Public relations and social media: Is this a relationship made to last?

December 20, 2011

From coy early glances to going steady, the relationship between public relations and social media has evolved dramatically over the past two or three years. But will it last?

My (admittedly unscientific) survey of PR professionals this past summer sparked my interest in the state of the relationship between public relations and social media.

The survey responses — more than 70 as of this writing — overwhelmingly indicated that PR professionals think it highly important that college graduates understand fully how to use Twitter, Facebook, blogs and social presence management tools such as Tweetdeck and Hootsuite for PR purposes.

The results (with the percentage of respondents giving each tool a “10” on a 10-point scale in parentheses) were: Twitter (63 percent), Facebook (55 percent), blogs (52 percent), search engine optimization or SEO (52 percent), social presence management tools such as Tweetdeck, Hootsuite and SocialOomph (50 percent) and Linkedin (50 percent). Other tools, such as YouTube, wikis, Flickr, social bookmarking tools, geo-location services (such as Foursquare and GoWalla) and social gaming, all had much smaller percentages.

When we asked participants, “What tools and techniques must students completely understand how to use for PR purposes?” they were asked to rank-order their choices. In other words, only one tool could get a “10” and one could get a “9,” etc.

The percentage of respondents giving each tool a “10” or a top ranking were: SEO (33 percent), Twitter (19 percent), Facebook (18 percent) and blogs (12 percent). The percentage of respondents giving each tool a “9,” or the second-highest ranking, were: Twitter (23 percent), blogs (22 percent), SEO (21 percent) and Facebook (18 percent).

Frankly, SEO’s high ranking surprised me, while the consistency with which Twitter, Facebook and blogs were given a 10, 9 or 8 makes it clear that right now they are the big three for PR.

A "connected media ecosystem"

This seemed like a major change from just a few years ago, when many in PR were wary of social media tools and skills.

So how did PR begin this relationship with social media, and how is it faring today? I went looking for reactions.

“It's hard to say the exact tipping point,” says Deirdre Breakenridge, communications strategist and author of “PR 2.0.” “It may have been a culmination of real-life experiences through social crisis that caught the PR person's attention.”

Rosanna M. Fiske, 2011 chair and CEO of PRSA, believes PR professionals should see that social media is not a fad and is here to say.

“We simply cannot ignore the reality that social media offers immense communications and marketing opportunities for companies and organizations,” she says.

PR professionals now must counsel clients and employers on how they can better communicate with their publics in social media.

“It stands to reason, then, that we should earnestly embrace social media,” Fiske says. “In fact, [we should] be leading the charge in developing innovative ways to better reach key audiences through the use of social media.”

This, of course, means more “stuff” for PR professionals to do and watch over.

Steve Rubel, executive vice president/global strategy and insights for Edelman, says it is inevitable that social media work will be an “an add-on” duty for those in public relations. He says this is a positive because “they allow us to engage more directly.” But he also sees change coming in how PR professionals incorporate social media tools.

“Increasingly, we are advising clients to view social as part of a larger connected media ecosystem,” Rubel says.

He says that Edelman uses a media cloverleaf framework that shows interconnectivity between traditional media (e.g. CNN), hybrids (1/2 digital native, 1/2 traditional — like Mashable), owned content (company/brand acting as media) and then social (Twitter, Facebook, Google+, etc).

So what does all this mean for the future of social in public relations? It the honeymoon phase is giving way to the sober realization that social media and PR are in it for the long haul.

3 things all college graduates need to know about PR and social media

Based on responses to my initial survey and the feedback from PR pros all graduating seniors must know these three things to be effective in PR once they enter the work world:

  • SEO (search engine optimization):  Understanding how SEO helps content get found (and shared) will play an increasing role in all future PR communication. While social networks add to the communication toolkit, SEO can dramatically add to the reach of PR communications.
  • The social tools: Not so much which tools to use (because that will vary by task), but how to use each effectively for PR goals. With limited time resources graduates can work every hour of every day or they can work smart for the best results.
  • Social “coaching” ability: Being able to share social media knowledge with others will be critical. Many graduates will enter workplaces where social is still not yet completely understood. They will not be able to “do it all” and therefore will need to train or coach others. — M.J.


Mike Johansson
Mike Johansson is a Lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology where he teaches public relations and journalism with a social media twist and organizes the annual Social Media and Communications Symposium (SMACS).


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