Who are you to criticise? What is the point of PR in social media?

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Who has the right to criticise in public relations?  This seems a pertinent question in the light of the development of PR in social media where many lessons can be learned, and success or failure is often the subject of comment and debate, normally in the immediate public forum of social media itself.

Is it only the originators of a social media PR campaign who have the right to judge its success? After all, they have defined their objectives and should have undertaken relevant evaluation to determine whether or not these have been achieved.

Or given the nature of social media in terms of transparency and agency, is everyone and anyone entitled to express their opinion?  The immediacy of Twitter, blogs, comments and the myriad of social media enables us all to join the "conversation". 

But, are all opinions equal?  Are those involved too subjective?  Can considered reflection really emerge in the clamour of instant comment?

Perhaps criticism should be reserved for those who have analysed a case using an objective methodology.  Or should the views of "social media experts" be pre-eminent owing to their longevity in the territory?

A critic can be defined as someone who "forms and expresses judgement on the merits, faults, value, or truth of a matter" or "one who tends to make harsh or carping judgments; a faultfinder".

Critical thinking is generally viewed to be a higher cognitive skill involving reflection and analysis rather than simply knowing or understanding.  Bloom’s taxonomy emphasises the value of being able to question and reason; taking a balanced view in presenting and assessing arguments.

Perhaps social media is simply reflecting the "sound bite" culture where your opinion, in 140 characters or fewer, may be considered to be as valid – certainly more accessible – as any in-depth, detailed debate and discussion, that is predicated on reflection and analysis.

My hypothesis is that you can find several types of PR "experts" in social media: 

The professional practitioner is engaged in social media as part of the public relations strategy of an organisation, normally their employer.  They are likely to be engaging in conversations and seeking to understand how new tools and techniques can support and enhance the organisation’s communications, reputation management and relationship building with key publics.

The academic/educator/learner is interested in how social media facilitates discussion and sharing of knowledge in respect of PR theory and practice.  They will seek to combine "expert" understanding of academic research, theory and models, with application and reflection on practice.

The social media guru who counsels clients on engaging in social media will draw on their online record as an early blogger or  pioneer in Twitter, for example.  And/or, they may cite their credentials as campaigns undertaken.

The wannabe expert may be fairly new to social media, but, recognising their existing PR clients’ interest, aim to extend into this arena.  Being barely one step ahead of the client isn’t an issue given that few organisations, especially at the senior level, are professional practitioners in PR social media terms.

But criticism of PR isn’t the exclusive preserve of any type of expert – journalists, members of the public, students, non-PR practitioners and academics of all disciplines are all as eager to comment on situations that are examples of public relations (even if they don’t know it).

Does any of this matter?  Aren’t we all newbies in social media given the pace of development?  Can anyone really claim to know it all, let alone to have been there, done it, and got the t-shirt?

And, aren’t most of us writing and commenting on the nature of PR in social media simply digital immigrants, bringing our "old planet" perspectives to this brave new world?

Personally I think – should I say, IMHO? – criticism is an inherent component of social media and should be seen as healthy (at least in its constructive guise rather than the spiteful flaming type).

Everyone is entitled to a view about the role and purpose of PR in social media – especially if they have something useful to share and are prepared to help develop understanding through conversation and debate.

But, if you want anyone to take your criticism or expertise seriously, remember "guru" status is like beauty, ie in the eye of the beholder, and carries responsibilities in exchange for the regard and authority that is bestowed by those who believe your opinion has any merit.

Feel free to criticise…

Related post:

Responding to the Conversation (Mitch Joel, TwistImage)

11 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Heather, several points:

    1) Although we call a “critic” someone who reviews movies, etc. and may form a positive or negative opinion, I don’t think the word “criticize” goes both ways — it implies negative judgment. Lots of people may have opinions, but I believe firmly that it is difficult to be a neutral critic unless you’ve walked a mile in someone’s moccasins, or at least done enough research to have a fair idea what that would be like.

    2) Are we looking at the purpose of PR in social media or of social media in PR? In the first case, there are probably many purists who are horrified by the corruption of a media of self-expression for such pragmatic purposes. I would disagree. As for the second question, my answer is: it depends on what you are trying to achieve and who you are (in organizational terms).

    3) Stakeholders form judgments every day. At least with social media, you have a chance to see what those are and reply. I believe in the power of dialogue as opposed to ping-ponging ideologies back and forth. Of course, that requires listening, which you haven’t even mentioned.

    4) If we’re talking about specific campaigns, what does it matter if others think yours flopped as long as you are happy with the outcome? It sounds like PR practitioners in social media are in their adolescence: they want everyone to like and approve of them. I think the definition of adulthood is the day you realize that it doesn’t matter what the other kids think as long as you are OK with the choices you make. Although ironically, that doesn’t mean being disdainful of other people’s opinions, just identifying the people whose good opinion you’d like to have.

    Maybe it’s the same in social media. We each need to figure out who the most appropriate role models and judges are for us and heed their opinions the most. Because you will never please all of the people all of the time.

  2. I think criticism can be positive, negative or possibly neutral – but should always be constructive rather than destructive.

    I also don’t think you need do need to have walked the same ground to criticise – do you need to be a top chef, film director, artist or social media expert, to express a considered and informed critique? They say many of the world’s best coaches never reached the top of the game, and few restaurant critics are masters of the kitchen themselves.

    In the case of motoring journalists, most are neither engineers nor designers (and may not even own a car or cover its running costs) – but they can explain their viewpoint in such a way that it carries weight. Or I might prefer to rely on the criticism expressed by a bloke in the pub when buying a new car.

    In the case of criticisms relating to PR in social media, either of the purposes you present are up for debate. One can certain reflect on the impact that PR has in social media, or the way in which it is practised.

    In mentioning conversations and engagement, listening is implicit to me. Of course, you can simply lurk and eavesdrop on what is being said – but you could misunderstand what you hear. Better in my view to join a discussion.

    So to the heart of things – does it matter if other people think your campaign is a flop. Well, yes and no. Firstly, to pick up on listening, the critics may be expressing views that your audience also feels and you can learn from this.

    Isn’t the online discussion part of the outcome of any campaign? It is certainly open for anyone to find and follow – so what others think can be influential. So even if you ignore the nasty words, are your stakeholders? And, sometimes the playground jibes have some truth in them (or they can just be childish).

    Also, is it really acceptable to hype up activities in social media – or not to expect others to comment. It doesn’t mean that critics are jealous or trying to steal clients (unless you are paranoid, as some SM gurus seem to be).

  3. Very interesting this exchange. Indeed.

    If you look at the issues you raise from a generic public relations professional perspective, it goes without saying that a specific program cannot be evaluated (or even measured) if its specific objectives and indicators have not been defined and agreed upon before you take it up.

    The best practices come when the organization involves potentially affected stakeholders engaging them in defining the program, its objectives and indicators before it begins.

    As much as this is almost common practice today amongst the most responsible organizations as regards their sustainability programs, the extension of this practice to quote traditional unquote communication programs happens very seldom.

    But of course, I know very well that your arguments refer specifically to public relations practiced in social media.

    From this more specific perspective it is my opinion that not only the originator (the architect?) should listen to all criticisms (I agree with Heather on the meaning of the term), but should do everything possible to stimulate them, discuss them and learn from them.

    If not, then social media (as they in fact progressively are doing) will resemble more and more the typical top down models of mainstream media and other exchange and learning forums.
    It is also true that the two (social and mainstream) seem to be converging and meeting somewhere around half way.

    Mind you, however, I am not advocating leaving top-down for bottom-up, btu leaving both for left-right-left, where all participants interact and exchange at the same level.

    I do not think you need to be an expert to criticize, yet it is the originator of the program who ultimately decides what to absorb and what to ignore.

    Here however the point is that if everything and its contrary is always public and visible to all, a program which raises initially negative comments will probably fail before its finished…but this is also true in real life, although in different ways.

  4. Heather, this is a bit off topic, but I’ve noticed a tendency lately in the social media realm where an “active” individual (i.e., active in the space) has been criticized by name, usually relating to their online behaviour, and most often the critique is done in a blog post.

    In at least four cases, the individuals in question have not responded to the criticisms. Not as a comment, not as a blog post, not even as a tweet. (And we know that SM people are all into self-monitoring tools for personal and blog names, so it’s not like they don’t know about the criticisms.)

    The lack of response has been noted by more than one person and the feeling is that s/he hopes the “problem” (or issue) will simply “go away” with time, so there’s no need to address or respond, in any channel.

    What’s your take on this? Is it a wise or foolish strategy?

    (I think this post is timely and fabulous, BTW. First three comments are informed and thought-provoking, too.)

  5. Heather, I think we agree about “informed” criticism. That’s what I meant about “research” being able to substitute for experience. A book publiished in 2007 entitled “Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus ?” (How do you talk about books you haven’t read?)actually argues that critics SHOULDN’T read the works they are publishing. However, non-reading in the author’s (Pierre Bayard) is much wider than never opening the book.

    I think it is idealistic to think that true listening is implicit in conversations. In French there is an expression “dialogue des sourds” (dialogue of the deaf), which means that everyone is too busy pushing their own view to listen to others. Sadly, I think this is too often true in real life and in social media. It seems to mean that most posts and comments argue one person’s perspectives rather than asking questions to better understand other people’s views. Anyone who has ever done any training in facilitation techniques (or psychotherapy) knows about the important of asking questions well and active listening.

    And sometimes personal opinions are irrelevant. To take a more concrete example, let’s look at graphic art. I have struggled in the past to reach agreement on design when the other person’s judgment was based 100% on aesthetics and mine on a mixture of aethetics and communicating specific messages via the graphic art (in this case, a logo). I was willing to compromise on my aesthetic preferences in order to have a graphic object that I knew would convey a set of desired messages to target audiences. The other person wasn’t involved in the relationships with those audiences, has a very well developed sense of aesthetics and therefore felt that my logo was mediocre. Yet the target audiences have reacted very positively to it. By objective measures, it has been very successful. I’ll admit that I wouldn’t want to frame it and hang it over my couch, but that wasn’t the point.

    Which brings us back to a question you raised: is the nature of the criticism subjective or objective? Because that may influence its relevance.

    So yes, I think everyone has the right to their opinion, but unless we want to get mired in the total inaction that comes from trying to be all things to all people, we also have to learn when to give criticism currency and when to move on.

  6. Picking up on Toni’s last point and also that of Kristen, we have the heart of this (which also relates to Judy’s question). We can choose to engage and listen to what others are saying, and indeed, should do so if we are willing to accommodate and benefit from any (constructive)criticism. However, ultimately we will need to be responsible for our own decisions or behaviour as a result of this “input”.

    Whether as Judy asks this means it is okay to ignore criticims, I don’t know. I was recently told by someone working for a well known brand that they’d turned down a high profile radio interview which was reporting a study criticising the company’s environmental activities. As a result, the show focused entirely on another company that did accept the interview. In this case, the oxygen of negative publicity was given only to the party that engaged.

    The study is still out there if anyone wants to find it – but the most important thing, I think, is that the company should have considered why it was being criticised and whether it really could be guilty of “greenwashing”.

    BTW Kristen, I never underestimate the value of questions – most of my posts (especially those that can be seen as critical) comprise lots of questions. Hence my personal perspective that conversation does involve listening – although I appreciate that’s not true for everyone.

  7. Anyone who steps into the social media space with the premise that they won’t be criticized (and criticism is relative– everyone responds to it differently, and there is such a thing as positive criticism, depending on your how you take it) has no business being here. I see it all the time, Heather; folks who post purely for the praise. The moment someone questions or criticizes–as Judy pointed out– they’re either a) no where to be found or b)on the defensive. The single most important thing an organization can do in a SM PR campaign is respond to the critics while staying on message. And yes, these campaigns are not all that different than traditional ones; we still speak and respond in key messages.

    As for PR belonging here, there are some unique benefits:

    1) In a field where measurement is largely anecdotal (not entirely!), social media interaction provides a campaign with much needed hard data.

    2) In what other medium are organizations (or agencies, or whatever) able to converse directly with the stakeholder?

    3) Free, easy, stakeholder research.

    4) Because blogs and forums have brought together so many folks with like-minded interests, targeting the customer audience is sort of like fishing for a whale in a wading pool.

  8. Heather, it was definitely not my intention to imply that you don’t value a good question. It’s just a general tendency to which this medium is subject, although I have to admit that things have improved dramatically since the early days when it was all about ranting and attacking others. There are still extremists and bad eggs out there, but the general tone of conversation is much more civilized these days.

  9. Brandon – I totally agree with you and am still amazed when discussing social media with PR colleagues that they don’t at least value its potential for research and hearing what their stakeholders/publics are saying – exactly as Kristen advises in terms of listening.

    I recently wrote at http://www.greenbanana.wordpress.com regarding a conversation with someone who felt that PR was only relevant when dealing with intermediaries – which I find a little odd, as like you, I think the ability to communicate direct is valid and relevant to PR as we should have strong personal communication skills.

    Finally, thanks Ricky – your links are interesting. Again we seem to see a lot of so-called SM experts who don’t get the point of actually joining the conversation. Your examples are just like those customer relations folk who send you a letter or email that never actually addresses your issue. In SM, it is simple – talk with not at.

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