Putting the Public Back in Public Relations

“Social Media and the Future of PR” is the theme of Euroblog2008, currently underway in Brussels (presented by EUPRERA, Edelman, IHECS and Département de communication, Université catholique du Louvain).

I participated on a panel on chaired by Toni Muzi Falconi (who leads the Institute’s Commission on Global Public Relations Research). This gave me the opportunity to talk about two important research projects connected to the Institute.

“New Media, New Influencers and Implications for the Public Relations Profession,” by a team of Fellows of the Society for New Communications Research (SNCR)

• “Examining the Increasing Impact of Social Media on Public Relations Practice,” by Dr. Donald K. Wright, Boston University, and Michelle Hinson, Institute for Public Relations (presented at the International Public Relations Research Conference, publication pending)

The first of these quite deliberately sought respondents with a high level of experience in social media – power users. The second drew a much broader group of respondents – from different parts of the world, large and small agencies, corporations, government agencies, NGOs and educational institutions. Thirteen percent were younger than 30 while 14% were 60 or older. The remaining 70+% fell in between. Clearly, a senior professional group reflecting that the survey was distributed through the Arthur W. Page Society, the International Public Relations Association, and the Institute for Public Relations.

There is clear evidence that the views of people paid to see the big picture are moving closer to the views of the True Believers in social media. Here are five observations that I offered to the audience in Brussels, drawn somewhat randomly from the two studies.

1. Yes, there is still more talking than doing.

The Socialtext Fortune 500 Business Blogging Wiki claimed only 10% of such companies were active in blogging as of February 2008. Nevertheless, the Wright/Hinson research shows that practitioners believe that blogs and social media have changed the way their organizations communicate. Sixty-one percent agreed on this and said that changes are more pronounced in external communications than internal communications.

Two-thirds believe that social media have enhanced public relations practice. Nine out of 10 think blogs and social media influence news coverage in traditional media, and 84% say that organizations are being forced to respond more quickly to criticism.

2. If you let them, your employees will probably write good things about you.

The positives outweigh the negatives, and that is becoming more true each year.

Is it ethical for employees to blog negative statements about the organizations they work for? Senior practitioners increasingly say no, it is not. Many also believe it is ethically okay for companies to monitor what employees say and, if necessary, to discipline employees. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it is wise to do so. Only 15 percent say that their organizations are actually doing such monitoring.

Finally, the Wright/Hinson survey asked whether organizations should permit their employees to communicate on blogs during regular working hours. That drew a 44% positive response.

3. Not measuring much of anything, at least not yet and not very well.

Even the power users studied by SNCR find standard Internet measures like search engine ranking and web site traffic more useful than audience awareness or bottom-line results. Odd because these same people often proclaim that conversation marketing drives brand awareness, engagement and customer satisfaction. But the good news is that half say they are formally measuring social media initiatives in some way, even through there is no industry consensus on how to do this.

When it came to criteria for determining influence within social networks such as MySpace, Facebook and Flickr — “other” was the number one choice! Many of these networks are gated and don’t show up on search engine results. Thus, communicators are reduced to measuring the number of connections an influencer has and the overall level of activity, questions and comments.

4. In some ways, we don’t expect much of social media — in other ways, we expect everything.

The senior practitioners think that traditional news media are more accurate than social media – plus more credible, more trusted, more truthful and more ethical. Social media get high marks for offering low-cost ways to develop relationships with strategic publics (80% agreement) and encouraging corporate transparency (76%).

5. Social media may be “putting the public back in public relations.”

That’s an actual quote from a respondent in the Wright/Hinson study, one of many suggesting that blogs and social media are moving public relations toward more two-way symmetrical communications between organizations and publics. Social media have dramatically reduced the turn-around time when organizations are communicating with certain publics. This may be lessening the power of lawyers to force organizations to withhold information.

Another person concludes that social media have “made us a bit more nimble and required us to be more closely in touch with groups/individuals who have skin in our game.”

Frank Ovaitt
Institute for Public Relations

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2 Replies to “Putting the Public Back in Public Relations

  1. I totally agree with the post. Social media has definitely helped business companies to open up to their stakeholders, thus reducing their tendency to uphold critical information. Social media is still quite experimental in almost every organization so it’s just logical that communication professionals and managers put high expectations on these new features. Even though there are no consensuated ways of measuring the impact of social media in corporate communications, I’m sure that any attempt in this direction is valuable. If social networks help companies to become better and more committed corporate citizens, then I think that corporations have nothing to lose and much to win by incorporating them to their “media map”.

  2. I couldn’t agree more with number five and I think it’s great. Not only does social media help us to create better and more trusting relationships with our publics, but I also feel it is giving us PR practitioners a better reputation. The quicker we respond to a crisis, media attention or public feedback, the quicker we will stop being the ones in the way of the truth and start being the ones the public trusts to provide the truth.

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