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I’ve just finished reading “Putting the Public Back in Public Relations” or “how social media is reinventing the aging business of PR” by Brian Solis and Deirdre Breakaenridge. Solis is credited as being a thought leader who paved the way for Social Media and PR 2.0 and one of the most influential marketing bloggers in the world. It’s not bad. A lot of it makes sense but a lot of it seems to be yet another product of the CISTBO (California Institute of Stating The Bleedin’ Obvious).
Social Media Technologies are Not Changing Good PR Practice
Some of its conclusions and prognostications are, in my opinion, somewhat overblown perhaps. Yes it’s true that online or digital PR has a new set of technologies that practitioners must become familiar with. Yes it’s true that each of those technological tendrils has their own etiquette and their own peculiar approaches, and yes it’s true that social media and online PR requires a conversational rather than a broadcast tone. But to imply that the technology of distribution, dissemination and digestion is changing the way PR practitioners should go about their work is rubbish. That’s the medium overpowering the message – the message in this case being “have a killer idea, write decent stuff and tell a decent story to begin with and that’s more than half the battle – Internet or no Internet!” - as is evidenced by my colleague Claire Stokoe's genuinely "killer idea" and creation of a decent story on Twitter.
What is Nonsense Was Always Nonsense!
On page 108 of my edition (Pearson Education Inc 2009) he gives a good example of the kind of a meaningless press release that seems to populate the wire services. It’s a puff! A piece of meaningless, content free drivel. It is undoubtedly a poor press release and typical of many that are churned out by (mainly American) consumer PR agencies in particular. But that would still have been a poor release even pre-Internet. I did a stint as editor on a trade office equipment magazine many years ago and if I got that release through (and believe me, there were several) I would have spiked it! This null-content approach to PR (media relations in particular) is not symptomatic of “old PR”. It’s just symptomatic of "bad PR" and Social Media and PR 2.0 doesn’t automatically exclude that. US PR especially seems to distinguish less between what I would call genuine “editorial” and “advertorial” copy. They produce “press releases” certainly, but in no way could many of them be called “news releases”.
Relationships Built on Respect – What’s New?
Social media, the rise of bloggers as influencers, the need to build relationships on respect – that’s all good stuff. The approach to bloggers is crucial of course as many are not professional journalists. Many blog out of passion, interest or enthusiasm and many as a consequence of ego. But ego was not an unknown factor in dealing with key editors or journalists in “old PR”. In my experience, the ego of an editor was inversely proportional to the circulation of the publication. Some of worst “heads up their own backsides” examples were in charge of some little quarterly with a controlled circulation of 2,000. But again, building relationships with key bloggers is no different to the way you built relationships with key print editors and features editors in the past. Listen first, ask them what they are looking for and supply cogent, relevant material that doesn’t bullshit. Give them good consistent information and you will establish a reputation such that they tend to preferentially look at your stuff before anyone else’s.
Social Media is Re-Emphasising the Principles of Good PR – Not Reinventing Anything
It’s also just as true today in the world of PR 2.0 as it was decades ago that client expectations are a factor. In my past incarnations in various PR agencies, I have known for sure that the press release or feature article I wrote to ensure the client would sign it off and approve it was often radically different to the version I would have written in order to get it published verbatim. And therein I think lies the nub of the problem for PR 2.0. It’s got nothing to do with the particular technologies now available to marcoms. See, I’m all for the “democratized anarchy” that the Web and PR 2.0 have wrought. Social media, the rise of bloggers as influencers – that’s all good stuff. But client side, the marcoms structure remains hierarchical, often dictatorial and very fragmented with separate marketing, sales, CSR, ecommerce and IT departments. The idea of sharing, being more open, being more conversational is anathema to brand and marketing management who have existed to be “on message” and adhere to the brand’s personality and tone of voice. This concept is (and remains) tricky for brand managers to grasp, because it means that there is a space their brand occupies that is completely out of their control, and always will be. Good PR has always been about educating and managing expectations as much as it has been about delivering results (however those are measured). That aspect of good PR practice is even more crucial in PR 2.0.
So, with respect to Mr Solis, I think he' got it a little bit right, but Social Media is reinventing nothing (that’s tautological anyway). Social Media, by its very nature, does demand a restatement of the principles underlying what is (and always was) good PR practice.