Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Social Media PR: Market Innovation or Market Correction?

I’ve been meaning to put this question and associated thoughts to a screen for some time now, but something always seems to take precedence. 

As I read the Twitter streams and blogs of PR, press and other experts about what works, what doesn’t and what is the essence of social media, I can’t help but feel a little nostalgic.  I’ve done tech PR for the better part of 17 years at this point, and in my activities with social media – both for clients and for myself – I have often wondered if in PR industry terms, it is a mystical power or lost art?

“Social business” expert, Jennifer Leggio in particular penned a relatively recent post based on a panel conversation about what social media has done for, and to, the PR industry.  She also wrote an earlier piece on the area in which I have lived much of my professional career – enterprise IT.  These are great pieces which served to support my belief that one of the best things social media is doing for the PR industry is forcing many to actually get back to public RELATIONS.  It is also hopefully driving the end of public carpet bombing that was the result of an industry that used technology as an excuse to be lazy and undisciplined.

When I started in PR, relationships where critical, and the social media tool of the day was the phone.  Sure there was voicemail and (gasp) fax machines, but to sell a reporter on a story or a piece of news required you to have a real, live, bi-directional conversation – and build a relationship based on continuous value add.  That forced you to understand not only your client’s product, but made you understand their business and the larger context in which it operated.  You understood competitors and you had to anticipate direct questions, because you couldn’t hide behind an email.

I won’t bore you with a “I had to walk both ways to school uphill and get up from the couch to change the channel”-style history lesson, but suffice to say that an initial run through an editorial calendar back then took about 8-10 hours.

But with technology came disintermediation.  Thousands of emails could be sent at once, press release pitches gave a cliff notes version of what many thought was relevant – FOR EVERYONE, not for the one.  Sure, good firms still taught people how to do it right, but one look at all the bad pitch blogs show how far things had fallen in some cases – no targeting, no understanding, no conversation. 

Social media in my experience at its best is another outlet for creative energies, and a place that enables a different class of necessary conversation.  And whether on my own Facebook page or Twitter stream, or in counseling my clients around theirs, almost every interaction I have benefits my business and my clients.  Apart from direct pitching or communicating issues for my clients, my own interactions continue to challenge me in the way I think.  They make me think differently, think individually, and have more focused conversations than I have before – and in some cases likely wouldn’t have had otherwise. 

Jennifer is a great resource for understanding the value of social media, especially for those in B2B tech sectors, and I’d recommend for those who are not following her, you do so immediately.  She’s on Twitter as @mediaphyter.  As the risk of paraphrasing, she also cautions against the herd mentality that many PR people trying to understand social media are taking, which is being too quick to ask tactical questions about “how” to use certain tools, instead of first trying to understand why those tools are or aren’t appropriate in support of a client’s business objectives. 

Interestingly, right around the time that Jennifer posted her blog entries, the legendary Guy Kawasaki posted a blog on how to build a Twitter network.  I have to say, I was a little disappointed in that blog because of the cynical, methodical, “perception is reality” approach it seems to advocate.  Is that the essence of social media?  I hope not. 

Finally, Jennifer makes the great point that social media is a platform on which PR people can step up as business consultants.  I’d echo that sentiment wholeheartedly, and expand on that to say that social media should be an extension of PR’s role as business consultants.  When we opened CHEN PR’s doors 12 years ago, we defined a business model based not just on being a communicator for our clients, but also on being a strategic colleague, a confidant and in some cases even an extra conscience.  It’s a model that has served us extremely well through good times and bad, and one that I see in greater demand today and moving forward.  Social media isn’t the ultimate tool to fix everything, it’s the place to start a discussion – between two people, or 2 million, that can drive a business in the right direction.

For those interested, you can find me on LinkedIn, Facebook or on Twitter @kidko92

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