A cautionary conversation about PR and social media, part I

With Twitter recently turning five years old, PR Conversations feels it’s time to consider whether it – and other social media platforms – are now serious channels for public relations. Judy Gombita and Heather Yaxley share their views in a two-part blog post.

We’re in agreement that 2011 is definitely the year when there will be a tipping point with organizations taking a more serious look at social media, across the generations. This view appears to be supported by the Pew Internet December 2010 release of its “Generations Online” research, (succinctly summarized by MarketingProfs).

When it comes to online usage, we’re two women of the same generation (in fact, born the same year). In private conversations we’ve shared some concerns about how our public relations (and marketing) colleagues are making use of the platforms and their online behaviour, organizationally or personally, or a combination thereof. (More on this to come in part II.)

In considering how much of our shared viewpoint is due to generation and/or gender, following an exchange of tweets (and then private correspondence) related to some specific online behaviour, I invited Gen Y male, Brennan Sarich to tell me about his use of and thoughts on Twitter. Heather and I have then reflected on his thoughtful articulation, to develop a broader conversation on the topic.

Brennan Sarich

I spend time on Twitter trying to meet new people and understand their business or what it is they do in the world. I’m happy to know someone as a simple ‘Internet peer’ or as a potential client or colleague. I follow them and try to find a reason to interact immediately. I do this because I find there are people on Twitter for the reason to be social, and then there are people who are on Twitter to be popular. I don’t use Twitter to be popular – I use Twitter to build a real network of people I can rely on and know in my business and in my personal life. Social media is a great tool and Twitter is a great for having very concentrated conversations. It’s also great for starting conversations offline.

What I hate, more than anything, is interacting with someone I have followed for probably three months, and responded to things they have said, and simply get no response whatsoever.

I am a communicator, I am Gen Y, I value instant feedback, and I reciprocate and champion causes that I believe in without hesitation.

My issue is that half of the arses on the Internet who are so-called influencers never respond to people who follow them, promote them and champion them. Which is not only annoying, it’s rude. And at some point, someone needs to be a Social Media Miss Manners with these people. No one needs to promote bad behaviour, online or offline, and [I wish there were] rules for social media that everyone could agree upon.

For example:

1. Respond to people who engage with you and your content. These people are looking for validation in the same way that you are looking to validate content; that’s why it’s two-way.

2. Don’t think of followers as pipelines to your business. They’re real people with real interests. Promote their interests, not your brands.

3. Find people with similar tastes, and keep it small and beautiful. I’d rather interact with 500 people that I really like and like me versus 1,000 people that have nothing to do with my tribe, so to speak.

Heather Yaxley

Brennan raises a good point in respect to how he likes to use social media – he is coming at it from the perspective of someone who is constantly connected; an example of what Pankraz [planning director/youth marketing specialist at DDB Sydney] identified as Gen C.

Brennan’s expectations are based on how he interacts with others, which doesn’t necessarily reflect how those who are using social media professionally are able, or willing to engage. However, I totally agree that if you set yourself up as an influencer, then you need to respond and not just transmit.

Gen C seem to reflect changing expectations of how organizations should respond via social media. I think it is important to be listening and learning – and ideally engaging (with the caveat that some people don’t like to feel ‘stalked’ by organizations). But, it is a huge challenge to refocus communications around every single person who may say something and expect an immediate response. I don’t think a “listen to me now!!” approach is entirely reasonable – but it may become the norm if Gen C expectations are mainstreamed.

Judy Gombita

I can appreciate what you are saying from an organizational point of view, but what about honest attempts on a personal basis of Gen Y trying to ‘engage’ on Twitter or Facebook with individuals from older generations? It’s been said that much of social media revolves around narcissism and voyeurism and it’s often Gen Y accused of this behaviour. Yet what Brennan hopes to get out of Twitter doesn’t appear to have much to do with either of these things. He simply wants to learn and engage and, ultimately, to grow his network. (Similar to my objectives, by the way.)

My advice to Brennan and his Gen Y (or C) cohort: if you followed someone on Twitter (or Facebook) because you were under the assumption that he or she had worthwhile things to say or they engaged with a lot of people, take a moment and re-evaluate whether this is indeed is the case.

Look back on a day or two worth of ‘updates.’ How much value add do you see? Approximately how many people is an individual conversing with, and on what topics – does the stream demonstrate a diversity of people, opinions and links? Or are the same names coming up, again and again, covering the same type of self-serving areas? Are many of the tweets simply group ‘hello’ ‘thank you’ or inside jokes to the same people? (Are any of those tweets directed to you, particularly if you’ve opined or asked a question?)

On a longer term, does the person tend to select the same people as a #FF (Friday Follow), week after week? Share blog posts from the same select circle of ‘friendz’ (who in turn share that person’s new blog posts)?

In your follow strategy, what you need to figure out is whether you are satisfied with one of the Twitter ‘rock stars’ simply following you back…or do you need some validation as to why. If a person ‘follows back’ 5,000 people (out of, for example, 9,000 followers), including you, but continues to converse with only 40 people on a regular basis (mainly other ‘rock stars’ or a personal entourage of fans), the networking ecosystem is one-way and mainly nurturing that person’s ego. Ask yourself: WIIFM? Don’t feel obligated to continue following, despite a person’s age or perceived professional experience or ‘influence.’

Consider a Twitter audit. Don’t be an acolyte of the Cult of Personality or attempt to join the ‘PR blog party.’ ‘Just say no’ to empowering narcissism. This is my advice, no matter what your age. (And don’t be hurt or surprised if the people you unfollow don’t even notice….)

Instead, search out individuals to follow in the PR or communication spheres that consistently provide or share solid information (original or curated – from a variety of people, young or old, known or new to you), and who are open to engaging with others, across generational, sector and geographical boundaries, even if the conversations don’t revolve around them. They are out there, I promise you, Brennan. I hope you find at least 500 of them.

We’re sharing these social media platforms. I’m the first to admit that representatives from Gen Y can teach me about behavioural norms that work or don’t in today’s digital (PR) landscape, even if I’ve been in the field (a bit) longer.

Heather Yaxley

I agree with you Judy – in fact, I would suggest going even further to make use of the potential of social media for developing professional relationships. Look for Connectors (to use Gladwell’s Tipping Point terminology) who like to bring people together, as well as Mavens who are prepared to not only share their knowledge, but learn by engaging with others.

There seems little point in trying to get a response from those who use social media only to broadcast or to exclude others who aren’t in their clique. Indeed, it is really useful to reach out to others – for example, I had someone Tweet that they didn’t agree with something I had written on a recent post. It was a ‘throw out’ statement from them, but I wanted to know more. A few exchanges later and we agreed to disagree, but I hope with some respect and feeling that we’d gone further than just someone on Twitter critiquing the view of someone who’d blogged.

But Brennan was giving advice to organizations, not simply individuals, and so it would seem relevant to consider the organizational implications. It will be interesting to see if organizations can, do, or should, refocus communications in the way suggested. Engaging with everyone who wishes to comment on an organization seems an enormous challenge with potentially little return. Taking that onto engaging with them as individuals, eg to promote what they are interested in, seems to me a little naive or at least optimistic. However, as with the telephone and email, organizations have had to adapt previously in respect of the nature of their communication engagement. Maybe Brennan’s expectations will become the norm.

Judy Gombita

I think it’s safe to say that both Heather and I welcome conversations (off and/or online) with younger generations. Particularly ones where you demonstrate awareness and critical thinking, such as Brennan Sarich did. Interestingly, at family functions increasingly I find myself having the most interesting and informative conversations and debates with my nieces and nephews – ages 15 to 21 – rather than my siblings. And my sense is that they enjoy them, too.

I hope more Gen Y individuals feel comfortable with commenting on Brennan’s assertions or in debating what Heather and I had to say.

[Image: Human evolution http://www.sciencephoto.com/]

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12 Responses to “A cautionary conversation about PR and social media, part I”
  1. Brennan says:

    Thanks for the comments and great responses! I think in this case I feel that if something as connection-worthy as Twitter can’t create that instant response that social media promises, then why use it at all? I don’t need the equivalent of letter responses or automatic replies, etc. If social media is just going to become another lousy and poor marketing channel I would rather it didn’t exist at all.

  2. Paul Seaman says:

    Brennan Sarich says, “I am a communicator, I am Gen Y, I value instant feedback, and I reciprocate and champion causes that I believe in without hesitation.”

    I would urge caution and urge people of all ages to resist giving “instant feedback” and “championing causes without hesitation”. Twitter tempts us to make such mistakes. Wisdom should prevent us from falling into temptation. That said, I believe that Twitter and Facebook are not responsible for the impetuousness of youth – it was ever so.

  3. Judy, Heather & Brennan, thanks for a thoughtful conversation. Yes, many of our social tools allow instant gratification, whether it’s IM, DM, Twitter, FB, Quora or newer shiny tools like DeviantArt and Namesake. The channels don’t matter so much as they will constantly evolve. At the core of each is a way to connect and desire to interact. Choosing who, how many and the quality and content of that interaction is a lot more satisfying now than just 3-4 years ago whether you’re a Beiber fan or looking for conversations with other smart PR pros. Regards.

  4. PRWeekend says:

    Thanks for the great post. In our opinion the exchange of expertise between generations is vital. PR Conversations is the source where we continue to find conversations that present a comprehensive overview of contemporary PR findings applied to the basic studies of the PR profession. Thank you!

  5. Morgan Galloway says:

    Great post, all!

    Brennan – As a fellow Gen Y’er, I have come to realize we thrive on instant gratification. We don’t have to watch commercials anymore, everything includes a drive-through, and Twitter and Facebook are easily available on our cell phone/PDA! I’m recently getting into this whole Twitter thing, mainly because I have to for a class (I’m a public relations student at Kent State University), but I find it’s pretty interesting and provides the means for thought provoking and enticing conversations between myself and classmates. There’s something about 140 characters that makes me want to know more!

    Judy and Heather – I agree wholeheartedly this is the year organizations take a look at social media. And if an organization doesn’t, it will when it starts hiring young PR professionals. Social media is stressed so much in the PR curriculum at Kent State University. I’m in a class right now called PR Online Tactics and it’s all about using social media to build and maintain meaningful relationships.

    Pertaining to online behavior: professors stress the need to behave professionally online because that’s the first place my future employer is going to look for me. It seems like common knowledge…I know. But people are surprising.

    • Brennan says:

      @Morgan Hey thanks fellow Gen Y’er! Gen Y, unite!

      That being said, I have been thinking…I think it’s a need that Gen Y is addressing, which we picked up on rather quickly and adapted with. Namely, communications have changed. There’s *officially* TOO MUCH information. So, we’ve created channels that allow us to get through information faster to consume more. There are plusses and minuses to this approach, but I believe Gen Y has the right idea. We all need to know more in a knowledge based economy…it’s just a fact of life. And that’s one of the challenges of my generation. (How Gen Y of me.)

      @Paul I would agree that temperance is a virtue, but this is different than just telling people what they need to know, as quickly as possible. I experience, often, after creating a media list, sending out targeted messages to bloggers, twitter users, just anyone really, and not receiving any response. And like, it’s offers for free events in return for reviews, it’s stuff that actually interests them, etc. I believe in the idea ignore me and my level of patience at your peril. It’s not that I have a problem waiting for responses, I’m realistic. But it only takes two seconds to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to an idea or problem. I have a lot of things to do with my day, I hate playing the waiting game.

      @Jeff Exactly!

      • Brennan, knowing more when faced with an exponential growth of information doesn’t necessarily mean grazing as fast as you can is the optimum approach. You may just get indigestion! There’s a lot to be said for a slower approach to ensure depth to your knowledge.

        Also expecting an instant response is something that tends to temper with age. There are many times when a bit of patience leads to better gratification.

  6. Anita Rwelamira says:

    So interesting that we are discussing this. I have a love hate relationship with the speed in which technology is advancing. But the reality is that it’s here to stay.

    In an ideal world isn’t having vasts amount of information a blessing or is it a curse? Today’s Generation Y process information at such a high speed one needs to wonder if they are actually absorbing the content their reading? Plus with FB and twitter the way people interact has changed we somewhat operate on a superficial level..

    As Brennan mentioned Gen Y attitude towards information is i need it, and I need it NOW and I want feedback almost simutaneously. Plus who can blame us we operate in a world where in a blink of an eye as your trying to get the hang of one thing you are instantly bombered or faced with a new product to master.

    So if organisation want this new generation who will and are their stakeholders to take an interest what are they doing to intergarte social media? What about organisations who still believe that to build relationships one still needs the intimate face to face interactions. Is that lost forever and what are the implications for PR? Please share thoughts wityh me?

    • Brennan says:

      I would say that Gen Y still values that very much. But, we want a first-time instant gratification. After that, it doesn’t matter as much, we know we’re appreciated. Odd view, but that’s how I feel. Customer service PR and social media are going hand-in-hand these days. I would say Fresh Books does this farily well.

  7. Greg Smith says:

    Interesting comments about people not responding when they use Twitter. Here in Australia we have a national TV “identity” (a journalist) who has 14,000 followers, and he only follows 41 people. Work that one out. I don’t reckon he’s using it correctly. For him, I guess it’s all about the “me”.

    • Judy Gombita says:

      Interestingly, I was asked to do a guest lecture to university journalism students on PR and social media. In anticipation of this, I asked for the following question to be added to last week’s #solopr Twitter chat:

      Q4: Whether or not [the journalists are] employed in your target media, what behavior/engagement do and don’t you like to see from journalists in social media? #solopr

      For answers (including the one you mentioned, Greg), you can visit the full transcript. The question was introduced at 5:54 p.m. (according to the transcript).

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