School's out for social media – a PR report card

As many of us take a break for Summer, it seems a good time to produce a PR report card for its performance in social media this term. Let’s look at the four As, where I’m afraid most PR practitioners would do well to score a B- at best.


Undoubtedly, PR practitioners have taken to social media in droves over the past couple of years. The late majority has arrived in terms of those in PR who were reluctant previously to participate, and likewise those companies or organisations who held out from setting up social media presence. But the entire class of 2013 needs to realise that they are now engaging with a different group of social media users, as the public late majority has also signed up. This shifts social media from the analogy of a more personal seminar or workshop, where people could engage and have conversations on a more individual basis, to the concept of a class of millions – few of whom are likely to be interested in, or listening to, the PR practitioners’ efforts at communications. A change in approach is required – that isn’t based on the old ways of believing we can have conversations with everyone, but doesn’t involve talking all the time, or gaming the class to get recognition above everyone else.


This is the most popular class this year – although big data has tended to catch the imagination of other functions rather than public relations. Undoubtedly, the PR world has latched onto evaluation as a must-do subject, but as K.D. Paine has noted in announcing her new direction, data and evaluation without insight lacks real purpose. [ht Judy Gombita for KDP’s news]


There’s been some slacking off this year as overload with all those newbies in social media makes it harder to focus on what really matters. The solution may lie in ‘customised content‘ but beware of anyone telling you there’s a short cut to successful engagement and conversation in social media. Last week, an article on the Guardian website claimed ‘SEO is dead. Long live social media optimisation.’ As the search engines become clogged with meaningless pitching, the advice to communicators is to reach people through SM channels. All well and good, until those too become cluttered with marketing messages. The latest actions by Twitter and Facebook to target and track consumer activities, in partnership with brands, mainstream media channels and marketing agencies, all suggest increasing overloaded attention spans, which could lead to disengagement from social media by more and more members of the public.


The action may be shifting from the mass media nature of the big social media (such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn) to more niche areas where the app is top of the class. If you take something like Houzz, this combines a magazine, market and community seamlessly. You can personalise, discuss, browse and engage to the extent that you wish. Other publishers are looking at similar app based models (Autotrader’s Ignition is one example). This reflects the increasing trend towards mobile access of online information (including social media). The engagement of PR practitioners in this mobile revolution is arguably below par. There’s a tendency to crib off others who understand technological developments better – by relying on the traditional PR skill set of written communications. But this will certainly not get high grades in future years as the PR specialists risk being left behind.

In conclusion:

The PR practitioner continues to show promise in social media, but this potential is not fully realised owing to a reluctance to engage with critical developments such as multi-media, new technology (such as apps) and big data. Simply having a presence in social media is not enough if PR practitioners wish to be leaders in their class. Technical communications skills may enable the PR practitioner to operate as a social media ninja – churning out content that is well crafted, but where this reflects attention seeking through poorly thought through marketing messages, a fail result will shortly follow. Going into next term, the PR practitioner must step outside their comfort zone and embrace developments which require skills other than an ability to communicate. Reputation management and relationship building remain core strengths, but need to be executed better to capitalise on the latest thinking in the social media class.

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2 Replies to “School's out for social media – a PR report card

  1. I enjoyed this, Heather. I’m curious where you would put some unproven assertions, for example: the new public relations is found in (blog) communities. (?!)

    Also, marketing-focused “influencer” obsessions. Not only the suitability of most choices being pushed, but how to actually “measure” whether these so-called influencers are actually having an impact on your organization’s reputation and value (whether outtakes or outcomes).

    Personally, I’d put both in the D range. Probably D- for those who engage in “influencer manipulation.” (i.e., promote their own friendz over the more suitable individuals from a business perspective).

    1. Thanks for the questions Judy. In terms of public relations being found in online communities, I think it is important that we are familiar, and where appropriate look to engage, with these. However, do PR practitioners do the same with offline communities.

      I recall within the motor industry for example, that PR practitioners back from the 1950s probably to the early 1980s used to engage with owners groups and attend their rallies etc. This is now echoed with engagement with some online communities, who also have real world activities (Pistonheads comes to mind, with its Sunday Service events organised with various auto manufacturers). However, for around 20 years, such groups were not seen as communities to be engaged with by many manufacturers (mainly the mass ones who were trying to distance themselves from their earlier product ranges).

      There are other types of communities where perhaps they are only engaged when an issue develops – it seems a lot of the activist groups (whether consumer, financial, political etc) often are responding to a lack of interest in their viewpoint by organisations.

      I think the same applies to influencers and that it is key for PR practitioners to again be familiar and engage where appropriate.

      The issue, that I think you are picking up on, is that there seems to be a focus on identifying such communities and influencers from the perspective of the PR practitioner (ie who they know and like) or the organisation (who do we think could be influential for us) rather than thinking about who may wish and need to engage with us, who constitute a (legitimate) community and/or influencer.

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