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Birds on a wire: Public relations in the Twitterverse

October 13, 2008

Copyright © 2008 PRSA. All rights reserved

By Ryan Zuk, APR

The following article appears in the October 2008  issue of PR Tactics.

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, no it’s… well it’s a bird, of sorts. It’s Social media observers conservatively estimate that there are 3 million Twitter users and counting (although Twitter would not confirm this number when contacted). The popular social media tool, which debuted in March 2006, has created a communications phenomenon that media and analyst relations practitioners should monitor and consider joining.

Twitter is an opt-in instant messaging-type application set in a community format.  Along with similar applications like FriendFeed and  Yammer, for enterprise users, these are also called micro-blogs. Twitter users post, or “tweet,” up to 140-character messages to their followers and read messages of those they elect to follow on, or via third-party applications such as BeTwittered. They can also view and post messages from their mobile phones, extending Twitter’s reach and strengthening its utility.

User profiles are vast. Industry influencers, press, analysts, celebrities, authors, politicians, businesses, consumers, and professional communicators, among others, all have a presence on Twitter.

Twitterers are encouraged to answer the question “What are you doing?” (or thinking, feeling, etc.) when writing their posts. The possibilities, unlike the character limit, are endless. So, learning how to present yourself, your brand, and possibly your clients on Twitter has become a must.  Although the boundaries of this article cannot fully portray what Twitter and its millions of succinct user posts have done to impact how communicators convey their messages, here are some insights to help guide your way.

Walk, then run
Online etiquette also applies to Twitter. Listening before tweeting is the first-step recommendation that experts provide. With social media, knowing what has already been said about you, your company, and your clients goes a long way toward building your social communication strategies and avoiding potential embarrassment.

Identifying who, or what groups, are conversing about you nets valuable relationship mapping, and Twitter accelerates this process.  An afternoon of monitoring terms on Twitter or using tools like or can be revealing.

Paul Greenberg (@pgreenbe on Twitter), social media expert and author of  “CRM at the Speed of Light: Essential Customer Strategies for the 21st Century,” no longer sees Twitter and burgeoning social tools as trendy; he asserts that they are essential. “PR professionals not using Twitter really need to get out there,” he says. “The days of just putting out great press releases are long past, and the ‘who you know’ aspects of business are now amplified. Twitter emphasizes the ‘how,’ and much like other social media success stories can lift an individual or client to higher stature.”

The concept of giving to receive is pervasive in the Twitter community and Twitterers demand that fellow users refrain from outright self-promotion. By referring the wisdom of others and sharing your own opinions, you can earn favorable clout.

“Add to the conversation and you’ll be accepted,” suggests Greenberg. “The most substantial value I get from staying visible on Twitter is branding myself and my consulting. I just do it in a logical way. Whenever I write an article relevant [to] my followers, I tweet a link. It’s an acceptable way to extend my brand while adding to the community’s knowledgebase.”

Seasoned users also suggest mixing some personal details into your messages. Scott Nelson (@scottn7), analyst and managing vice president of research for Gartner, finds that Twitter adds a human element back into his business relationships. “My colleagues and clients are scattered all over the world,” Nelson says. “So Twitter creates a middle ground where I can learn more about them on a personal level which nurtures our business along the way.”

Nelson, however, is mindful of what he says on Twitter, knowing that he is still representing Gartner. Yet, his personal musings have opened doors. CIOs and organization heads who were once hesitant to contact him now do so regularly, because of the comfort level his tweets have created.

Advancing the mechanics of relationship building
 “Twitter is a way to get your expertise and, frankly, some of your flair out there,” adds Laura Fitton (@pistachio), principal of Pistachio Consulting, a firm specializing in social collaboration strategies for agencies and enterprise clients.

Fitton re-launched her consultancy with a focus on its “microsharing” concept on Sept. 8 via Twitter. Having generated a considerable amount of social capital on Twitter, media outlets such as BusinessWeek and CNET approached her for interviews regarding social media tips. As a result, word of her company’s makeover began to leak, warranting a need to announce the news earlier than planned. “Twitter became the quickest way to get the word out and direct people to more details,” Fitton says. “It was definitely a good PR ‘problem’ to have.”

Aly Saxe (@UbiquityAS), principal of Ubiquity Public Relations, an agency specializing in technology, business-to-business and consumer products marketing, agrees that Twitter helps advance relationships.

“I’ve come to rely on Twitter to help form and strengthen relationships with the press and bloggers,” Saxe says. “It’s much easier to start conversations with them based on what they tweet, as opposed to leading with my clients’ products. When I do have a story to share with them, they already know who I am and are open to listening. This approach has helped me land briefings for my clients with some of the most influential technology bloggers.”

Awareness and immediacy create opportunity
Public opinion has never been easier to obtain than with Twitter. Consider the example of CNN’s Rick Sanchez as analyzed by social media guru Brent Leary (@BrentLeary) on the American Express OPEN Forum, a site for swapping ideas and accessing resources to help businesses grow.

On Aug. 30, while preparing to cover Hurricane Gustav, Sanchez sent this tweet to followers: “going on air at five, need you guys out there, especially around nola, what’s going on? what’s the mood?”

He also referenced some of the responses to this post during a broadcast. According to Leary, Sanchez demonstrated a whole new dimension of how people can experience and participate in the news by tapping into the Twitter community.

Imagine similar scenarios when being connected to Twitter at the right time can create opportunities for you and your clients. Paul Greenberg will often tweet to his press and analyst friends a day or two before a big vendor interview. 

He gives an example of a post: “I’m speaking with the CEO of XYZ Co. tomorrow, anything you want me to ask?”  The messages typically benefit all of the users involved as Greenberg gets quick opinion-poll responses about extra questions to ask, he and his friends gain additional insight when the CEO responds, and the CEO also has more opportunities to talk about his business.

Regarding story pitches on Twitter, Fitton suggests considering the nature of each relationship.

“I pitch my own thoughts constantly, and often by mentioning something and allowing time, the right people respond,” she says. “When I want a reaction from a specific person, I just engage in conversation appropriate for that relationship. The fundamentals still apply.”

Fitton encourages PR practitioners to consider Twitter as a means for engaging high-level executives in social media. “You might have someone who isn’t a great speaker or writer, yet Twitter’s micro aspect may be just the thing for them.  A short tweet a few times a week suits the executive lifestyle well,” she says.

Saxe also succeeds in using Twitter for practical logistics. While attending the TechCrunch50 technology conference in September, she found that the event organization was cumbersome and the Wi-Fi network was not working.

For this reason, Saxe states that she relied on Twitter for information and to stay connected during those three days.

“The press and bloggers I wanted to talk to were scattered everywhere,” she says. “It helped to find them fast on Twitter, first to see if they were in a position to be approached, and second to determine a meeting place. This is definitely my strategy for events going forward.”

Ryan Zuk, APR, is a media and analyst relations professional and Phoenix PRSA Chapter member. Zuk can be reached at and @ryanzuk on Twitter. He also blogs at


Social media skills — They got ‘em, and You can get ‘em!
In addition to those professionals listed in the article, this list references several thought-provoking people who share their insights about social media and PR topics on Twitter.

Following and engaging in discussions with them can help identify social media tactics to consider within your communications strategies. Twitter user names are provided in parentheses.

Chris Brogan (@chrisbrogan): A social media veteran and thought leader, Bronan advises businesses, organizations, and individuals on how to use social media and social media networks to build relationships and deliver value. He blogs at

Charlene Li (@charleneli): Along with fellow Forrester Research analyst Josh Bernoff (@jbernoff), Li is co-author of  “Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies.” She blogs with Bernoff at

Steve Rubel (@steverubel): Rubel serves as senior vice president, director of insights for Edelman Digital and writes a bi-weekly column for Advertising Age digital. He blogs on emerging technologies that are revolutionizing marketing communications at

Robert Scoble (@Scobleizer): Scoble co-authored “Naked Conversations: How Blogs are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers,” with Shel Israel (@shelisrael) and was formerly a technical evangelist for Microsoft. He blogs at

Brandon Zeuner (@bzkicks): Zeuner is vice president of sales at Flypaper Studio, Inc. He specializes in launches, new media, advancing sales strategy and key business development relationships. His start page is


Andrea Anglin says:

I was thrilled to see this article. Twitter has revolutionized my media relations. I am on a first name/twitter handle basis with all my media now - even people outside of the "beat" I am associated with. It's a wonderful tool I hope more PR pros give a chance.

Oct. 13, 2008

Cory O'Brien says:

Great advice, and definitely a lot of good take-away points for anyone interested in giving Twitter a try. Chances are, people are already talking about the companies you represent on Twitter, so it's important to be a part of that conversation, and to be able to guide it in the right direction. - Cory, @CoryOBrien

Oct. 13, 2008

Susan St. James says:

Twitter has no business model. This company has NO BUSINESS MODEL. It's a proprietary system with NO BUSINESS MODEL. They'll be belly-up in six months.

Oct. 13, 2008

Lee Odden says:

Nice article. Twitter has been instrumental for my SEO firm in reaching new clients, media opportunities and partners. However, it is only one of many communication channels. Twitter is hot right now, but as Susan St. James says, they have no business model. At least not yet. Relying too much on one application that doesn't have a revenue source to sustain itself is too risky. It's social media after all - be social and explore many different communication channels on the social web.

Oct. 14, 2008

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