Thursday, 28 January 2010

PR and the Social Media Bangwagon

“Evolution is evolution – and it’s happened before us and will continue after we’re gone. But, what’s taking place now is much more than change for the sake of change. The socialization of content creation, consumption and participation, is hastening the metamorphosis that transforms everyday people into participants of a powerful and valuable media literate society.“ - Brian Solis

In class today we touched on a subject that I particularly feel attracted to and that in my own, probably biased, opinion is the future of public relations: social media. 

There are tons of materials on the subject -especially online- and more than enough (self-proclaimed) experts that preach about the unbreakable bond that PR needs to build with social media in order to have a glorious future. And, of course, they are always sure to add convincingly build arguments and cleverly constructed examples to serve as proof of just that. Brian Solis, Shel Holtz, Todd Defren, Scott Monty, just to name a few of those whose blogs I find myself regularly reading. Some are more convincing than others; some insist on the world domination of new media, others tend to be more moderately opinionated on the matter. But they all view social media as the future.

And the thing is, if you're mesmerized by the influence that social media undeniably has on the world around you, but especially by the impact it exerts on your own life (like I tend to be when I wake up in the middle of the night because there is something I just *need* to tweet about), you will surely embrace all of it, jump on the bandwagon and stubbornly fight off all that try to prove it wrong.

Social media has creeped into our daily lives and has somehow become addictive, an extension of our material life, a place to cultivate our digitally enhanced alter-egos. And oh how well does it all mix with public relations! There is obviously no way of knowing what will happen to the industry in 10 years from now; we can't even predict, all that accurately, what will happen tomorrow. But if I had to take my best guess I'd say that social media is the trend to look out for and the driving force behind what PR will be at that point.

All the stats are there and proof of how efficient platforms such as FaceBook or Twitter can be has surfaced on numerous occasions (just think of all the buzz that social media, and social media alone, created around the iPad launch this week). It's up to the PR professionals to start rewiring their brains in business mode when it comes to how/ what to post on their blogs or update FaceBook statuses with, and figure out the proper way of using all these new tools in the advantage of their company and clients.

Because the hardest problem that a PR practitioner will ever face in the area is how to use social media to their advantage. Even though when you think about it in terms of 'updating information on Facebook' or tweeting 140 character messages on 'what's happening', you feel that it should come naturally (I mean, after all, it is something that you pretty much do every day), it may actually be harder than it seems once applied to an organization's or client's needs.

How do you time the release of the information, what kind of message do you want to send out and how do you make sure it doesn't get distorted on the way (we all pretty much know that social media = lack of control), how much information is too much or what social media platform best fits the profile of your client and the requirements of their audiences. Not to mention the whole issue surrounding measuring and evaluating results or that of defining the new ethical boundaries, if any left at all.

Information flows faster and more uncontrollable than ever before; and what better glimpse at this reality that a simple analysis of the dynamics of Twitter trends or of viral campaigns such as Facebook's 'What colour's your bra?' And if PR has come to terms with the loss of control over that information, it's about high time it start gaining some of it back.

All of the sudden we have all these multitude of voices that are automatically invested with power and that create a lot of new third party endorsers. PR practitioners have to come up with ways to manage these voices, identify those which are most relevant and powerful, and shift the power balance towards their client or company. And multiple voices also come with a benefit: two-way communication is more enhanced than ever. This is an exceptional opportunity to find out exactly what the public is thinking about and if social media hasn't told you that it means that the online tools are not being used properly.

In this new digitalized world, monologue has given way to dialog, professionals to amateurs (these days we seem more likely to trust in the words of bloggers than in any 'official information' we receive) and authenticity seems to be the key. But is transparency also a core integrated element of social media? It is definitely a top requirement in the social media scheme of things, but how realistic is it really? Gatekeepers have always been there to serve their purposes and social media is no different: the gatekeepers are there, just not as obvious as before; unspecialized users tend to be oblivious to their existence, but they are real. The public wants honest non-biased opinions in their grand search of the Truth, but it doesn't always seem to be feasible. Of course transparency is the basis of building trust and relationships, and these two elements are key to good public relation practices, but there is such a thing as too much information and honesty don't have to equate with utter vulnerability. And it's again the PR professional's duty to find the perfect balance between the two.

Used correctly, social media is capable of offering the PR professional the means to send out controlled messages while giving the public the opportunities and exactly the information it needs. And once PR learns how to manage all of the above, and starts using social media the way it was intended, the benefits are there to thrive in.

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