Today PR people need to be writers, social media experts and number crunchers. At its core though, their job has changed very little. Except now they have social media strategists treading on their turf.
Public relations has always been about influence – how to convince a journalist to write positive things about a company or product. Or in a worst case scenario, distract them from publishing something too derogatory, even if it’s the truth.
Press releases, events, lunches and lots of phone calls were the tools of the trade. Success was measured by how outcomes were changed through this influence, including reports that often used dubious means to measure the value of coverage.
The simplicity of the relationship with journalists has now been challenged – journalists are no longer the only conduit to the general public. Social media and blogs, done well, could have as much influence, without the need to cajole a cynical journalist into seeing things your way.
Except the public isn’t stupid. They know that a company blog will contain only one version of the truth. It’s simply replaced the glossy pamphlets and quirky direct mail pieces sent out from the marketing department. You might read it, but, unless you are completely obsessed about a product, you will seek out some form of independent viewpoint.
These days that means hunting out popular bloggers who call things as they see them. Independence and integrity are essential to these writers if they are to maintain their credibility. In other words, whether they are paid or not, they will behave exactly like a journalist.
So that means PR hasn’t changed at all – it is still about influencing people, but now it has stretched beyond journalists to include people who have a significant profile in social media. Strangely, in many companies PR and social media are still treated as two separate entities, even though they are both trying to achieve the same thing.
For example, if you sell shoelaces Ian Fieggen (Professor Shoelace) is a useful man to know. His website (featuring 37 different ways to tie laces) ranks first in Google for “shoelaces” and has 1,589 other sites linking in to it – a sign of Fieggen’s influence. It’d be a tough call getting any journalist to write about shoelaces, but here’s a man who seems obsessed with the subject.
Finding the influencers is what PR people have always done. And, whilst many of the biggest audiences still come from established publishers and journalists, Ian Fieggen is an example of why you need to search who else is out there, building an audience online.
PR success can no longer be tracked by column inches of editorial; that’s a meaningless measure in an online world. Instead, if you are written about, how much engagement is there? If it’s a blog, has it been commented on, tweeted or shared? If you convince someone to tweet about your product – or if you tweet yourself – how often are those messages re-tweeted (to how big an audience?); how often are links clicked through? These are not definitive measures, but at least give an indication that you are not totally wasting your time.
So the PR job description has changed little – find the influencers, influence them and measure it, somehow. That’s not changed at all. But we have seen the emergence of the social media strategist. And, if they’re not following this description of PR, what exactly is it they are doing?