Zen and the Art of Social Media in Public Relations, By Kathleen Keating, Founder, FastStartPR
Keating is a colleague of mine who has her finger on the pulse of the Web 2.0 world. I asked her, as a PR professional, to describe how she would approach these new vessels. In typical Keating style, she did so with a lot of flair and analogies!
What do bacon and eggs, the telephone game, and War of the Worlds have in common?
Believe it or not, they were harbingers of today’s communications campaigns and set the foundation for advancing the art of public relations from monologue to dialog.
Although many historians and communications experts would say that the field of public relations didn’t exist until the early part of the twentieth century, others could successfully argue that public relations—with its capability to influence outcomes based on an individual’s experience—is perhaps one of the oldest professions.
In the 1920s and 1930s, when Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays combined psychological motivations with third-party endorsements, he was able to significantly influence the behaviors and attitudes that still affect the way we act today. Bernays is widely considered the father of public relations and is credited for the brilliance behind the message that a hearty breakfast is the key to a successful day.
With the bacon industry as a client, Bernays conducted a survey among doctors and reported their recommendation that we eat a hearty breakfast.
Bernays then took that survey data and sent it to 5,000 doctors along with his pitch promoting bacon and eggs as the hearty breakfast. Today, the bacon and eggs combination is practically inseparable and is still being served up every day in diners and kitchens throughout the world.
The game of telephone, where one person whispers a message into another’s ear and that person whispers to another and another until the circle is complete, always induces some laughs because the message is guaranteed to get garbled along the way.
However, when it comes to telling a diverse buying audience that “the new game will be on store shelves in time for the holiday season,” you want to be sure that the message doesn’t ever become misconstrued. Imagine the impact if that same message was passed along as, “it’s a shame there are no more elves in the mall today during the holiday season.” As we know, War of the Worlds instantly made H.G. Wells a household name, and his tactic of using news-like bulletins as part of radio entertainment illustrated how the general public accepted the news of a Martian invasion at face value.
If surveyed today, the medical community would still stand by the tenet that a good breakfast is a critical start to the day, yet it might not endorse the bacon-and-eggs combination as the healthiest choice. Communications professionals would always advise you that the message needs to be consistently repeated early and often. And the source of the impending alien invasion would be double- and triple-checked by news desks and the government with the facts being disseminated immediately by multiple sources via the Internet.
Still, these examples introduce three core aspects of a successful communications campaign that hold true today. These aspects are third-party validation, one-on-one communication, and the importance of working with the news media to tell a clear and accurate story.
It’s no surprise that public relations has evolved dramatically over the past century. The confluence of consumers, journalists, and public relations practitioners is changing the way we work, live, and spend our money.
No longer do customers take facts at face value. Communications professionals that don’t target their messages to specific audiences will find themselves unemployed. Journalists continue to ask the right questions to validate company claims. Together, we’re all engaging in dialog as news happens. This movement is in stark contrast to just a few years ago when a standalone product review or company profile in a magazine would tip the purchasing scales.
Enter Social Media
The advent of social media including blogs, wikis, podcasts, and the proliferation of video to tell a story has all but eliminated any trace of consumer naïveté. This shift has presented an amazing and challenging opportunity for public relations professionals to instantly and truly understand how their company and products are perceived by the public.
Although books and seminars on the art of social media continue to fill hotel ballrooms, classroom lecture halls, and company boardrooms, the fact remains that few have yet mastered the art of social media as part of the communications mix.
However, public relations professionals need to keep in mind some generally accepted guidelines to social media because they can make or break the reputation of a company.
The Top 10 Guidelines of Social Media for the Public Relations Practitioner
- Follow the rules: Check with your corporate communications team to learn if the company has a policy regarding blogging or use of videos online so that you are not putting your employer or employment at risk.
- Fully disclose your role in the company: Disguising yourself online won’t last long before you’re discovered and that can potentially damage your credibility forever. In keeping with guideline number one, if you do blog, include a disclosure that your thoughts and opinions are your own and not necessarily those of your employer.
- Don’t pitch the blogosphere: Many public relations professionals still wrongly believe that bloggers should be pitched like journalists. Disingenuous messages and forwarding press releases will quickly alienate you from the community. Even worse, your pitch could end up as its own blog entry under the heading of “What Not to Do.”
- Join the dialog: Read, read, and continue to read the blogs and learn as much as possible about your area of interest. When you’re ready, join the discussion with your thoughts and opinions and of course, never a pitch.
- Initiate the conversation: If you’ve become an expert on a particular subject, start your own blog and link to other blogs in the community.
- Use podcasts and wikis as a way to educate interested audiences and build communities: Again, the role of the public relations person here is to help facilitate these communications vehicles, not skew the information to sell a product.
- Use video: YouTube has presented an entirely new way to show, not tell, your story in a way that is sometimes far more compelling than words.
- Infuse traditional public relations tactics with social media: Add links, pictures, and video into your press releases to bring your story to life. Just be careful that you’re not overdoing it and diluting your messages.
- Make it easy to find your company and news online: Add news feeds to your press room to make subscribing to your company announcements as easy as possible for interested parties.
- Don’t lose sight of your company’s core values: Be sure that you’re consistent in your messages to protect your company’s brand as you explore new communications vehicles.
Although the world of social media is new and many public relations practitioners are still hesitant to dip their toe in the water, the reality is that whether online or offline, the same rules apply. A solid story, backed by third parties and customized for its audiences, will always resonate among the preferred news outlets.
The rules have changed. It’s clear that when it comes to social media and public relations, the industry is in the midst of one of its most dramatic and permanent shifts. As social media tools proliferate, communications strategies must adapt or a company could lose its credibility overnight.
By the time The New Language of Marketing 2.0 is published, we’ll (hopefully) be reading the last of lengthy press releases containing industry-specific language. We’ll watch stories unfold more than we’ll read about them. We’ll work and play more closely with like-minded individuals all over the planet.
Social media has provided us with myriad ways to connect to journalists, influencers, customers, partners, colleagues, and friends. Despite the seemingly endless ways to communicate, the true value of social media tools is in their capability to more easily connect us on a one-on-one basis based on preferences and interests. Never before has it been so easy to opt in to the discussion and share as much or as little as you’d like in the format that you choose. There’s no going back now. And who would want to?