Writing the conversation: How social media is redefining PR’s content creation

February 1, 2010

The explosion of social media, combined with the decline of traditional media, presents a new challenge for PR writing. How do we shift focus from our message to our audience, while still crafting campaigns that are measurable, goal-driven and compelling? It is as simple — and as difficult — as adopting a different mindset.

The old-school press release

For decades, the triad of print media, journalistic standards and the AP Stylebook-driven press release meant that PR professionals could key in on content.

Because PR writing was aimed primarily at journalists who were in turn reporting to a passive readership, there was little motivation to understand the wants, needs and opinions of the individuals who were using a product or service. “Publics” and “audiences” were addressed, but there wasn’t true familiarity.

As a result, Brain Solis and Deirdre Breakenridge, co-authors of  “Putting the Public Back in Public Relations,” wrote that the old-fashioned press release didn’t change much for 100 years.

Then Web 2.0 happened.  Anyone, from anywhere, could create and distribute content. Now, Facebook users share more than 3.5 billion pieces of content while popular YouTube videos can garner more than100 million views.

Suddenly, the conversation is going on all around you.  Your brand is being evangelized, dismissed, measured and documented in real time online. If you haven’t already done so, then it’s time to join the conversation and show your company or client cares — a mission perfectly suited for the PR professional.

As social media adviser Chris Brogan blogged recently on ChrisBrogan.com, “the people who know how to storytell in this new space, and who know how to be a personality while telling these stories, are poised to do interesting things. The medium has changed. The methods have changed. The opportunity has changed.”

Blogger and journalist outreach

Bloggers and journalists are still critical influencers, and most PR practitioners are adept at identifying them, cultivating relationships with them and supplying relevant stories and information.

Twitter lists provide an excellent way to keep tabs to spot blogger relation opportunities, and social media releases provide visual, textual and social content in a useful format. BrianSolis.com features an educational tutorial on social media releases, and PitchEngine.com is a powerful, free social media release creator.

Social network participation

“Go to where the people hang out and write about them on their terms,” digital strategist Steve Farnsworth suggests.  A social media-optimized online press room is wonderful for your Web site, but the majority of your customers are somewhere else —  Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, forums or blogs.

Locate and listen first, then join the conversation respectfully. Each venue has a culture and an etiquette that must be honored, yet far too many so-called experts still use these channels for boorish one-way broadcasts.


Public relations has always been about the blending of art and science — relationships and results, storytelling and statistics. If 2009 was the year that most PR practitioners finally joined the conversation in Web 2.0 venues such as blogs, wikis, Twitter, Facebook and Ning, then 2010 will be the year that social media campaign measurement will be standardized and expected.

“Stop taking orders, and start creating true demand for your insights and the outcomes they drive,” says communications consultant  Valeria Maltoni. “That means becoming more adept at tracking and measuring results, and more accountable to the organizations and people you serve.”

It’s a new environment for the PR writer — one that’s richer and more diverse due to the thousands of people that may be converging around your brand.

As Solis and Breakenridge wrote in their book, “You can be more effective and valuable as a genuine enthusiast for who and what you represent . . .The key is to let go and embrace the chaos.”


Notable social media communicators talk writing

Tactics reached out to four social media experts for writing tips. Here’s what they had to say:

Chris Brogan (@chrisbrogan)
President of New Marketing Labs, co-author of “Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation and Earn Trust”
“It becomes a matter of telling stories from the heart, about the people, and in a way that makes for good reading and not just company dogma. Great creativity will go a long way in empowering companies.”

Steve Farnsworth (@Steveology)
Chief digital strategist at Jolt Social Media, former client- and agency-side PR professional
“With social media, you interact with the content, change it in some way, and share it with your network. You need to write about the users’ experiences, not the product. If you want people to interact with your content, there has to be zero corporate-speak and it must be from one human being to another.”

Valeria Maltoni (@ConversationAge)
Italy- and U.S.-based communications consultant, ConversationAgent blog creator, contributor to Fast Company/Marketing Profs blogs
“PR professionals need to become more adept at researching and shaping stories, collecting data, inserting their organization in market conversations by spotting and building on trends, engaging in people relations, and being open to the new.”

Brian Solis (@briansolis)
Principal of FutureWorks, PR 2.0 blog creator, co-author of “Putting the Public Back in Public Relations”
“The evolution of writing in public relations reflects the ability to connect a story to the people who could benefit from it. We shift from the inward writing process where executives and clients are our audience to writing for the very people we’re hoping to reach — in the language, style and spirit that resonates with them.”

Katie Winchell
Katie Winchell is the director of marketing and communications for the California League of Schools and a recent social media convert. Twitter: @leaguelearn or @katiewinchell.
Email: katiewinchell at gmail.com


Alan Weinkrantz says:

Great story, but traditional PR still matters because it helps you think through how to be a better story teller for the Social Web. My presentation - Stop Pitching and Start Story Telling http://www.alanweinkrantz.com/stop-pitching-and-start-story-telling-todays

Feb. 2, 2010

Dara Bell says:

I think Brians point and the value of the Press Release speaks volumes for its social currencyt today. The wind shifts and press releases may shift too. I have always considered events as better awareness raising activities and valued by journalists as a real story. If a famous person is out giving homeless people bread rolls soup and the like that is a story, that will make them be highlight there love for a charity, not a story submitted to a newpaper on their charity work, which could just giving some money away of something. It is the act that tells a thousand words, the spectacle that. It creates talk on the street for the illerate. No I think the press release is dead but I think it was dead before social media.

Feb. 3, 2010

Susan Young says:

Hi Kate, Thank you for sharing these valuable insights from key players in Social Media. As a PR professional, broadcast newswriter,blogger and speaker, this is an amazing time to weave in story-telling, brand recognition and some traditional PR tools in Social Media networks. Yes, we must "embrace the chaos." Nice article. Susan Young www.getinfrontblogging.com

Feb. 3, 2010

Katie Winchell says:

Hi Alan, you're right, traditional PR definitely matters, it is steeped in research and best practices. I love AP style as much as the next word nerd. My aim for this article was to highlight a subtle shift of focus and an appreciation for new tools, not to reject the past. Hard to pack it all into 1,000 words. Dara, you're right, the winds are shifting! What a fascinating time this is. Susan, thanks for your thoughts, will check out your site and Alan's too. Thanks for taking the time to comment, folks. :)

Feb. 4, 2010

Caitlin Murphy says:

Kate, Thanks for your insight. I agree that "2010 will be the year that social media campaign measurement will be standardized and expected." This is a challenge we are all embracing, and I am curious to see how the perceived "value" of social media evolves. Will there be a monetary unit associated with ROE? (Many clients are business minded, and expect figures.) I will share your post with my colleagues. Cheers, Caitlin @TravelPRGirl

Feb. 4, 2010

Tammy Brackett says:

I've always preached storytelling to my bands. It's important in PR world to connect at a personal and intimate level especially now. There is so much verbal clutter and info at the touch of a button. Concise, short and memorable are key elements to the story press release. Thank you for this great article. Very insightful!

Feb. 5, 2010

Katie Winchell says:

Hi Caitlin, I'm curious too! Another wrinkle is the customer service aspect of social media - hard to measure that increase in satisfaction as a monetary unit. Thanks for the follow on Twitter, followed you back! Best, Katie

Feb. 6, 2010

Katie Winchell says:

Hi Tammy, yes, the power of emotional connection is something to be respected, and that is why social media is blurring the lines between PR and customer service, etc. Would like to hear more of your thoughts on storytelling - maybe you'll write an article for Tactics on that? :)

Feb. 9, 2010

mbali says:

i agree with chris its all about building good relationships and a maintained environment i a bussiness, most campanies have the essential of overpowering they goals and its a good thing but its all about a matter of having fun and allowing all employees to have a sustained and enjoyable environment

March 27, 2013

Katie (Winchell) Sandberg says:

Thanks for your input, mbali. Chris Brogan was a gracious source for this article, and the bonus was his mom was his assistant at the time - a great lady. A lot of things have changed (besides my now-married last name!) since I wrote this article, hard to believe that only five years ago social media was still not necessarily seen as having much impact on PR.

March 22, 2015

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