by Esther Schindler

How Social Media’s Changing Public Relations

May 10, 20085 mins
Enterprise Applications

The old way of doing PR is broken. Social media might, might glue some of the parts back on.

I’m a little hesitant to write a blog post about the way that the PR industry is adapting to online media (or how, in some circles, maybe it ought to change). Maybe it’s too “inside baseball” for people whose attention is on technology and business strategry, rather than on the day-to-day foibles of technology journalism. But I think this is an issue worth examining from a meta-view, because the whole notion of our lives being affected by online communities is that it changes how everyone works. Even the PR people who work for your company. Think of this as a case study for a not-terribly-technical part of your business.

I’m probably the right person to look at this, since I have a bit of fame in PR circles as the lead author of the Care & Feeding of the Press, a guide for PR professionals. That document is so old that its pixels are fraying about the edges, now; it was written in a time when it was remarkable for a company to have a /press page on its site. But you’d be appalled, really, by the number of Sweet Young Things who still call me to ask if I’ve gotten the e-mail with their press release. Yeah, the unsolicted one with an 8MB attachment.

So I was very interested to read a blog post by one online-savvy PR firm about a presentation they gave on More Effective PR Through Social Media. I don’t know this PR firm, or at least I’m not aware of it if I have interacted with them, but I like what Perkett PR said about using social media. It is indeed a new and sometimes-better way to communicate and to collaborate.

[T]heir eyes did light up when Heather explained Twitter like this: It’s like entering a noisy, crowded stadium and saying, “Is there a doctor in the house?”… The entire stadium quiets to silence and everyone sits down except for four people that raise their hand and say “I can help!”… It’s that powerful and can provide a whole new lifeline of resources to draw from.

We at CIO are personally engaged with similar topics, just as you are: using Facebook for business, taking advantage of LinkedIn, the business value of Twitter, and so on.

The old PR machinery, which was established when faxes still walked the earth, simply is no longer relevant, and it does a poor job of helping a company with a worthwhile message reach the people whom it needs to reach. We writers and editors are inundated by press releases and (however nicely worded) “write about us!” pitches from vendors and their PR staff. And you’ve probably noticed that our coverage generally isn’t about products.

Yet, if we had a nickel for every poorly-targeted press release we received, we’d probably be able to afford the kind of business lunches that you all imagine we indulge in. (Instead of scarfing a borderline salad at our desks while we type, which is the true state of affairs.) Yet the old-school PR people “solve” the problem by blasting out press releases with little attention to the identify or the needs of the recipient. Face it, PR folks; isn’t going to write about iPod skins. (Oh darnit. I just did.) We respond to the deluge by using the Delete key; few tech journalists I know have the time to write a polite “No, thanks” reply.

In other words: the old way of doing PR isn’t cutting it anymore.

I like the idea of that industry using online tools to connect to the right people, and to avoid annoying the wrong people. I like the attitude that this PR firm expressed. I can see several ways in which social networks can enhance the process. For example, one bright PR person saw me post that I was researching Ajax technologies and sent a friendly offer of her company’s tech staff.

But I fear that online communities are just as likely to be used poorly as are the other, older methods of PR. Because PR done well doesn’t change, even if the communication medium does; and PR done poorly quickly becomes spam to the wrong recipient, no matter which medium is used.

For example, it doesn’t work to e-mail thousands of press releases and to hope that three of them land well; why will it work any better to tweet about what a client did or to post it on digg? The stadium with 50,000 baseball fans and including four doctors is happy to step back for one life-threatening emergency, but they’re not going to stay quiet if there are 30 not-really-emergencies during a game.

In the long run, the business process for successful PR people won’t change at all, even if the tools do. No matter how they reach me initially, their job is still about creating relationships with journalists. PR people with poor skills will be equally bad no matter which technology they use. The good ones find out what the journalist writes and cares about, and offer something that helps her do her job well. The PR people who do that are golden, in my book, and I’ll go out of my way to answer any e-mail message they write. It doesn’t matter overmuch whether that contact is made by e-mail or twitter; the job is still the same.

(Maybe it ought to go without saying, but these opinions are my own, not necessarily those of anyone else at CIO.)