Why social media relations is more important than good PR

October 19th, 2009 by Chris Hogg Leave a reply »

Companies spend a lot of money to get visible but in today’s hyper-connected world, it’s increasingly not enough to stand out. As we move to a more social Web, it’s becoming more important to replace traditional PR tactics with online conversations.

It’s a common story today: Studies show more people are turning to the Web to consume news. TV and print audiences are declining while Web media consumption continues to rise. Why? According to the study by Opinion Research Corporation (OPC):

“The increase in online news consumption was led by disproportionately larger increases among a number of key demographics, including college-educated people (20 percent), and people with household incomes over $100,000 USD a year (23.1 percent). Adults ages 18-34 also got more news from online sources, at 22.2 percent.”

ComScore data shows the same trend, with Americans streaming 41 percent more video content in August 2009 than they did during the same period in 2008.

People are turning online to get content. The question now is what are businesses doing to keep up with changing habits? There are a few cases where big corporations get it, but many businesses are heading for the deadpool if they can’t raise awareness on the Web.

Working with a media organization, I’m pitched all the time. I get messages from all over the world, from every type of business. The common thread from all of my daily dealings with PR folk is that most companies are missing the boat if they’re putting all their eggs in the PR basket. In fact, all too often I think corporations are spending way too much money for dismal results.

For those of you unfamiliar with how media organizations are pitched, let me offer a quick overview. For PR professionals reading this, let me offer a perspective on why public relations today is as predictable as traffic in bad weather.

First, Company X launches a product so its PR firm sets up a press conference or product briefing and then sends a mass email to media contacts to encourage them to cover it. They also publish a press release online.

Next: The journalist or media organization gets the email and then decides if it’s relevant for their audience. Out of the hundreds I receive every week, they’re often irrelevant to our readership — it’s a product or service that is nothing special; it’s not a big enough announcement to justify editorial or video coverage; or it’s a product or service that is too complicated to understand at a glance. The press release gets trashed.

In many cases, the press release may also be missed entirely. After all, we are only human and when your inbox fills up like an eavestrough in a hurricane you don’t always see every raindrop.

Good PR companies will do follow-ups by phone in attempt to help an email stand out in the avalanche and answer any questions, but very few PR companies bother to spend the time doing this.Fewer than about 10 percent bother to pick up the phone and call me anymore. Email has made people lazy.

So what are companies paying for? They’re paying to send press releases to media, and in many cases their product or service won’t get covered. And as email inboxes fill up like landfills, that problem is compounded by the fact that many media organizations even lack the resources to cover the stories they find interesting or relevant.

So is it worth the expensive monthly retainer to secure a PR company just to educate the media about products when most of them don’t cover it anyway? Much to the chagrin of my friends and acquaintances who work in PR, the simple fact is many public relations companies today are akin to the newspaper industry trying to exist in the Age of the Web; the model is outdated and highly ineffective.

So what’s the solution? While there is always a need for good PR at some level, companies who incorporate “social media relations” into the mix will see better results. Forward-thinking companies should have conversations with their audience and customers rather than talking at them.

Social media relations is more effective than traditional PR simply because conversation and feedback can be channeled and encouraged. Social media relations is having conversations within a crowd, whereas public relations is akin to throwing paper airplanes into an audience and hoping someone catches a glimpse of it as it whizzes by.

Understanding social media is key because the Web has changed media consumption from a world of advertising to clients into a social conversation. Pushing an ad out to a million eyeballs can be an effective way to bring people in, but what do you do with them once their on your site? What about the people who still have questions? What about those who have bad experiences? If a company cannot answer those questions it means there is lost opportunity and it’s something public relations can’t solve. The answer is social media relations.

Social media lets companies be their own concierge

If you can’t find something in a library, you ask the reference desk. If you want to know where to eat or what show to see while travelling, you ask the hotel concierge. The same goes for social media relations in today’s Web world: If you want to know something, you ask.

A smart company sets up a space for conversation to happen, and then takes part in it. Twitter and Facebook may come across as time-wasting websites to you, but to a smart business they are highly effective mediums through which a company can attract an audience. If a customer has a question about a product or service, he or she can then go to those places to engage. If they want to air grievances or frustrations about the way something works, they get the ear of the company directly rather than shouting aimlessly into cyberspace.

Having the venue in which conversation can flow gives each company the opportunity to respond to questions and direct people to the right sources, just as a concierge would do for any hotel guest.

And if you think this is just a trend, think again: twentysomethings are being recruited en masse to act as “Community Managers” or social media experts. According to CP, they’re paid $40,000 to $50,000 per year just to generate conversation and help a company reach out to people talking about them.

Social media allows companies to respond quickly to negative experiences

You used a product that broke. You paid for a service that underperformed. We’ve all been there, and increasingly people turn to the Web to talk about it.

On Twitter, for example, a company can get instant, real-time input on their brand and make the necessary steps to engage on those conversations or help make negative experiences more positive. That type of customer interaction did not exist even a few years ago, and companies who recognize the importance of talking with customers online almost always walk away with a better relationship with their clients.

Companies such as Rogers Communications in Canada are using the service to engage in conversations with customers. In Rogers’ case, they put Keith McArthur in charge of responding to people’s questions via the microblogging service and has a chance to reach out to help people who express frustration or have questions. In the U.S., Dell is probably one of the best examples of a company that sets up shop in social media to have conversations with customers.

Without a  social media presence, companies do not have the opportunity to reach out directly to customers. A negative experience cannot be addressed and problems can’t be solved. That sour customer walks away as a brand assassin, capable of influencing very large groups of people because they have hundreds of friends on Facebook or thousands of followers on Twitter. In one fell swoop, they can post a message that cuts the legs off your company in mid stride.

Whether you choose to engage with your customer base or not, conversations about your brand, product or service will happen anyway.

Social media experts communicate more effectively than PR people

When I speak with PR people, they often talk in dry boilerplate language. After all, they’re paid to simply deliver the facts, and have to go to great lengths to protect a brand. It’s not their fault, as they’re doing what they’re told to do. However, it’s not a real conversation, and thus it’s less effective in communicating a message.

When you browse the social media space, companies are increasingly admitting to mistakes online and talking in short 140-character messages to customers. They sound less like salespeople and more like your buddy. The resulting conversation is one that feels far more real.

Using Rogers as an example, how often would you see a message saying “I was wrong” posted publicly via traditional PR? Rogers did it, and it seems to be working because McArthur has more than 1,000 people following him on Twitter. And according to this CNN report, even bad reviews can boost sales.

Social media experts are real people having authentic conversations. They aren’t trying to push products in their messages. We all know they work for the shareholders, but the communication feels more real and thus is more effective.

Social media is more influential than PR

Social media is as much about the venue as it is about the message. When you have conversations on Twitter or Facebook, you reach a much wider audience made up of people who trust you or enjoy hearing what you have to say. When your brand or product ends up in front of these people as a referral from a friend, a person is far more likely to notice it.

Also, companies that include social media tools (such as buttons to publish to Facebook or Twitter) are more likely to have their message spread.

In our case at DigitalJournal.com, we get traffic coming to read news from all over the world, from multiple sources. After incorporating in the ability to re-publish a link on Facebook from our site, we saw a huge boom in the number of people who were discovering our news outlet. In fact, Facebook is now the third highest referring service for DigitalJournal.com. Building in social media tools has been far more effective in raising awareness than any press release or traditional PR we have ever attempted.

Facebook  has 300 million monthly users who boast an average of 130 friends each, and 50 percent of the site’s active users log on each day. Facebook says more than 2 billion pieces of content (web links, news stories, blog posts, notes, photos, etc.) are shared each week on the site. What other medium can offer your business the reach of talking to that audience?

Furthermore, engaging in the social media spaces is more influential than traditional advertising and public relations because people are  more likely to check out something recommended by a friend over an ad they saw in a newspaper or on TV.

According to this promo video for a book called “Socialnomics” by Erik Qualman, the Global Vice President of Online Marketing for EF Education:

• 25% of search results for the world’s top 20 largest brands are links to user-generated content
• 78% of people trust peer recommendations, while only 14% trust advertising
• We no longer search for the news, the news finds us through social networks. This is already starting to extend to searches on products and services, as people hear about them through social media rather than searching for info about them.

Want more evidence of the shift to a more social Web? Watch the video:

The future is social

Social media also offers one distinct advantage over all traditional public relations or sales techniques, and it will be the saving grace for the growing trend: You stand out no matter how many voices there are in the crowd.

For example, no matter how many websites come online or how many companies start competing on the Web, social media gives a company direct access into people’s lives. As more search engines become cluttered with billions of resources, people will be forced to turn to their own social networks to make sense of the noise.

The only way to get noticed is to ensure your company, brand, product or service is part of that discussion.

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