Social media will not kill PR, but it does expose industry weakness

The way I see it, social media isn't putting PR in jeopardy, but it has exposed a weakness in PR that was always there -- too much focus on dialing for dollars and not enough focus on making PR stretch to support real business initiatives.
Written by Jennifer Leggio, Contributor

Calm down, this is not another "PR is dead" meme. I'll leave that to this guy and this guy and this guy. However, after attending a Horn Group panel on Wednesday on the topic of "Is Social Media Killing PR?", I'm a little afraid for the future of the PR industry.

Let me explain.

The panel itself, co-sponsored by Girls in Tech, was insightful. Horn Group, by far, has always been one of the highest on my radar for agencies who "get it." Susan Etlinger, agency vice president, was joined by Forrester analyst Jeremiah Owyang and the ever-colorful Kara Swisher for a lively discussion moderated by Sam Whitmore. The discussion was borne of the aforementioned memes that purport social media -- and the direct connections it can provide between media and companies -- is putting PR in jeopardy.

The way I see it, social media isn't putting PR in jeopardy, but it has exposed a weakness in PR that was always there -- too much focus on dialing for dollars and not enough focus on making PR stretch to support real business initiatives.

During the panel, both Etlinger and Owyang handed these issues to the audience on a silver platter. Specifcally, Owyang made the critical points that yes, PR is changing, and it's more important now than ever that PR engage 1) beyond corporate communications 2) throughout the customer lifecycles and 3) with a new and improved skill set. And, most important, PR needs to fix its own reputation (Owyang expands on this in detail on his blog).

Yet the audience appeared unmoved. To varying degrees, comments from the audience centered around the tactical use of tools, or even high level comments on how tools alone are not enough -- but no substance as to the how. Some folks complained that they have to pitch the way the clients tell them; they can't push back (a historic, but solvable, problem). Others asked questions that merely stirred the pot rather than adding more savory ingredients.

In fairness, the Horn Group organized this panel merely to start the discussion, and as much as we in Silicon Valley would like to believe everyone thinks about social media in the same terms we do -- they don't. Etlinger made an astute observation on Owyang's blog post about social media early adopters and PR:

"But from where I sat last night, I saw a microcosm of the cultural barriers to social media: confusion, ambivalence, fear of letting go of strategies that no longer work, but also a lot of curiosity and pockets of innovation. We should learn from that; we may not have taken the conversation as far as we wanted, but it’s the price we pay for inclusion; for being social in the first place.

And ultimately I believe it’s our responsibility as early(ish) adopters and strategists to help bring the next group along–whether they’re PR people, marketers, customer service reps or plumbers."

And Susan's right. My concern, however, is that even in my conversations with attendees after the panel there was so much defense around the way that public relations has traditionally been executed. It almost appeared at moments that Etlinger and Owyang (and even Swisher from her unique media perspective) were shouting into a black hole when discussing the concept of public relations professionals using social media as a platform on which to step up as business consultants.

The question still remains, however, as to how?

I said earlier that social media has merely exposed a weakness in PR that has always been there. PR leaders need to change the way they are training their people -- stop sticking them in a corner with editorial calendars and awards and teach them about the fundamentals of business. Agency types need to find ways to leverage social media to prove to their clients that they are trusted counsel (i.e. be transparent -- let the client publicly see the relationships you have). When you push back, they are more likely to believe you.

Beyond the tactics? Look at the transparency as a positive. Leverage it in a way that will help you as a PR professional build your own brand and differentiators. Look at your client's or company's business as a whole. Don't just use Twitter to pitch them or suggest you monitor their Facebook presence. Ask yourself about the revenue model, support structure, sales strategy, marketing operations and market share. For the last time, read Owyang's blog post. Ask questions and read case studies as to how some big, big companies are tackling issues using social media and apply it all to public relations strategies.

Again, it's being done. The Horn Group gets it. Other agencies, such as Perkett PR and Sterling Communications, get it. Many individual corporate communications professionals get it. If you don't get it, while the industry may not die, you could very well be left behind with the weak elite who refuse to change.

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