Archive for December, 2010

Social Networking & PR — No, It’s Not About The Media

A friendly exchange with a colleague and occasional professional counselor that took place here on In-House PR recently illustrates the difference between the way PR guys and ad guys see the world and how that difference focuses our view of social networking.

The complete exchange is below, but my friend Rick agreed that “PR is about the client’s reputation and engaging with the groups that impact that client’s success,” but our view of social media then diverged. “What I am learning every day,” he wrote, “is that it’s really all about media.  Social media is just that – media.  It is creating your same good old content, but then disseminating it via all the myriad media, most of it digital, that is now available to us.  It’s all about the media, the blog sites, the micro-sites, the interstices of the worldwide web that allow us to get that same message out multiples of times.  Write once, publish many times.”

Rick is one of the best in advertising. His agency, Pace Advertising, has won many awards and has represented K. Hovnanian and many competing builders over the years and helped them to sell many homes. I have learned a great deal from him over the years.

But with all due respect, PR is not about the media. Never has been. Media is a tactic…a way to reach specific groups of people who can impact the success of our client organizations. We use media to help people understand what our client organizations stand for and to show that we are trying to be good citizens (that reputation thing). We know people would rather do business with such a company, and will give such a company the benefit of the doubt if there’s a problem.

Not only is public relations not about the media, but social media isn’t just another channel over which to transmit a message. It is the physical element of social networking, a new tool that allows public relations practitioners to do what they’ve always done – communicate directly with people. Social media is as much attitude these days as it is medium.

All about the media? One of my professional heroes is Arthur Page, the vice president of AT&T Public Relations from 1927 to 1946 (I worked at AT&T from 1983 to about 1988…hopefully I got something from osmosis!). Page talked about seven principles: Tell the truth, Prove it with action, Listen to the customer, Manage for tomorrow, Conduct public relations as if the whole company depends on it, Realize a company’s true character is expressed by its people, and remain calm, patient and good-humored.

See anything about media there? Public relations is a management strategy about how a company conducts itself. Part of that strategy is conversing with the public to be sure that people understand what a company stands for. In 1939, at an early news conference, Page said, “Real success, both for big business and the public, lies in large enterprise conducting itself in the public interest and in such a way that the public will give it sufficient freedom to serve effectively.”  Page felt – and very recent research continues to support – that people would prefer to work for, buy from and give a little leeway to such a company.

Media helps get that message out, but it’s not about the media. And social networking is an invaluable tool in getting the message out directly and hearing back from the public directly.

If 1939 seems like ancient history, try something more to the point and much more recent:  “PR has always been about building relationships with the public through meaningful communication. It never should have been about anything else,” write social networking gurus Brian Solis and Deirdre Breakenridge in their recent book, Putting the Public Back in Public Relations. “PR is about people, not about the tools.”

It’s the essential difference between advertising and public relations. Advertising is a one-way message controlled by the sender. “Write once, publish many times” sounds like an efficient and practical tool to make a successful ad work even harder.

But it’s not public relations and it doesn’t have the credibility or power of PR. By engaging with groups that impact an organization indirectly through media, community meetings, special events or other channels, or directly through social media, public relations practitioners can tell their story their way and listen for the response – sometimes instantly. They can use what they hear to guide their business behavior, changing products or developing new ones, modifying policies or writing new ones, or correcting misinformation that is making it harder to accomplish goals.

Too many executives still think of PR as free publicity and are allowing their marketing people to use social media as a broadcast venue  – a way to write once and publish many times. They are missing their chance to demonstrate that theirs are are responsible organizations, earning respect and support from employees, customers and relevant policy makers. And by missing that chance, they are blowing the opportunity to be far more successful because they’re not engaging their biggest sales force — the public!

I believe that organizations that engage their audiences – as groups and as individuals – will be the ones that succeed in this era of transparency, accountability and advocacy. The most successful companies have always communicated (reminder: communicating doesn’t just mean talking…it means listening and reacting) effectively internally and externally. Those organizations that embrace social and traditional media as part of a comprehensive strategic approach to genuine two-way communications, and use that communications to guide their performance and behavior,  will be our new business superstars.

December 21, 2010 at 12:23 am 2 comments

Joining the unemployed creates an opportunity!

The In-House PR guy homeless.

Just before Thanksgiving, I joined the 9.3 percent of the workforce that isn’t working. My employer for the past 10 years, K. Hovnanian Homes, laid off another group of employees and I joined a long list of top-notch people shed by the company as it deals with a poor housing market and other issues.

I’m not angry or bitter. Anyone in the housing industry who thought their job was secure either owned the company or wasn’t paying attention. But I am frustrated for two reasons.

First, I was working on some projects that I found exciting. One was continuing to work with paleontologists and geologists to balance the need for new homes with the need to preserve geologic history, including dinosaur tracks and some geologic formations found in very few other places around the world. I had already arranged an agreement between K. Hovnanian and the New Jersey State Museum and held a press conference to announce that agreement. But there was more work to be done.

The second reason is that I was pursuing some exciting communications strategies using social and traditional media. I was also trying to increase the use of Twitter to converse with homebuyers and reporters. And I was building on my experience with optimized releases by developing a plan that would allow us to create an on-line newsroom and create our own online, optimized real estate page. I thought we could complete the circle by using QRs on our print ads, but advertising was handled by another department, and we never got past some casual discussions.

Now I’ll have to look elsewhere to demonstrate the power of integrating traditional and social media in public relations strategies and tactics, something that has had growing appeal to me.

A lot of organizations hire social media managers and many agencies bill themselves as social media agencies. Social media, however, is not a strategic approach to communicating with today’s publics. A social media agency is like hiring a magazine agency or TV manager. One medium does not a strategy make.

Public relations is still about reputation, identifying the different groups that impact an organization’s success and staying engaged with those groups (read two-way communications). It’s about influencing opinion and behavior. Social media is a powerful tool to accomplish that. It’s very exciting to be able to bypass the news media and talk directly with customers or other stakeholders. Too many organizations, however, use social media as a broadcast tool, not listening for a response. Or they use only social media, missing other opportunities to tell their story.

Maybe it’s the “old guy” in me, but I still believe there’s also an important place for traditional tactics such as news releases (provided, of course, they’re well written and talk about something newsworthy) and face-to-face conversation. Those tactics still have an important place in most public relations strategies.

So, rather than a setback, I figure I have an opportunity: I have a chance to find a place that’s concerned about its reputation and wants to maintain that reputation and accomplish its goals by using an intelligent mix of social and traditional media.

 My search is on and I’m excited! Your thoughts?

December 14, 2010 at 5:07 pm 9 comments


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