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How’s social media evolving PR

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Varghese Thomas

Varghese Thomas, Director, Corporate Communications, Research In Motion, India and SAARC

In the early days, the internet consisted of one-way communications in the form of static websites and two-way communication through email. Over the past several years, the internet has grown to the most premiere medium for two-way or multi-way conversations which changed the dynamics of Public Relations (PR). Just a few of examples include social interaction through Facebook, tagging in Technorati or Digg, and micro-blogging sites like Twitter.

Let’s take a step back and see how PR used to operate. Old timers in the PR industry woke up most mornings to craft a press release and then left it to the mailroom boys to send it out to editors. To hasten the process, fax machines were used. Towards the late 1990s e-mail became an alternative delivery method. The press release went as an attachment. The smarter set began to create landing pages for journalists on their websites that had announcements and releases, downloadable pictures and logos. How cool was that?

Today’s PR professionals wake up to an entirely different scenario. There’s social media to contend with. It’s not just broadcast; its multi-media, images, tags, keywords, links, listening to your target audience and engaging them in conversations. Press releases must still go out. Journalists must continue to be on the PR professional’s A-list. But all that is turning into Old School PR. Even traditional websites now include user-generated content options like ratings, comments, forums and reviews. These sites have been enthusiastically accepted by the public, while search engines have recently begun to share real-time news and Twitter results about many hot topics. Cumulatively, this type of multi-way online communication is referred to as social media.

The emergence, popularity and rapid growth of social media is impacting the way people communicate, and is therefore beginning to have its effect on public relations practice. Social media is providing cutting edge tools to the committed PR professional, to directly structure information, engineer impact, and deliver results. With the democratization of media, it is possible to reach influencers, experts, decision-makers, lobbies, fence sitters, customers and journalists directly. It is easy to assume that social media is forcing PR to reinvent itself. This is only part of the truth. In reality, social media is playing a far larger role: it is forcing PR to go back to its roots; it is putting the “public” back into PR.

The process of creating and distributing information and knowledge has changed. Take the typical press release of the new millennium: it is not plain text on paper; it can be a web page or an email with links to videos, it can direct the reader to a Facebook page where interested communities are already interacting, it can ensure that the press release can go viral with embedded links to Twitter and provide access to additional information through links to slide decks on SlideShare.

It may be helpful to examine the size and nature of the social media impact on modern PR. According to a study released by comScore, a global leader in measuring the digital world, called The State of Social Media, social networking is the norm for digital natives. The study, released in February 2012, said that more than half the online population across the world is engaged in social networking. India, for example, showed that 95% of the online population is engaged in social networking; the figures for the US were 98%, Canada 94%, Brazil 97%, Spain 98%, UK 98%, Philippines 96% — amply demonstrating the widespread adoption of social media and comfort with the platform.

It isn’t surprising then that social media has had an impact on geopolitics in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. It has had a deep influence on the 2008 US elections, a fact that will delight PR professionals who will do well to examine how social media is leveraged for the 2012 elections as well. The comScore study showed that social media accounts for a staggering 18% of all time spent by consumers online. Burt best of all, the study said that the time spent by audiences in the 15 – 24 age group is severely in favour of social networking. People in this demographic segment spent on average 483 minutes on social networking as against 246.7 minutes on instant messaging and 67.1 minutes on email (almost a third of the world’s social networkers are in the Asia-Pacific region).

Experts believe that 75% of all online ads will become socially enabled by 2015 (today, 1 out of 12 display ads are socially enabled). The landscape is changing much faster in the mobile space. According to MobiLens, quoted in the comScore study, 63.3% of smart phone owners in the US accessed social networking sites. For other countries, the figures were equally riveting: UK 61.5% and Canada 60.7%. Smart phones and tablets could drive the future use of social networking sites or what comScore calls “fuelling social addiction.”

Can PR afford to ignore something as potent as social media? What must PR professionals do to remain socially active, to understand trends and leverage them?

There are three areas that are being transformed from a PR perspective. The first, and the most obvious, is the fact that PR professionals are writing fewer speeches for leaders, government officials, statesmen, business heads, etc. The emphasis is more on creating on-going two-way or multi-way engagements, where conversations are key to success. Dialogue is helping PR professionals understand better what their audiences are thinking, how they react to impetus and information and what their real needs are. The second is an incredible improvement in the ability to gather information from social networks to craft effective communication strategies.

Today’s arsenal of PR tools includes an understanding of keywords, sentiment analysis and the ability to seek out and distill stories — many of which could be potentially damaging stories — around their brands and events. It has become easier for PR professionals to listen to their audience and understand what the networks are discussing. The intelligence gathered in this manner helps transform the third area of communication that is personalization. Mass, templated communication is a thing of the past. Effective PR is that which can personalize information and the message for different audiences and individuals, speaking to them 24X7 in a language they understand and at networking locations they prefer.

It is clear that the opportunities being created by social media for PR are rich, varied and effective. Savvy public relations professionals, marketers and entrepreneurs are participating in these conversations and using social media to reach this broader, skeptical audience.  By “listening in,” responding to, and providing worthwhile information in a transparent way, business people are finding social media participation to be an invaluable asset in their public relations strategies. But the 24X7 scrutiny of consumers and target audiences of brands, people, events and ideas can also be a threat. In today’s news environment, a comment or a conversation on Twitter can go viral within minutes, and the Twitterstorm can turn up as headline news in the papers the next day. The pace at which this happens can leave very little response time for PR professionals.

The fall out of this is on the PR toolkit. Many agencies are confused by the plethora of technologies, monitoring and analytical tools they must become conversant with. They need to understand what people are saying on websites, blogs, social networking sites, and forums — all this in real time. Then, the conversations need to be analyzed for positive and negative sentiment to see how brands are being impacted or the threat they pose. Having done this, they must develop a response through content that is rich, creative, interactive and persuasive. The content must be delivered in real time to the target audience, regardless of where they are.

Social media is a double-edged sword, which can be used to advantage by developing a strong understanding of social media and the trends being adopted by users. This understanding must translate itself into a PR strategy that focuses on two-way communication leveraging new-age tools such as mobiles, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, SlideShare, Flickr, YouTube and so on.

Organisations can no longer control to the same extent the messages being communicated about their brand, products or services. An online conversation exists around them, whether they like it or not, and it is PR‟s job to now seek to influence and manage that conversation. What this really means is that PR has become even more important than it was before. The art and practice of PR has become dynamic, more responsive and the results are more measurable. This is bound to create great faith in the PR industry, ensuring a greater dependence on PR professionals to find ways to reach audiences.

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