Is separating social and mainstream media in education a good idea? Let’s discuss..

Social media are increasingly considered by the public relations community (scholars, educators, professionals) as a ‘separate thing’, different from mainstream. Is this really so? And, even if it is… do you think it is advisable for us, mostly educators, to nurture this ‘separation’?

The reasons why I write this are at least two:

a- subjective: those of us who conceptualize and teach public relations mostly belong to a mainstream media generation…therefore we tend to emphasize and even overstate the discontinuity (i.e. the single individual as a medium);

b-objective: the understanding of how, if and for what social media works is still at an early stage.

From an educational perspective, if integrated into a mainstream media course, it would risk -many say- getting in the way of the thinking, the rationalizing, the teaching and the practicing of traditional media relations, which in my view are considered excessively important, when in fact recent research results on professional practice in many countries are believed to be in strong decline (see the three researches presented at the recent Euprera 2008 Congress in Milano).

So it would appear to be better to keep the two separate, also considering that there are very few teachers out there ready to teach social media relations and those that exist, are probably not ready to teach mainstream media relations.

The consequence however could be a ‘ghettoing’ of social media, which by the way is also happening inside organizations, with the result of ‘specializing’ youngsters to practice in a narrow and much too segmented approach to the profession.

Yet, for youngsters (college and university students) social media today is an emotional and cultural given.

If adults separate the subjects in different courses, students will tend to competitively select amongst the two and I imagine they would find social media as more interesting, attractive, ‘cool’ and ‘awesome’.

This, in turn, is likely to produce a benign (?) neglect versus mainstream media, which is really the last thing we need today, in a period in which the fabric of representative democracy, of whom traditional media remains a major pillar, is being increasingly questioned and considered more of a bother, a pain in the ass rather than a value by our political and organizational leaderships.

Many of these would undoubtedly prefer to govern by simply polling representative samples of their influential publics, and staging virtual town hall meetings with ‘the people’, rather than being involved in those complex and interest based negotiations with elected officials which help us distinguish between populist and representative democratic practices.

In short, I would favour a full integration of the subject of social media relations with mainstream media relations.

Having expressed this view, it would also seem to me that one ‘different’ or ‘out-of-the-box’ perspective could posit the following.

Ever since the second part of the 19th century (Barnum), public relations practice has also based, and continues to base, its fundamentals in the organization of pseudo-events, as the late American contemporary historian Daniel Boorstin wrote in 1965 in his pamphlet ‘The image: or what’s happened to the American dream?’

He called them pseudo because they are artificially created by organizations to attract influential publics (many from mainstream media), in physical spaces where the convenor expresses news, arguments and contents in the hope that the convened will hopefully (third party endorsement) forward to larger publics.

The advent of social media has, very importantly, made possible for public relators to develop and refine their ‘architectural’ competencies in creating, beyond the physical ones, also virtual ‘spaces’, where carefully segmented stakeholder publics are attracted and convened in order to engage discussion, conversation and negotiation while exchanging knowledge and experiences amongst themselves as well as with the convening organization (i.e. the public relator as an architect and facilitator).

Thus, by integrating mainstream and social media relations, our added and competitive value becomes the quality of the spaces we are able to create and of the relationships we are able to develop and consolidate.

From this perspective, it would seem to me to be worthwhile to integrate media (social and mainstream) relations with the organization of virtual and physical event creation, and put it all under the umbrella of stakeholder relationship governance (advanced) and stakeholder relationship practice (entry level).

Your opinions?

Related post: PR Educators Debate Compartmentalizing Social Media (my 2 cents blog)

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19 Replies to “Is separating social and mainstream media in education a good idea? Let’s discuss..

  1. Philip,
    I wish I could be in London on the 19th but unfortunately this is impossible.
    The Euroblog 2010 initiative by Euprera is very exciting indeed and I am sure that many useful indications will come from the upcoming June 9-10 Edelman newmedia academic summit in Washington see
    My best regards to David Phillips…

  2. A very late contribution – sorry Toni.

    Euprera’s EuroBlog 2010 research will include an attempt to assess to what extent social media is being incorporated into public relations programmes across Europe and also an attempt to create a generic social media module that could form the basis for teaching this subject. We will be looking for researchers to co-ordinate surveys in each European country and also for collaborators willing to share ideas for the generic module – reading lists, lecture themes etc.

    Full details will appear on the Euprera website shortly but in the meantime if anyone is intersted in contributing please email me –

    For the record my University, Sunderland, is introducing a 10 credit Introduction to Social Media module at Level One in September and has run a popular and successful 20 credit social media module for the last three years.

    David Phillips and I will be discussing ways in which PR academics should engage with teaching social media at the launch of our book, Online Public Relations 2nd Ed (, which takes place in London on May 19. If you can’t make the party, we will welcome contributions through Twitter etc.

  3. Agree Italo, although constant evolution (not necessarily dramatic..) is also a trait of mainstream.

    Yet you and others might find interesting this post from Josh Bernoff that my friend Giampaolo Azzoni of the University of Pavia just sent me….
    which tries fairly successfully to ‘go into’ the term social media to conclude that the ‘media’ part of the buzzword is less relevant than it appears…
    your thoughts?

  4. Toni, with some delay due to the Easter week end and a short rest, a couple of comments. First, social media will become mainstream in a short time but in a different way (in my opinion, the “permanent” beta stage of Google applications is the best representation of the evolution process in the age of social media).

    Social media will become mainstream while being in constant evolution, and therefore not being completely mainstream (if we consider maturity an attribute of mainstream).

    Second, while it is true that there are professionals that have been rethinking the basics, it is also true that there are scores of so-called professionals who ignore the basics and several other fundamental concepts.

    I hope that social media will make life more difficult for these individuals as the continuous evolution/renovation of the scenario asks for a solid background and cannot be dealt with a “mee too” attitude.

  5. Karen and Bill,
    thank you for your insights which add much meat to the discussion.

    By the way I am sure you are all aware of the upcoming Edelman-PRWeek (month?) new media academic summit which will take place in June in Washington dc.
    You can have more info here

    Bill introduces the issue of social media engagement by implying that bloggers expect you to remain involved in the conversation.
    True, but it is so different from well practiced mainstream media relations?
    So it is, of course, if one deals with journalists only to place some copy and once the copy is obtained disappears.
    But this is a highly unproductive manner of developing relationships.

    To all my interlocutors involved in media relations (students, coworkers, other colleagues and clients) I continually insist that they get up from the their desk and their computer and pass at least a couple of days a week in the physical company of their pre-identified important journalists, see them at work, how they work, what tools they use (participant observation), understand their primary interests and make sure that every email they send has an object which relates to each individual’s special interests.

    Also, I was inspired last year in Bruxelles at the Euroblog conference by one of the Edelman presenters who introduced the concept of digital curator.

    I reinterpreted this by selecting some young intelligent graduate students and trained them to identify, select, prepare weekly highly intense but very short summaries (with links of course) of issues discussed online around the world and submit them to relevant (for clients of course) journalists as a reintermediation service so that they don’t need to stay chained to their computer all day (if they trust you of course and if your selections are not excessively biased of course).

    May I confess that this little gimmick (very useful and instructive for the young ones to as they learn to select, understand, summarise…all highly relevant competencise for our profession) has been a tremendous success and has greatly improved our relationships with those journalists??

  6. Add me to the “late to the party” list, but better late than never, I hope. Speaking as both an educator and the Connect conference organizer at the University of Georgia, I’ve seen a lot of people/organizations taking the “separate first, integrate later” approach. For instance, at UGA we taught two special topics social media courses last year but now social media’s integrated pretty much across the curriculum. At this point, students need to learn both “traditional” and social media — skills, cultures and expectations, etc. — and sometimes it helps to compare and contrast by teaching them together.

    Toni, you’re absolutely right that faculty have to understand it themselves first; that’s the value of the Connect conference, the Edelman Academic Summit, and similar events that bring educators and professionals together.

  7. A fascinating discussion to which I am arriving late. As such, I’ll steer clear of the “theory” portion and just share with you a bit of what my school (Kent State in Ohio) is doing to address the convergence of new and old media in public relations. I think it fits nicely with the premise Toni has outlined (which I agree with wholeheartedly), and with some of Heather’s initial comments.

    Three years ago, we attempted to deal with the rise of social media by launching a class called “PR Online Tactics.” It’s been a challenge to keep this course on the “cutting edge,” and course content changes each semester. We address social media by requiring students to write blogs and participate on Twitter. Students also develop interactive e-newsletters and produce podcasts. The class spends spend a good deal of time exploring online newsrooms and the differences between”blogger relations” vs. “media relations.” Finally, students are instructed in the basic concepts of search engine optimization and required to employ those principles in what they produce for class.

    Now, 3 years later, we realize placing the “online” tactics in one class is simply inadequate. So next fall we will spread the components of this class across all “skills” classes in the curriculum. Our “Media Relations” class will integrate blogger relations. With the help of Pitch Engine,students will produce their own “social media newsroom.” And of course, we will examine the intersection of social and traditional media and how they influence one another.

    The e-newsletter moves to our more traditional “PR Publications” class where students are asked to produce print and “e” versions by re-purposing the content to fit a different audience and a different medium. The e-newsletters, because they offer instant feedback and discussion, create new challenges for students (and instructors). Keeping up with the “tech” side of these courses has us all working long hours.

    Our “Face-to-Face Tactics” class next fall will add discussion and exploration of personal online presence (We don’t care for the “Brand You” label) via LinkedIn and Twitter. We’ll look at social networks and their new role in career development and relationship building. It’s critical that we incorporate virtual interaction with F2F interaction. In the past this class focused primarily on presentation skills and event management.

    To close, I return to media relations vs. blogger relations. Are they different concepts? Yes. But as Heather said early on, “relationships” remain the core element. Bloggers, like traditional media, seek a dialogue with sources who can help them serve their audiences. But students must realize that SM communicators don’t operate on traditional notions of balance & objectivity that guided American journalism for nearly 100 years. Simply put, bloggers are more likely to bite you than their traditional counterparts. Bloggers also demand that we remain involved in a story and the conversations that follow. This makes for some very, very long days!

  8. Well said and one hell of a number of comments to Italo’s, David’s and Joao’s: respectively Italian, American nad Portuguese.
    Not bad for a blog which aspires to attract comments from around the world.

    Italo suggests that the theory should be integrated but that the practice better be separated because there has not been enought experience in social media and therefore students should practice using social media separately from mainstream.

    To simplify he uses the twitter example and I fully agree this to be the case, as long as we agree that it is situational.

    Tomorrow, when social media will be mainstream (and its getting there very quickly…) there will be no more rational in the separation.

    Italo also very acutely brings the debate on stakeholder relationship governance to the level of participation.
    Yes, definitely, if we accept that there are at least two levels of stakeholder participation: one, the first, is simple (so to say…) stakeholder involvement and the second is, but more complicated, engagement.
    Whereas in the first instance the organization should involve all stakeholders (who, in my opinion, decide by themselves to be such according to their respective levels of awareness and interest in the reltionship), in the second it is the organization who decides (at its own managerial risk and peril) wich stakeholders to engage…and, as you very correctly say, this is much more complicated and difficult.

    Finally, Italo, many of us -and in many areas of the world- are, I believe, rethinking the basics of our profession and have been doing this for some time, even before social media exploded.
    Of course the latter’s impressive dynamic have significantly accelerated the process…

    David, I entirely agree with your comments and thank you for having directed your blogging friends to this discussion.

    And now, Joao, my friend….
    I am intrigued by your concept of a different notion of ‘the other’ as one of the consequences of both social media and our rethinking of the basics of our profession process and would be very interested in better understanding what you mean by this.
    Maybe a specific post?
    We haven’t had one from you for some time now.

  9. Maybe it’s worth to note that the mass media (print, tv, radio) are often associated with communication theories and research based on the “public opinion”. For many years we believed that mass media had total effects upon audiences, then we realized that those effects were not that deterministic and moved on to study more cognitive and subtle effects.

    With social media we have the tools to better understand the “opinion of the publics” which is formed by debate and discussion (often done through the social media).

    Maybe this seems a minor detail, but the subject of both “eras” is a different notion of the “other”. From massive audiences in the first case to publics and stakeholders in the second case. Thus I wonder if integrating the teaching of social media and mass media shouldn’t imply the integration in a new discipline called “publics theory”? – As knowledge is developing in the field of “relations”, we still have one of the key concepts of our profession – “publics” – to develop.

  10. Re: 40deuce’s suggestion that marketing is an interruption to life…Yes, some marketing efforts are interruptions — most certainly ads. But messages done in a public relations context are not always interruptions. They are often part of the content or, in the case of social media, part of the conversation. When messages are conveyed in that manner, they can be so much more credible and impactful. That’s one measure of the value of p.r., after all.

    I’ve added my 2 cents on the subject of social media in p.r. education over at my blog, if you’d like to stop by.

  11. Steve Rubel has summarized the process in a sentence, which embodies the entire problem: “every media is social, every social is media”.

    Social media extend and disrupt at the same time the concept of “two way symmetrical” relations. In my opinion, they must be associated to traditional media when you refer to communication patterns (language, perception, …), but they cannot be associated to traditional media when you refer to interaction patterns (governance).

    Social media should be studied together with (theory) and separately from (practice) traditional media, according to which side of the problem is analyzed.

    Writing a 140 characters tweet is not very different from writing the title of a press release. Understanding how the 140 characters tweet starts a process of influence through retweets and conversations is a completely different story. The first part can be studied (and therefore taught), the second part must be a live experience (and therefore cannot be taught, yet, as it is too early to have a structured practice, but only “suggested”).

    Governance of relations must transition, over time, to governance of participation in conversations. It looks like a small step, but in the reality is a giant leap. Tools can be the same (I do not think that the social media release is useful, in the form I have seen so far), but they have a completely different objective as there are several layers of intermediaries and not a single one like in the past.

    I think that social media should foster a process of rethinking all the basics of the profession, from the news values to the press release to the process of transferring, or circulating, information. It is a challenge for the old practitioners and for the young ones.

    I understand that this does not answer the original question, although it suggests that the problem does not reside in the separation or the confluence of the subjects, but in their relationship.

  12. Interesting discussion, my friends.

    Hello David, good to hear from you.

    It is interesting that both you and Brian (definitely trendy you are Brian…somewhat of a dandy too… in the sense that you always position yourself as an ‘old hand’ when many of your insights show that you are years ahead, at least of me…)raise the parallel between what we used to say and discuss about television when it came about.

    I was raised culturally and professionally in a printed media environment and when, at least in Italy, television was beginning to become a serious media environment for public relations practice (my agency in 1978 produced the first ever italian video press release)I urged my younger colleagues to study, learn and live with it….albeit with little success, I must say.

    But,as much as the situation today between mainstream and social appears to be somewhat of a ‘remake’, I believe it is not.

    Let me explain: in the transition from printed to electronic media, the major difference was that contents needed to be conceived and delivered from diverse midsets and with paramount attention to emotions and formats (for tv) rather than arguments and hard contents (for printed).
    This in the conviction that while printed journalists would only, in the best of cases, be inspired by the contents we were able to conceive and tranfer, television journalists would instead be more prone to use the vnr’s, at least in part, as we prepared them.

    Social media is, from this point of view, as 40deuce indicates, an environment where every individual is her/his own medium and delivers contents in the aim of developing a relationship with others.

    I of course agree with David that the web is both an information and a communitation channel.

    But most of all it is a relationship one, and this is the ‘discontinuity’ I mentioned in my post.

    I like 40duece’s concept of traditional pr and marketing as an interruption of a publics life…and of course I agree with everything that Heather writes.

    I am not so sure however that the situation, from this perspective, is different if you consider marketing or issues and crisis management.

    Yet, Heather, you are certainly right when you call for a reconsideration in educating how media really works in itself before even explaining how public relations relates to them.

    We now know (i.e. the 2008 Cardiff University study) that 82% of learned media printed characters are inspired by public relations sources. Nothing wrong with this in principle, but I would like very much that youngsters of all ages, of all walks of life, be made aware of this and helped in understanding the interests which reside behind the information which so much impacts on how they form their opinions, regardless of the fact that the channel be mainstream or social (i.e. the rethorical myth that social media are not expression of vested interests is, from both an individual or social perspective, plain b.s).

    Let’s continue the debate….

  13. As a current student in a public relations program, I agree that both forms of media are important. In my program they only focus on the mainstream “classic” media, but are working to integrate online PR into the program. I’m actually helping my course coordinator create an online PR class for the next year starting in september.

    However, I feel that while both are important, they should be taught separately. While both are forms of media, I think the way that the publics interact with each is very different. Traditional media for PR and marketing is usually looked at as a interruption to the publics life. Something that tries to distract them from another place, like advertising does so well. On the other hand, social media requires interaction. Social media is a voluntary thing. People can choose to participate, and if they do, they participate in a way that works for them. Traditional media is looking for everyone they reach to participate in the same way.

    That’s just my opinion as a student though.

  14. Today’s magic word confirming I’m allowed to write here is “press.” How apporpriate.

    This same discussion (social media cf mainstream media) used to be radio vs newspaper, and then tv arrived, and so we had print vs (or cf) broadcast.

    And we had to end press conferences and press release and start news conferences and news releases.

    Anyway, that hotbed of free travel for elected and paid big shots, the International Association of Business Communicators, is big on “social media” and now issues news / press releases in two forms. There’s the real news rlease, with sentences linked into paragraphs (although most seeem to ignore the wisdom of spacing and paragraph breaks and subheads) and, now, the social media version, with, last time I looked, lists of words and numbers for bloggers to cut and paste, ignoring anything challenging, like a full sentence.

    No pictures, though.

    Go see for yourself at and then search for a while.

    QUESTION: am I right in thinking PR Conversations is counted as social media? BEcause I read here, and sometimes write, am I really trendy and with it?


  15. Social media is, above all, media.

    Yes, it’s very different from any sort of media we’ve dealt with before, but it still is a venue for disseminating and sharing information and opinion.

    When TV was new, p.r. people had to learn to adapt in order to best utilize it for clients. When the web was new, we also had to change with the times, while still — hopefully — maintaining the basic ethical and journalistic standards.

    So p.r. students, as well as we over-20 something p.r. practitioners, must learn how to work with social media. Since it is evolving so rapidly, it may be too soon to establish hard & fast rules. But again, the basics of ethics, journalism and common courtesy should still prevail in all we do, whether via social media or the newsprint “dinosaurs.”

    Thanks for raising the question, Toni.

  16. Toni,

    In some senses I see online/social media relations as a development of mainstream media relations and as such feel it could be integrated. This has the benefit of reinforcing that the essence of good relationships online are the same as those with traditional journalists and other influential authorities with whom PR has engaged (politicians, local communities, etc).

    I also think that online/social media should be considered from the communications theory perspective where aspects such as push/pull media, active/passive receivers, personal and group communications, direct and mediated channels, etc are all studied.

    And, who could study issues and crisis management without looking at the impact of online/social media on traditional models, the relevance of chaos and complexity theories, etc etc.

    Then there is the marketing-PR side where it is vital that PR is able to hold its own, not least to try to counter some of the most dubious spamming practices and ensure PR doesn’t lose out on understanding SEO etc.

    So I say, integrate as much as possible – but, I also think there is room for a distinct unit of study as well. Indeed, I’m open to this being a cross-functional area of study or maybe an anti-functional one where some of the traditional walls are removed.

    If we’re serious about online/social media being an area of relevance for PR, then we have to engage more with the technical aspects and become as adept in using multi-media as we are with the written word.

    And, picking up on your point about organisation-stakeholder relations, I feel it is vital that a PR component of any online/social media unit focuses on publics and the social sphere.

    So recognising that the world (particularly the online one) is not the preserve of the organisation and offers potentially a more equal platform to those with whom we wish to engage.

    That recognition might even feed back into study of traditional media where I often feel there has been a reduction in understanding of the role of an independent media in society. So perhaps less focus on how PR can control or dominate discussion in society and more on how it needs to earn the right to engage in the conversation.

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