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Is PR buckling under the social media strain?

For long enough there were debates about who should own social media in the comms space and PRs keep pushing themselves forwards, but this article by Lisa Devaney  from Hai Media Group at The Wall indicates that perhaps some PRs don’t want it – because it’s too much extra work.

To which you have to go “Huh? Don’t you want to stay in a job?” (It’s also a bit of a contradiction from her company’s own PR offering which states “We approach the media landscape with an eye toward the many layers of promotional opportunity that now exist in the Web 2.0 and Mobile 2.0 sectors.”)

And in thinking about it, you know what it’s reminded me? Most PR companies have actually been quite poor at even doing traditional PR for years. But even more worrying, if they don’t like the workload now, wait until they see what’s around the corner…

Lisa’s article starts of reading as a towel-throwing-in exercise before pointing out that some agencies are hiring social media types while others are bringing in external agencies like Contently Managed, so I really don’t know what the point of the article is – she makes one definitive statement and then moves away from that argument.

However, the first point she’s making is a fair one: many companies are saying to the PR team/agency “we want you to do this” and the PRs who don’t know what sort of work is involved in digital outreach and social media are saying ‘yeah, no problems’ without doing any of the basics like asking what the goals are, how it ties in with other strategies, are the other silos in the company ready to be part of this and so on.

But it gets worse for these poor, over-worked PRs because here’s apparently the new skillset needed for the PR of 2011.

Dan Slee has summed it up as thus:

In the days before the web the press office needs to:

  • Have basic journalism skills.
  • Write a press release.
  • Work under speed to deadline.
  • Understand basic photography.
  • Understand sub-editing and page layouts.

For web 1.0 the press office also needed to:

  • Add and edit web content

For web 2.0 the press office also needs to:

  • Create podcasts
  • Create and add content to a Facebook page.
  • Create and add content to a Twitter stream.
  • Create and add content to Flickr.
  • Create and add content to a blog.
  • Monitor and keep abreast of news in all the form it takes from print to TV, radio and the blogosphere.
  • Develop relationships with bloggers.
  • Go where the conversation is whether that be online or in print.
  • Be ready to respond out-of-hours because the internet does not recognise a print deadline.

For web 3.0 the press office will also need to:

  • Create and edit geotagged data such as a Google map.
  • Create a data set.
  • Use an app and a mash-up.
  • Use basic html.
  • Blog to challenge the mis-interpretation of data.
  • But with web 3.0 upon us and the pace of change growing faster to stay relevant the comms team has to change.

(You might think I’ve nicked a lot of Dan’s post there, but I haven’t really – his page has a longer version and also a link to a great presentation to look at.) (And that skillset has terrrifying implications for Scottish PRs but that’s a post for another day.)

Notice how Dan doesn’t say that anything replaces anything else – it’s all in addition to, so if anything the workload is about to get more intense. So the poor PR who weeped at 2.0 is in for a fright with 3.0.

Social media doesn’t need to add to your workload

But here’s the thing: not necessarily so. There is nothing to stop employers hiring more people to prevent the strain. But then that means needing to justify the efforts, which means showing results, which a lot of people are still falling down miserably on. It also means that comms teams/agencies need to explain that they aren’t necessarily all things to all people – that they can’t do it all. I don’t profess to be an expert at everything despite having had good successes in traditional PR and social media/digital PR and it would be a fool who did.

But what this did remind me of was when I started out in PR and I asked who did the video package for TV and who did the radio soundbites for radio and I was told that if the TV or radio wanted them, they could come get them. And that’s been the case for most PR firms – they write a press release (which can be cut and pasted into a newspaper or magazine) but hell mend the other mediums.

And that’s a poor show. But then again, we live in an age where many PR types thought they only had to deal with journalists, the public part of the job – as empowered by 2.0 – terrified them.

Free Social Media/PR Tip

If setting up in digital comms or social media know what your goals are first. Don’t just do it because others are. Think about what you want to achieve from it. Then look at how you can achieve those goals.

  1. JasonWassell

    You know I love coming on to your site just to steal some insights and disagree with you whenever it will generate some fun.

    The issue I have is where you are starting from. Your description of PR before the web is pure media relations, and it is more like what was needed by the PR team in the 1890s. It was around that time that the US Railways hired ex-journalists to combat the negative stories they had when they rolled through communities causing all types of problems. Particularly as a new set of muck-raking newspapers emerged. (I knew my degree in US Studies would be useful one day).

    But even before Web 1.0 people were moving away from the idea that PR is press relations.

    Dan is, and I say this with all due respect, talking about running a press office. Traditionally it is one way – pumping out information to the council tax payers about what the council is doing. And responding to the daily barrage of calls from local reporters who expect at least a couple of pages of copy. So the social media adds another set of demands on his already long list of actions, another set of channels for him to manage.

    But you touched upon a key question when you talked about justification. Why is he adding all of these new tasks? Is there a justification for it? Does speaking to a blogger with 10 readers really help achieve the objectives? How many local people are using twitter or flickr to find out about their council? By doing all of these new tasks does it replace the coverage he gets in the local newspaper?

    If you have limited resources – and every council is under pressure – you decide where you spend them. Don’t be stretched to breaking point because there is feeling you need a new communication tool.

    And does he have to do all of this – or should it be the role of other teams? So could the council education department be feeding out information about local schools and pictures from events on twitter rather than the hard pressed PR officer?

    The real skill set of PR professional never changes – it is always:

    – Learn how to explain and get buy-in for your communication objectives
    – Understand what resources available in terms of time and money
    – Learn how to map out the key individuals and organisations that will have an impact on your success
    – Gain experience in developing persuasive messages – understand how different tactics can be used to raise awareness or call to action
    – Research which channels are going to reach your target audience, understand how they work
    – Get on with public relations

    • You know Jason, it ruins all the fun of comment fights when you come on and be completely reasonable like this! You’ve been in PR far longer than me and I can’t argue with anything you are saying – though I would argue back that in agencies, even now, many see it as press relations.

      It’s amazing how many gloss over the basics that you include though – and they are, as you say, the staple of any relationship building – press or social media.

  2. Mike Ritchie

    Excellent post and enlightened response from Jason.

    In a ten-minute slot at a business lunch once, I said PR was not just Press Relations nor Public Relations but Proper Relations between a company/organisation/individual wishing to communicate with an appropriate audience by whatever means worked the most effectively.

    When I sat down I thought the Proper Relations comment might have been regarded as a glib soundbite. I was heartened when several people came up afterwards to discuss the Proper Relations term and how this could be achieved. In fact, I ended up with two PR projects on the back of this.

    You two, perhaps more elegantly, are saying this, too. There are skills the PR professional should have, otherwise their clients are being short-changed. And if they don’t have some, they can easily tap into the expertise available and learn.

  3. Lisa Devaney

    Glad to see my blog post inspired some discussion Craig. Maybe presenting an argument isn’t my strong point, but it seems to have touched a cord with a number of PRs. I hope from the post that more thought and planning will be given toward the social media landscape, than just dumping off the responsibility on PRs, with no realistic plan for strategy and execution. My consultancy Hai Media Group does offer good counsel toward approaching social media and the overall Web 2.0 landscape, but as a small shop, I won’t pretend or promise that I have the bandwidth to manage the workload of a full campaign. Instead, I work with my clients to help them find in-house solutions, or, if a campaign is big, to hire in a dedicated social media agency, budget allowing, like Contently Managed.

    It just doesn’t make sense seeing so many companies throw up a social media presence, without good plans for what they will do there. Everyone wants to jump on the band wagon, but don’t seem to understand how to use it all. A few years ago a client asked me to set up a presence in Second Life, with a billboard. Sure it can be done, but what do you want to achieve in the virtual universe, and how will it benefit your business? Is to just be seen there by a few random avatars who fly by enough, or are you going to actually make the effort to engage with this online community? Let’s ask these questions before rushing into some of these exciting new mediums.

    What I’m hearing from my colleagues is that the pressure right now to straddle between traditional campaigns and social media is breaking them. It is time to call in the extra help and turn to the experts who are devoted to understanding and building social media campaigns. And this is going to take budget to do the job right.

    • Lisa, I think it comes back to – exactly as you nail it – is the need to plan and work out what you want. Know your goals. As you say, so many don’t do it and a) waste cash as a result and b) think digital and social media is a waste of time because of it.

      And trust me, based on chats I’ve been hearing from people, the article certainly struck a point. It’s very true and clients who just throw down demands need to understand the platforms a bit better. Of course, that’s easier said than done in a recession when no one wants to lose a client.

  4. JasonWassell

    Thanks for both of your nice comments. I was thinking this through a bit further.

    I think you are both touching upon the issue of there being a point at which you move the focus from Dan’s in-house team to the consultancy side of things which Lisa was talking about.

    The in-house practitioner like Dan needs to focus on the basics, and develop his strategy with the resources he has available.

    Whilst Lisa needs to think about what they are good at and stick to that. Because there is a very legitimate role for agencies that just focus on one aspect of the PR skill-set. We have a couple of great examples of agencies in Scotland, where the directors have cut their teeth on journalism and sold that media relations skills to great effect.

    That is not total PR but it is bringing an expertise in one important channel of communication. And sometimes because the client is new to PR and thinks that good PR = good coverage in the papers. But just as often it might be that it is a very sophisticated client that has done their analysis, realised that they are missing their targets in the media relations strand of their work and wants to buy in that knowledge.

    So the in-house practitioner is going to have to do the basic things and develop the strategy. To do that they need to have a basic understanding of all the aspects of modern PR. But there is still going to be points when they need to pull in a social media expert or a public affairs specialist or crisis communications expert or an expert in media relations. And hopefully that is where they approach one of us three – or Lisa.

  5. Lisa Devaney

    It is great to see this discussion continuing and I’ve been surprised at how much attention the blog post I did for’s The Wall Blog has gotten. The topic of PRs role in social media has certainly struck a cord. Agreed Craig that a lot of clients look at social media as a waste of time. These same clients then try to slap up an approach anyways with no budget invested. It gets bad when as a PR you have to spend a lot of time developing and working on a social media campaign and then at the end of the month the client questions the results, because they aren’t the same experience as getting featured in a publication. Educating the client about how to approach social media, and managing expectations for what value can be produced is key.

    I’m mulling a new blog post for, and interviewing a top social media executive for it, so am continuing to write and share thoughts on this topic. Hope everyone in Scotland and beyond keeps reading!

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