Exploring the role of public relations in social media

The Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) just announced the launch of its inaugural webinar, PR and Social Media. Using two (Canadian) case studies that “leverage blogging, wikis, YouTube, Flickr, del.icio.us and various online communities,” the session’s focus will be on the tactical side of social media, rather than theoretical concepts.

Approached several weeks ago by Vancouver-based PR consultant, Carla Shore, APR (a member of the national professional development committee), I knew that the webinar was in the works. Karen Dalton, APR, executive director of CPRS, had suggested Carla contact me for information about a February keynote session I webcast from our annual controllers’ congress (which featured one of Canada’s prominent economists, Dr. Sherry Cooper).

* * *

One reason I’ve championed webcasting our economic update is to promote a distance-learning option for our widely dispersed membership and various publics. I publicized its availability to my own trade associations, and both CPRS and AIMS Canada happily promoted the (free) webcast as a value-add to members. Karen indicated that CPRS was exploring this realm, meaning our webcast could provide a test case re: interest. (A healthy, double-digit number of CPRS members have registered to listen to date; the archived version remains available until May 15th.)

* * *

Carla and I quickly determined that the “webcast” platform wasn’t the optimum one for CPRS, but that affordable and accessible distance-learning definitely was an objective—the CPRS membership is also dispersed across an enormous geographical area and its more remote members do not have many opportunities to attend in-person chapter or national PD events.

From the technical side of delivery, our conversation moved to Carla and her committee’s goal for its first webinar. “We want to offer a session that discusses whether social media means rethinking what we know as ‘public relations,’ or whether it simply added to what we did in ‘old school’ PR,” Carla told me. “Ten years ago there was a big debate within PR circles about intranets—were they a PR thing or an HR thing, and if they were PR, should we own it and mange it ourselves? I believe the same debate applies to social media today. Is it a marketing/branding tool or does it belong to PR? Should we try to own it…or disown it? How does social media change what we do currently in PR?”

Carla asked me if any presenters came to mind. Because the webinar is offered under the auspices of CPRS, we agreed that it should be directly targeted at the public relations practitioner. The presenter(s) should be Canadian and, ideally, client-side case studies would be used to demonstrate measurable, successful applications of social media.

It didn’t take me long to say, “Eli Singer would be an ideal presenter.” Having worked with Eli (and other staff from Cundari Group) last year on a successful, interactive recruitment website for our association, I knew, first-hand, his “online vision” and implementation prowess. What impressed me in collaborating with Eli (besides the fact that he is so engaging and charming) was his dedication to learning the ins and outs of our organization, how he helped us to target the key publics we wanted to influence and how he didn’t “impose” any technology or processes on us. Our final platform is one that is manageable from a staff-maintenance perspective, we can track and measure its success, and it has become a valuable resource for targeted groups, such as potential students, government, non-profit agencies, the media and other interested publics.

That phone conversation ended my involvement in the webinar, until I asked Carla last night about her aspirations for its outcomes: “I hope Eli’s presentation will clarify the points we discussed [about the role of the PR practitioner and social media], and that he’ll show us that communications is about understanding how to tell good stories, so that the messages meet the right audiences, no matter what method you use to communicate. I also expect Eli will help many of us to see how to incorporate best practices into using social media into the way we practise PR.”

Note: Eli was already confirmed as the webinar’s presenter prior to two announcements hitting the media: he is a finalist in the Educator of the Year category for the 2007 Canadian New Media Awards (primarily for his brainchild, CaseCamp, a volunteer “unconference” endeavour), as well as his promotion to managing director of social POV, the new social-media practice area of Cundari Group.

Will registrants in this CPRS webinar reach the moon? Realistically, “attendance” is more likely to serve as a launching pad for discussions and exploration within organizations about the feasibility of implementation, administration and “ownership” of the social media process, including defining a role for PR practitioners. But, at a minimum, it provides an extremely cost-effective opportunity for many public relators to hear words of counsel and practical experience from one of Canada’s skyrocketing stars in this particular space.

Update (04/30/07): CPRS has provided some clarification about delivery of the session (after an inquiry of interest was received from a PR student in Europe). This will not be a “teleconference” session. Participation is activated through the web, meaning no telephone calls or additional costs. Following registration, a link will be provided to log on to the web. During the webinar, participants will view a PowerPoint on their screens and listen to Eli Singer through computer speakers.


Comments on the goals and aspirations of this webinar are welcomed, as well as shared stories about the introduction of distance-education and/or PR and social media initiatives by other associations and organizations.

Inquiries about registration should be directed to CPRS.

Update (05/8/07): Peer endorsements for the webinar
Take the “Social Media PR” webinar (Tod Maffin, Vancouver-based CBC journalist, frequent speaker, blogger and podcaster)
Case Studies, Social Media, Eli Singer, CPRS and you! (Kate Trgovac, Vancouver-based Internet, marketing and social media trailblazer; workshop leader at the upcoming mesh07 conference: Building a Community)

Update (05/14/07): Registration for this inaugural webinar has been exceedingly strong (by CPRS members/non-members alike, and even some interest from “across the pond”)–at the time of this update, numbers were 20 per cent ABOVE the national PD committee’s stretch goal. Congratulations to Carla Shore and the PD committee, CPRS administration and everyone else involved. (My organization is registered and we’re very much looking forward to the session. Just received the “prep” items/links Eli Singer recommends we view in advance….)

Related links and resources:

CPRS Professional Development Events
Social POV, Cundari Group
2007 Canadian New Media Awards Finalist: Educator of the Year
Cundari debuts social media practice (Media in Canada)
Canada’s Social Space Gets a New POV (One Degree)
Build a Biz Blog (Canadian Business Magazine)
Ones to Watch (Marketing Magazine)

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21 Replies to “Exploring the role of public relations in social media

  1. I just came across this post through a friend who pointed it out to me today – this is exactly the sort of spammy comment Mark posted that I deleted and wrote about in a comment on the Raygun blog – http://urltea.com/ufx . In retrospect, this is actually quite funny, though I suspect it was not much fun at the time – how many times can someone continue to push his products and pretend to be oblivious that he is more concerned with selling then engaging you in conversation? The sad part is how he turns the tables on others to make it look like there is something wrong with them – very predatory behaviour and just more proof of why more people need to stand up for doing things the right way rather than the Raygun Way. If these guys are leading the PR industry into social media, there is less hope for them then I thought…

  2. Markus,

    Fact: I posted a tiny notice about our new PR site to a blog that goes to PR people.

    Fact: I wrote it, and yes, I confused your name with another blog site. Then I went away and left you alone.

    Fact: You assaulted me verbally, accusing me of high crimes and misdemeanors and firing off patronizing lectures about proper PR rules. All because of one little notice to a PR blog (social media) about a site dealing with, guess what, social media.

    Fact: You accused me of being insincere when I sent you a warm letter (which I wrote) to your account at http://www.myragan.com And you did both of things without a jot of evidence.

    Fact: You accused me of being a spammer. I have posted to about six sites in the industry, all concerned with social media. All of the posts were written by me, as is this one. Have you come up with a new definition you’d like to share?

    Fact: Finally, even after apologizing publicly, you attacked me again and again called me a spammer and insincere lout.

    Markus, are you having a bad day? Or are you always this cranky?

  3. Enthusiasm is no excuse for not acting like a professional.
    Don’t spam – that’s pr 101. (Double)check your facts – pr 101.
    Frankly, I don’t understand what he’s so overenthusiastic about. It’s a social network for a certain niche – so what? If it is successful in the end, all the better. But Mark isn’t doing himself (and his project) a favour if he forgets the rules of the pr game just because he’s passionate about his SN.
    In short: I’m not questioning MyRagan, I’m questioning the way Mark’s promoting it.

  4. Mark Ragan: evil spam baron or overly enthusiastic promoter of something that is quite relevant to the PR community — and the readers of this comment string?

    Knowing Mark for many years (and contributing to various Ragan projects, including the latest initiative), I’ll side with the puppy-dog-like overenthusiasm. I’ve been corresponding with him over the past few days and he’s truly brimming over with excitement over the potential of social media and his company’s new foray into that world.

    Interestingly, there’s a Canadian subgroup on myragan.com that’s been having an online conversation about the intrinsic differences between Americans and Canadians. One of them, I submit, is that Americans can be a tad more evangelical when it comes to talking about things they’re passionate about.

    As a Canadian PR practicioner, I’ve benefited many times over the last 15 years from Mark’s enthusiasm — which is really all he’s guilty of here.

  5. Judy,

    Thanks for the response.

    I did a search on the site under People Search. We have signed up 200 PR practitioners in the past 72 hours–most of it viral and many from Canada.

    Remember, people do not have to join the PR group that is within the site. In fact, many people may not know it exists–yet.

    When you add Marcom into the mix, the number is much higher. Judy, I hope you will participate. It would be fun to have you on board.

    Mark Ragan

  6. Laugh…how flattering that you are spending so much time on PR Conversations today, Mark.

    OK, I had a quick look at the PR group options. Fairly small take-up so far (three groups; largest one focused on crisis communications had 15 people in it). I didn’t recognize any names of the people *I know* who spend the majority of their day relating to various publics.

    Your employee communications component does seem to be going gangbusters, though. Congrats on getting take-up from your core audience.

    Must run to complete various PR-related initiatives and projects. Very busy day.


  7. Judy,

    Re: …”creating a very targeted SM space *specifically* for public relations practitioners (rather than the other disciplines in the industry). Perhaps there could be a mother site for the international sphere, than there could be breakaway rooms for the various nationalities.”

    We just did it.


    It’s for PR practitioners, and it already has a burgeoning list of Canadian PR people signing up.

    This is what Markus and I have been talking about above.

    The beauty of our PR site is that people can niche off their own social media groups within the overall site.

    Take a look. You’ll see a ton of Canadian PR folks there.

    And you are correct. This is the way of the future.


  8. The following appeared in Media in Canada today:

    MySpace launches Canadian site

    Six million of MySpace’s 100 million member profiles worldwide belong to Canadians, according to comScore Media Metrics. So it’s only logical that the leading lifestyle portal would launch here, which it did today, in both English and French.

    To celebrate the debut of its 15th national site, MySpace will host its first Canadian event – MySpace Secret Show featuring rock band Billy Talent, in Toronto on May 14. The free event exemplifies his company’s approach to enhancing the site for Canadian users, says MySpace SVP/GM International Travis Katz. “There is an incredible creative community in Canada, and with this launch we will be better able to showcase the artists, comedians, and video content that our users are most passionate about, while creating a truly Canadian home for our users online.”

    Access the remainder of the article.

    It’s interesting to see how social media is becoming more-and-more of a niche market and product. (Dan York referred to the concept as “Walled Gardens.”)

    This mySpace platform is niched towards Canadian users in the creative field. It would be wonderful if PR Conversation contributors (including our valued commenters and readers) could participate in creating a very targeted SM space *specifically* for public relations practitioners (rather than the other disciplines in the industry). Perhaps there could be a mother site for the international sphere, than there could be breakaway rooms for the various nationalities.

    I haven’t seen evidence of that kind of PR initiative as yet. (Perhaps one of the first functions could be to create a definitive, international definition of what constitutes “public relations.”)

  9. Markus,

    What the heck are we arguing for?

    This is silly. Maybe I did get you mixed up with another blog. There are only 25 gazillion of them, and only 1 million with the words “virtual” in them.

    My intentions are not as evil as you think. For heavan’s sake, Markus, all I am trying to do is spread the word about a new PR Social Meda site–the first in the business–that would be of enormous help to your readers. Gosh, is it all that horrible?

    OK, I’ll concede your point that I am a bit too enthusiastic, and that enthusiasm led me to (perhaps) breaking a relevance rule–though what one person views as relevant may not be viewed as such by another.

    But come on, let it go. Have I really offended you that greatly?

    Again, I am sorry. OK?

  10. Mark,

    I’m almost sure that your comment was written by the same “Mark Ragan entity” who invited me to join his friends list without knowing me and who sent me another email (after my refusal to join) two days later, asking: “Are you the Markus of Virtual Bytes? And Naked Conversations?”
    No, I’m the Markus of Virtual Bites (quite a difference, I can tell you) and of PR Conversations. So was it really you who didn’t get those simple facts right?

  11. Markus,

    I apologize if you thought my comment was spam. I never intended it to be. Did you really think I didn’t write it?

    I saw the discussion about Social Media and thought it was a good opportunity to tell your readers about the first-ever Social Media site for them–the pr industry. Maybe it’s because I am very wrapped up in our creation that I overestimated the interest in this among your readers. I apologize for offending you.

    Mark Ragan

  12. Dear Mr. Ragan,
    I’m not sure what makes you think that your “comment” had anything to do with Judy’s post? Or to be more accurate: What makes you think that your lines (if you really are its author, which I doubt) is anything else but outright spam.
    You’ve tried it on this blog once before and your first attempt at spamming this blog has been removed for obvious reasons.
    PR Conversations welcomes everybody who is willing and interested to engage in professional conversations – even highly controversial debates – on the really hot topics of global PR. But PR Conversations is NOT an “advertising” platform for social media startups of any kind.
    Social networks rely, among other things, heavily on trust and authority (like in expertise): you haven’t shown an awful lot of either of them. I’d expect a bit more professionalism from a company like your’s

  13. For years I worried about whether Social Media was a flash in the pan. Was this just so many gimmicky Internet tools that would be here today and gone tomorrow?

    Well, I think I found my answer. We just launched the first-ever social media site for PR people. I own a publishing company that has been hosting webinars and conferences on Social Media, so I thought it was time to “walk the talk.”

    Well any doubts about whether http://www.myragan.com would work evaporated in 24 hours as hundreds of PR folks rushed in. It has been exhilarating to watch. Now the real challenge, as with all Social Media, is to keep them coming back. And we have a plan, the kind of content plan that every architect of Social Media MUST have. Keep your eyes on our site…I hope it works.

    Mark Ragan
    The global meeting place for communicators

  14. Thank you Catherine (x2) and Toni for adding to this “SM-education” conversation.

    Catherine, is it typical of New Zealand schools to be so progressive using “incredibly effective ‘buckets and spades’” tools? Or is it more reflective of his individual school/local school board?

    A lot of times when it comes to social media I’m quite indifferent to a lot of the tools (e.g., Twitter), but I have to say that I was green with envy hearing about the learning experiences of these children. Your son is very lucky to be the recipient of such a wonderful, interactive and collaborative learning environment, which is adapting the best of both worlds (old and new) of education.

    Finally, as both a parent and someone who is herself very savvy in the social media sphere, have YOU had any direct influence on this environment?

    And to Toni: Italian television shows sound much more interesting than our homegrown variety. I’d trade you a “W-FIVE” for a Fellini-esque investigative show, any day.

  15. Very exciting experience indeed Cathy. As with everything else we must also acknowledge that there are many other things going on with social media which in no way diminishes the value of what you describe, but it helps us in ‘keeping the volume down’. Last night I saw one my favourite 8.30-9 pm tv discussions called ‘otto e mezzo’ (like Fellini’s film and also like the hour in which it starts) and this issue was dedicated to a discussion with an author (in this case a journalist from daily Il Messaggero whose name escaped me but will find out as I now wish to buy the book). Her book is a two year investigation of a significant cluster (she imagines in the 20.000 range) of 10-13 year olds of both genders in the city of Rome who pass just about every afternoon in discotheques were adults are not allowed to enter and where boys and girls all mashed up with gel and no clothes lap dance, entertain single and multiple intercourse, sell themselves to each other, take mms photos and circulate these on the web through blogs, vlogs and other social media tools. According to the author, these kids are from good families, their parents have no idea of what their offsprings are up, in the morning they go to grammar or junior high school, in the afternoon they go to discotheques and in the evening they turn on their computers and ‘converse’ and ‘chat’ and exchange mms photos from the afternoon….. this is from the cradle of catholicism! Difficult to integrate this story (coming from an ancient lay, antiprohibionist, lib/radical who always publicly complains against the anti-pedofile mania) and yours from New Zealand. I guess we are in one world and everything and its contrary happens with or without new technologies… don’t know where I am going..but thought I would share this inspired by your comment.

  16. I slipped out of work this afternoon to see something my youngest son was up to – and the event prompted me to add this ‘PS’ to the comment I posted yesterday relating to social media, public relations and learning opportunities. We have talked about disruptive technologies elsewhere on PR Conversations and I thought the content being created by children aged between seven and 13 – essentially a little of the disruption that is going on elsewhere – was worth sharing given the learning dimension.
    This afternoon saw the Peninsula Schools’ Cluster ICT Expo. This small cluster consists of about eight primary schools (five – 11 years) and one intermediate (11 – 13 years) school in North Shore City, Auckland. The children were demonstrating how they were using ICT (information communications/computer technology) as part of their daily activity. Here are some examples:
    At primary level, their demonstrations included digital storytelling techniques – their description, not mine – and how they apply social media tools to their learning topics. One little group of 10-year-olds presented a digi-story on Inspirational New Zealanders, another group, aged about eight and nine, presented their own semi-animated version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Another school composed music and stories which were then integrated with massage therapy for children who had suffered illness or injury.
    The intermediate schoolchildren demonstrated their in-house blog, (using Blogmeister), which allowed them to complete their assignments and homework, blog them, have them corrected, marked, then displayed online for parents to share. Music students podcast their compositions. Videocasts of visits, trips and discussions are the norm. Their demo centred on research connecting them with the problems of water deprivation throughout the world and, having learnt about the difficulties experienced by others, they were embarking on a process they hoped would facilitate social change and improve conditions for those they had connected with. The research and reporting was combined with action. (The same school’s science fair last year had projects where the children undertook comparative analysis on bluetooth devices, tested the effectiveness of subliminal messaging with movie-edits and videocasts and created desalination systems for disaster situations, all which really blew me away – when I was at school we grew beans for the science fair!)
    But this afternoon, the children’s emphasis wasn’t on the tools themselves, it was on the content they made and ensuring that content adequately communicated their ideas. The ‘what’ rather than the ‘how’. When you are a child (or an adult!) creating a sandcastle you don’t worry too much about the bucket and spade – it is the castle’s design, shape, height, number of tunnels and access to the sea that occupy your thoughts – the bucket and spade are just the things that get you there. Social media tools are incredibly effective ‘buckets and spades’ for kids to use – and they are making some fabulous castles, as, I am sure, are the many other children around the world who have access to the technology (and therein lies another hot debate).
    And the point of telling you about this afternoon’s activity? The point is that all these children will have been utilising social media tools to create and share content from the time they can hold and click a mouse. Their learning, communication and interaction is quite different to that experienced by other generations. Quite new and interesting definitions of literacy are likely to emerge and certainly very different levels of communication. They won’t hesitate to interact and challenge organisations, systems or companies because that is how they will have ‘always done things’ – collaboration and hierarchy will find themselves remixed.
    So as practitioners, associations, companies and organisations I would suggest the heat is on to become as integrated and comfortable with social media as our children – otherwise we might find we are no longer invited to play on the beach!

  17. Just a note on Toni’s question relating to other experiences. PRINZ – the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand – began running regular webinars in 2006. These have been very well received by members, particularly those who cannot easily get to the main centres. Our first social media sessions were launched at the end of 2005 and we use the ‘Skills@PRINZ’ blog as an everyday tool to keep members, guests and friends up to date with the latest opportunities for learning. We used a consultative blog last year to undertake some research/conversations with NZ’s senior practitioners and as part of the development process for this year’s continuing professional development programme.
    Integrating social media tools to provide and facilitate learning opportunities is just one of many uses they can be put to – in a moment, for example, I will be working on a mashed-media blog that will form the basis of a virtual tutorial on social media and public relations for my undergraduate and post-graduate students. Last year I worked with local government associations to show how podcasting could be used to facilitate news, information, consultation and conversation for external audiences alongside training and skill-sharing within the authority. Same with wikis – a great internal communications tool and useful as an application within our own industry. As an example, some months ago, I created a swicki for the Skills@PRINZ blog so that resources/information on public relations could be accessed and added to by those interested in the industry and we build on these applications regularly. (As an aside, a Global Alliance wiki could be a powerful thing indeed). We occasionally post general material to the news aggregation site here – an additional element that creates interest in and reaction to the content we are creating for our stakeholders.

    These tools are very much a part of daily existence – and not just for us. A neat example of this came last year, when a local church held its first ‘internet baptism’ with the service shared live via the web between NZ and the UK. Global conversations are fast becoming the norm, rather than the exception they might have been considered to be say four or five years ago. Having read the Canadian experience, it will be really interesting to hear more stories of activities elsewhere and find out how the distances between people and places are being shrunk, allowing us to share more and learn more from each other.

  18. Carla: I was delighted to offer input on this CPRS distance-learning initiative (which has my wholehearted approval). At best I think I helped you to fine tune the eventual webinar, because you already knew the desired format for this (inter)national PD offering, not to mention an outline of its contents (I remember you describing it as, “PR and technology: where do we go from here?”), anticipated audience, as well as the wish for it to focus on practical, business applications and measurement, from a PR perspective.

    I will take credit for bringing Eli to your attention for consideration, but readers should note he was added to an existing list of potential presenters. Ergo, he was not the only person approached.

    Regarding the cost, I deliberately left it out. I hoped the content and calibre of presenter would convince potential registrants to investigate further–only to be delightfully surprised at how incredibly reasonable was the pricing of this inaugural offering. (It is probably one-third to one-quarter the price of the average webinar. And for this one there is no non-member price differential!)

    Toni: I most certainly remember that “global webinar,” because CPRS members were also invited to register. Which I did. Not only was it a great opportunity to hear new voices (to me) and international perspectives, it was the starting point for our personal acquaintance. That was a happy occurrence of which I continue to be immensely grateful.

  19. This is a major step forward on the part of CPRS and I hope that other associations, particularly the smaller ones (who always say they have insufficient resources) and those who have widely dispersed constituencies.
    As many know there are various programs going on today from various parts of the world involving the use of web and phone technologies to offer members of professional associations e-learning and e-professional development opportunities.
    I would think that as with similar cases in the recent past, the Global Alliance could committ to run amongst its members a ‘call for experiences’ and an ad hoc working group could come out with ‘guidelines’ for its members.
    In Ferpi there is still little use of these technologies. The only one sofar being that the professional traning commission, when it organizes face-to-face workshop sessions for members, promotes a pre-teleconference of about one hour in which the workshop conductor dialogues with his/her future face-to-face students illustrating the workshops key points and listens to participant expectations in order to improve the quality of the final delivery.
    Last year I was fortunate enough to organize for the Global Alliance, in cooperation with Barbara Mcdonald and Judy Voss from PRSA, the first ‘global webinar’ for the public relations community on the theme ‘towards a new global public relations model: from theory to practice’.
    I was priviliged to be able to have as live-discussants in the webinar James Grunig who was in Oregon, Sriramesh Krishnamurthy who was in Singapore and Anne Gregory who was in London. The webinar was repeated to accomodate the world’s different timezones and a couple of hundred (if I rememebr correctly) of professionals and scholars participated from some 25 different countires. A truly great experience.
    This also was intended as an advance notice of what a few weeks later was a four day workshop in New York organized by PRSA, NYU and yours truly.
    Following this successful experience I was hoping that the GA as well as other organizations would pick up on this opportunity. Other experiences?

  20. Judy,

    Thanks for the great summary on CPRS’ first webinar. The national PD committee is planning to make this type of event a regular thing. Our aim is to do Canadian-based online learning like this 4-6 times a year. This first webinar with Eli Singer is our intro, so we’ve offered a cut-rate price of $65 for everyone (for one site license). Future webinars will probably be a bit more cost-recovery and will feature member pricing to benefit CPRS members.

    I am really looking forward to Eli’s talk, and we owe you a debt of thanks for your help in strategizing how this session could work for CPRS.


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