the skill set required, and so not “lose control” of the message but develop new competencies around creative participatory messaging?

Last night’s discussion demonstrated for me that PR people *do* have a hard time grasping social media. The fact that the discussion was focused on big blogs, news and analysts on Twitter shows that we were looking at social media through a PR prism, hence we start talking about tools. I think that there are agencies out there that get it. Horn Group is probably one of them, so is Edelman I think. Time will tell if we, as an industry, were able to change fast enough and if there is still a need for traditional media relations work (that is often synonymous with PR) in 10 years from now.

The exchange then continued, with Christel again in tangerine.

Absolutely agree with you. I’ve been talking to several other folks about what feels like a change in the overall climate, politically, socially, economically, climactically. Since you see yourself as a facilitator, you’re in a good position to balance what you know of your client’s interests with what you know of its audience. It think there are some great opportunities out there for proactive branding and especially in promotion of social good. That’s where I think PR could be generated naturally and organically: where companies have something to talk about, and which needs audience support. Less of conventional image branding and more of active social engagement. Brands are very powerful, and they stand to gain a lot if in social media I think they can extend their “image” by paying less direct attention to it, and as you say “allow it to be defined by users/customers/fans.”

But we ought to develop a social media playbook. Set up some distinctions among brands, companies, products, services, events, and so on. Draft the types of “plays” that would fit different industry types, such as consumer products, retail, entertainment, fashion, niche, tech, local and small business, etc. Then come up with the different types of stories, formats, and media types that brands could use for social media Q/A, recommendations, help desk, resident expert tips, and other creative applications. And develop new and dynamic, participatory versions of what many companies put on their web sites (FAQ’s, troubleshooting tips, advice, event calendars, and so on). Think outside the box and get beyond using twitter as a fax with links.

What do you think? Could we not learn from hundreds of years of drama and story-telling, draw from TV and news programs for formatting inspiration, adapt from games, puzzles, competitions, and all manner of popular cultural past-times, and Mark Burnett didn’t come up with Survivor by following best practices! He simply looked at what makes TV entertaining — and realized that the audience could be put on TV and that everyday people were as interesting as celebrity actors. Isn’t social media to PR in a way what reality TV was for entertainment? Is that too far out?

You bring up some great additional points. PR can play an important role in getting the organic stories out. Good PR people are great listeners and find the stories that a buried inside companies — you often have to dig for them. If PR people are creative too, they’ll find entertaining ways to put out these stories. They also listen to the outside world and feed that back into the organization — again the facilitator role. In the best examples of social media use by brands/companies, listening leads to real change. The example of mystarbucks that someone gave last night as a place for feedback to Starbucks that has led the company to change products and operations. (coincidentally, Edelman works with Starbucks)

Right on. PR might possibly be best positioned as the agency most likely to create new brand facets and faces, because PR would seem to know how to caretake brand reputation, interpret and analyze response, and recommend next steps. The skill set ready at hand in PR is a touch of the musical ear and pitch perfect hearing. In some ways social media ought not frighten PR, but instead catch it like a breath of fresh air! A medium, if approached respectfully, for conversationalists!

So on that note, let’s post this!



  • Fantastic dialogue. The race is on between traditional marketing and entertainment/media to deliver value to the consumer and PR is the perfect hybrid between the two; positioned to deliver the best balance of brand engagement and value for the consumer.

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