Is Social Media Eating PR’s Lunch?

Is Social Media Eating PR’s Lunch?

Ana Mangahas

Ana Mangahas

Now before you think, “what a bizarre question,” with regard to this blog post’s title, let’s just stop and reflect on one thing for a moment: Twitter.

Nothing about Twitter could have bypassed your notice; and if Time magazine had a “Thing of the Year” issue, the Tweety-bird logo should be firmly plastered on its front page.

From disgruntled gaming flacks, to super-injunction mania to  Twitter’s very own EMEA HQ having recently set up shop in London, you’d be hard-pressed not to have personally experienced the Twitter juggernaut first-hand. Twitter is on the brink of ubiquity, and as in the case of Wikileaks and the Arab Spring, it’s also being lauded as a tool for democracy, or at the very least, the democratisation of information of great public interest.

Which brings me to my original question: when Twitter’s around, who needs flacks? Why rely on PR intermediaries when all journalists need (or so it seems) is Tweetdeck, caffeine, super speed-reading skills and a knack for smelling controversy at 140 characters?

Twitter is ultimately, one of the best social technologies to help the PR profession, and in fact, we wish more journalists were using it. It does have its limitations, so the more important question for PROs is surely how to use Twitter practically, responsibly and sagely in one’s day-to-day job and in broader reputation management.

Let’s look at how we got here, in the first place. 

Twitter’s success is that despite the limitations of 140 character tweets, people have found it a fun and useful platform for conversations. According to a lot of my own friends (and I agree), it’s even more conversation-friendly than Facebook, which developed additional social features (e.g. chat) before Twitter did.  Furthermore, when you consider that in 2009, the second-highest volume of activity on Twitter was conversation-based, it makes you wonder about the fate of personal and corporate email, and even Skype or other forms of IM.

What’s on Twitter (Pear Analytics, August 2009 report): 

  • Pointless babble – 40%
  • Conversational – 38%
  • Pass-along value – 9%
  • Self-promotion – 6%
  • Spam – 4%
  • News – 4%

Twitter in a business-to-business context continues to be a trickier subject for many corporate communicators and here is where we think there is huge scope for Twitter become a highly-desired (not feared) part of the communications arsenal.  This is also where the restraint of a wizened PR pro is really valuable, because let’s face it: there are enough examples of Twitter gaffes...we don’t need to add to the list.

For any corporate/b2b brand looking to step into the Twitter-sphere, we would offer the following considerations:

-  Objective:  perhaps the most common stumbling block, it’s always a worthwhile exercise before engaging in – then abruptly choosing to abandon – Twitter. The objective should be rooted in a real business need, and if possible, tracked via a set of key performance indicators (KPIs).  A simple one could be tied to sales, with the drop-down list of “How did you hear about us?” to include Twitter as an option for new customers or clients.  

 Audiences: some companies get on Twitter with the express purpose of reaching the media, by using Twitter as an extension of the PR process. Be aware also, that more and more journalists are asking to be “pitched” exclusively via Twitter, so it’s helpful to be informed about their rules of engagement.

Mummy bloggers are another tribe in the B2C world with specific pitching requirements – especially when being asked to review products – and they will normally be very transparent about their rules of engagement on various social platforms.  

-   Tone and Manner : It still amazes us how a “sober” brand on Twitter can sometimes go over-the-top with exclamation points and other effusive writing/punctuation that makes tweets sound over-zealous...or just plain hysterical. Fully recognising there’s a human being (or several) behind those tweets, the writer’s tone shouldn’t be a huge departure from the overall brand’s tone – be it authoritative, informative, or simply humble. Increasingly, there is also no such thing as “delete” on Twitter. Not everyone will feel this more painfully or acutely as some of these unfortunates, but a small dollop of pre-Tweeting restraint never hurts.

-  360-degree communications: And here is perhaps the most important point: Twitter can’t replace an honest-to-goodness relationship, which needs cultivation online and off-. It’s trite but true.   

Twitter is a necessary part of the full journalist contact mix – a call here, a lunch there, a roundtable here, an industry conference there, and tweets and DMs everywhere in between.  As one journalist friend put it:

“Twitter allows me to frequently update and communicate with PRs, making it easier for both sides to keep track of new editorial features or product releases,” said Matt Tuffin, editor of IPC Media. “Introductions can be made without having to 'cold call', ensuring both sides communicate directly with the desired person. The less formal nature of Twitter also makes it easier to make a personal connection, and for messages to be more succinct.”

And yes, there may be times when Twitter leaks need to be managed and clients counselled about rumours circling around in the ‘Twether’. This is hardly making a job in the communications sector an endangered species; it’s making our job more challenging and dynamic in its increasingly less linear form; and altogether much more valuable.

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