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How PR People Are Destroying Social Media

This is by definition a controversial post and a bit of a rant. So I want to be clear what I’m saying, and who towards – and who I’m not talking about.

I’m not saying all PR people are destroying Social Media. I consider a number of Social Media experts with PR backgrounds to be friends of mine, and I converse with them regularly.

But there is a type of PR person in Social Media that I’ll call the Ignorant Opportunist, and these are the people who are hurting Social Media.

I’ll say more about how they’re hurting Social Media later, but in brief:

They are blocking the growth and effectiveness of Social Media, and they’re confusing both the people who need to be using it and and the people who are paying for it.

handspider How PR People Are Destroying Social Media

Who is the Ignorant Opportunist in Social Media PR?

Here are their characteristics:

  • No background in web analytics or marketing
  • No Social Media experience before 2008
  • Loss of traditional PR revenue drove them to the Social Media opportunity
  • They favor Twitter over all other Social Media platforms
  • They think all of Social Media belongs under the PR umbrella

Opportunism Due to Decline in Demand For PR

It’s obvious how they are opportunists. Public relations for the average company has been on the decline for years (reference 1, 2, 3), and as internet marketing and analytics-based marketing grew from 2005 to 2009 (check out ANY of the charts here), more and more agencies became alarmed.

How would they replace this revenue with their existing skill base?

Social Media was the obvious answer. Especially since in its immature 2008 – 2009 form there was little agreement on how to measure Social Media or whether ROI was possible. PR people define themselves as communicators and aren’t comfortable with quantifying the effects of their communication. Or they just haven’t had the ability to do so (and AVE’s are ridiculous.)

There’s really not much difference between the PR opportunist shifting to Social Media, and the Real Estate agent, out of work due to the housing bust, getting into Social Media. In fact, you could argue that real estate agents are better conversationalists when it comes to talking to the average American.

realtors How PR People Are Destroying Social Media

Why PR People Think They’re The Best People For The Social Media Job, and Why They Aren’t

The rational justification was that public relations has always been involved with communicating to the public, so it would make sense for them to do so through Social Media. But in the same breath, they’ll tell you that Social Media is all about conversation and listening.

Is anyone listening to that and thinking about it?

  • PR has not historically been involved in listening more than marketers have. Ever heard of market research? Marketing surveys?
  • PR has not traditionally been involved in conversation, especially personalized intimate conversation. In fact, pushing press releases is exactly the kind of 1.0 push that they strongly recommend against.
  • PR has not been interested in another way that digital marketers listen to and understand customers: web analytics

On the other hand…

  • For a decade, digital marketers have been grappling with:
    • Forum comments and discussions
    • Blog comments
    • Bounce rates, customer geographic data, and more…
  • For more than seven or eight years, AdWords ad writers and optimizers have been:
    • Dividing audiences by intent and addressing them granularly rather than as one large group. This is closer to the type of personalization required in Social Media.
    • They also have seen directly in the data how different messages and copy have different effects on the audience. PR people have never had the kind of direct feedback they need to be sure that their message is received properly, is interesting, and achieves the result the corporation wants.

That means you have to be skeptical about whether any PR person is capable of personalization and optimization. Do they have the experience and mental habits to improve the results of their Social Media communications?

corpfxs How PR People Are Destroying Social Media

Why PR People Cannot Oversee And Control All Corporate Social Media

As I wrote the other day, we have a bad habit of talking about Social Media as if it’s one monolithic thing, but it’s not. Social Media is used in a variety of ways according to function, and measured differently.

Here are a few of the types of Social Media:

  • Social Media PR
  • Social Media Market Research
  • Social Media Advertising
  • Social Media Marketing
  • Social Media Sales
  • Social Media Customer Service
  • Social Media Reputation Management

When I created a system for B2B Social Media Sales & Marketing, it became crystal clear to me that many of the biases of Social Media experts are contrary to what needs to be done for many businesses to make money with Social Media. Twitter has a very limited role for some, yet it is the exclusive preference of many Social Media gurus. LinkedIn is strongest for B2B Social Media sales but ignored by most of the PR-biased.

In fact, Twitter is growing fastest in Latin America, but you’re not going to hear a lot about that from the PR folks. That would require a granular approach and sounds suspiciously like marketing demographics. All of this has led me to conclude that those who prefer Twitter for all Social Media campaigns are basically not effective marketers- they assume that all customers are exactly like them, and that hurts their results.

I like Twitter… so everyone likes Twitter, right…? Well they should. We just need to get more of these people onto Twitter.

No, first you go where they already are hanging out, be it Facebook, LinkedIn, or other.

Social Media experts with only a PR background have no training or experience in advertising, marketing, sales, or customer service, but these are essential functions of Social Media. They cannot control all corporate Social Media without more training and experience.

What Does A Social Media Coordinator Need To Understand?

Whomever controls or coordinates your Social Media needs to have a solid basis or at least an acquaintance with, and lack of disdain for all of the following:

  • Sales Processes and Priorities
  • Marketing Processes and Priorities
  • Customer Service Processes and Priorities
  • Web Analytics and Business Metrics
  • Conversion Funnels and Optimization

And unless they’re going to just be an order-taker, they need to understand the basics of business: what are its goals and priorities, how is it measured, and so on. If their priorities are different from the corporation’s and they have autonomy, that will create conflict.

As you can see, because of the breadth of Social Media’s applications, your company’s Director of Social Media should report to either the CEO or COO. They cannot report to the Director of Marketing or Sales if you have both of these. That would create conflicts. It’s not a position that fits very well into the org chart because it has applications in so many departments.

Wow, this rant is making a lot of sense.

What Kind of Damage Is The PR Bias Doing To Social Media

So here are the problems. Here’s what will happen if PR people dominate Social Media:

  • No Bottom-Line Results: De-emphasis on measurement and results, lack of critical thinking and lack of strategic creativity to achieve them
  • Too Much Talk: Over-emphasis on communication for the sake of communicating
  • Less Executive Support: Obfuscation of the potential of Social Media ROI, discouraging it as a goal, decreasing the enthusiasm of executives for Social Media
  • Lower Effectiveness: Confusion in corporate organization and control issues which decrease effectiveness of Social Media for the corporation

You may be able to think of more.

Photo credits:

 How PR People Are Destroying Social Media
Brian is author of The Like Economy: How Businesses Make Money With Facebook and Facebook Marketing: Leveraging Facebook's Features For Your Marketing Campaigns, How to Get More Fans on Facebook, and LinkedIn For Business: How Advertisers, Marketers and Salespeople get Leads, Sales and Profits from LinkedInBrian has 12 years experience as a freelance consultant and digital marketing agency director. His hands-on business experience, cutting edge insights, background in improv and stand up comedy culminate in a keynote speaker, and social media trainer who leaves every audience not only entertained, but armed with powerful strategies and tactics.
 How PR People Are Destroying Social Media

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41 thoughts on “How PR People Are Destroying Social Media

  1. Controversial headline, but really well supported article. To add to your discussion, if any one department were to take over social media it could ruin it. Consider the Sales department. Talk about lack of relationship and trust building communication! If social media was only slammed with deals and discounts, how fast do you think you’d lose your audience? I agree that it is essential social media be a well balanced mix of the different departments: customer service, HR, sales, PR and marketing.

  2. I think it is a bit too controversial saying that PR people are destroying social media. Even tho the traditional marketers have been “listening” to their customers from analytics and such, it doesn’t mean that PR people can’t do a better job after proper training. In fact PR people are more equipped with people skill to engage better than most of the digital marketers.

    But still gotta say, PR people you have a long way to catch up with the digital marketers who have been studying thousands and thousands of real business cases through years of data collection and analysis.

  3. Nice rant Brian.

    As someone who’s worked both sides of the fence (digital agencies and PR agencies), I wanted to pick up on a couple of points. I think you might have come into contact with some pretty wack PRs on which you’re basing many of these assumptions.

    When I worked in PR for example, we would always use market research, surveys and market insight to inform our PR campaigns. Sometimes we’d conduct our own. Many of the people I worked with were brilliant at coming up with creative ideas that worked with clients’ marketing strategy too.

    While a bad PR would pump out press releases pointlessly, a good one would find a relevant journalist to target, read everything they’d written to understand what might interest them, and shape their pitch to appeal to them (and hopefully in turn their readers). That sounds like the kind of personalised conversation you mention.

    (Admittedly, I worked at a full-service marketing agency so perhaps the PR offering was a bit more well-rounded than others. I should also point out that these are not people who are like your social media expert mates.)

    I’m yet to come into contact with a PR agency that’s nailed measurement but it’s something that the industry seems to be changing, slowly (AVEs are practically illegal in the right PR circles now).

    Being a bit rubbish at measuring results of social media isn’t exclusive to PRs either. At a conference last week the head of social media for one of the biggest FMCG brands in the UK – who came from a digital comms, not PR, background – admitted that they hadn’t yet been trying to measure their success in any meaningful way. And if a massive company with giant budgets to pour into sophisticated reporting hasn’t bothered until now, it seems everyone has got a long way to go.

    I suppose my point, if I have one, is that I think that someone with commercial nous, who understands business, who’s not afraid of learning new things, who is bright and articulate – regardless of background – would make a good social media co-ordinator.

  4. Hi Brian. I have to disagree with most of your points in this post. I’ll start by saying I do agree there needs to be a holistic approach to social media for it to be the most successful, however, I don’t think you should think all public relations professionals are inept at running social media programs.

    First off, the type of public relations you’re referring to is SOLELY media relations – just one facet of public relations. Many “PR” practitioners have mounds of experience in community outreach and crisis which requires listening, conversation, research regarding messaging, etc. I do agree that generally communications folks aren’t as savvy in the measurement realm as marketers, but it’s something that is definitely a focus and that many practitioners “do” get – that’s why they’re in this business. Social media isn’t for everyone.

    Another thing I think you missed the mark on is this statement “Social Media experts with only a PR background have no training or experience in advertising, marketing, sales, or customer service, but these are essential functions of Social Media.” Unless these public relations folks never went to college, they have had training in these areas. Not to mention that we do work closely with other departments so we aren’t ignorant to how the advertising, marketing, sales or customer service worlds work.

    I think your point here was to generate some conversation and I give you kudos on that – but I do think you have a very restricted view on what public relations professionals can and DO participate in on a daily basis that makes them just as good a fit as any marketers, sales professional, etc. It’s less about your background and more about a passion to learn and just generally understanding the landscape and how to make it work for YOUR brand or clients.

  5. Dig it, it supports more than a few ideas I have been trying to get across to the CEO of the Real Estate Firm I work for. I wear a few hats for the company including IA, Web-Development, and Social Media Guy..(I hesitate to say I am an expert or guru..) It has been an uphill battle to drive a solid point home. Social Media is for building communities and creating Meaning, not just a place you can paste and slap, ad over ad. Thanks for the read :)

  6. I think a lot of what needs to be said has already been stated by the other commenters, but Brian, I’m sorry, I just think you’ve presented a terribly distorted view of how we do public relations and how a lot of the leading firms do it. I acknowledge that there are PR hacks out there too but they’re not the ones driving the leading programs.

    One thing I will note that others haven’t is that your research supporting years of decline in PR shows no such thing. One shows a dip at the onset of the recession, with steady figures before that. Another shows almost as many increasing their budgets as holding them steady and almost nobody decreasing.

    Perhaps the most successful campaign my PR firm was involved in over the last couple years had virtually NOTHING to do with us thrusting emails or other content on them – it was nurturing and managing a community of hundreds of bloggers that we knew made much more credible advocates for our client and led to bottom-line business results achieved. Nobody at our firm would contend that Twitter is a social media strategy. And frankly, long-term, I don’t believe that any one person should “own” social media anyway, because it is so broad in covering internal communications, marketing, customer service, etc. It’s a necessary interim step at many companies. I certainly believe in having a cross-disciplinary understanding to be successful in that role.

    Finally, the leaders of our own profession gathered last year to condemn ad equivalency, and PR Week no longer accepts it in consideration of awards. You won’t hear the industry defending it.

    1. Just addressing the fact that PR has been doing SWA (Social Web Analytics) for several year. Obviously, Brian research is prejudiced or he could not understand the detailed studies.

  7. Sometimes I grapple with this issue myself, thinking that it is turning SO commercial on social media that it might just be watering the concept down…

  8. Ignorant opportunists? I think you’re the pot calling the kettle black.

    These are very broad accusations (PR not listening, for example, or using web analytics), and your analogy between a PR professional and a real estate agent, frankly is weak at best. Your logic is flawed and your reasoning is so one-sided that it hurts your credibility. Next time, I suggest you talk to more PR people before making such hasty assumptions and weak conclusions.

  9. From a broad overview it seems obvious that there are two main types of traffic.

    There’s traffic driven by word of mouth and traditional medium, like your casual news reader. To get that content into the publication (whether online or not) you need someone to read your content, then print it. PR is a contact network based on a mutually agreeable transaction, one party has content, one party needs content. It’s overriding feature is that it’s free (if it isn’t free, it’s marketing). This has huge reach, in my experience good PR is worth 10 times any other method of social traffic generation (I wasn’t tweaking the tech all that much, in truth).

    Then there are things like SEO and web advertising, which aren’t PR’s department. Doing only one will only capture a certain percentage of the traffic (one visitor might have done a google search, one visitor has read a story in the newspaper),each method is targeting a unique audience with very little cross over, ergo you’re increasing the reach.

    You set up your channels to capture the traffic (yes, you can be good and bad at that), you do stuff with it (yes this is a very fluffy topic), you look at the metrics.

    Now as you’re so good at metrics you’ll know precisely how effective your SEO and web advertising is, everything else is PR. Where’s your metric for how good PR are? It’s not their job to collect metrics, they don’t think about them..

    You need both types of expert, they’re very different specialities, they’re very different species. Your article is basically saying they’re not a species suited to Social Media, but you’re biased towards metrics. Help them, they’ll help fill your channels, then measure away to your hearts content by all means.

    Then tell me if they’re useless or not.

  10. I love this – it puts the focus back on the need for Social Media practices to transcend the traditional silo effect internal to most companies. It also highlights the fact that the person at the helm of your Social Media initiatives can’t fit into the current org chart neatly. S/he has to be able to work with multiple departments and not answer to one specific hierarchy.
    It challenges the current structure so much one has to wonder which will fail first – the entrenched corporate structure, or their attempt to adapt to the 21st century.

  11. Great article.
    There are a lot of people over internet that we can call as “Ignorant Opportunist”, your article help us to know how recognize them

  12. What a bunch of malarkey. Without Twitter and FB, Social Media doesn’t exist. And if you think these two platforms will be with us much longer, you’re sadly mistaken.

    Enjoy the ride for now, but if you don’t see the issues and problems that these two entities are faced with, and their lack of understanding how to resolve them (i.e. make money and know where they will be in 5 years), then keep ranting about the hapless PR people.

    1. “Without Twitter and Facebook, social media doesn’t exist.”

      That’s a really narrow view of social media, and from a very tunnel-visioned North American view at that.

      Take a look at the growth of Tudou in China; or Xing in mid-Europe; or Fotolog in South America.

      Then look at how Japan and Brazil are catching up in social media use.

      Facebook and Twitter are the easy answers for anyone that’s thinking top-level social media platforms, but there’s a heck of a lot more to the medium than these two darlings.

  13. Wow – there’s a saying in the art world “If you’re not making someone upset, then you’re doing something wrong.” This post definitely seems like that. However, then ensuing responses brought to a light a lot of good points. While it may be true that marketing people had a better foundation for analysing demographics and working the granulated conversation of social media, that doesn’t mean that PR people have something that they can bring to the table if and when they learn how to integrate with the new paradigms of social media and understand that it is different in some ways from the ways in which they are used to communicating.

    1. Clarifications:
      Line 2: “THE ensuing responses” not “then.”
      Line 4 – 5: “…that doesn’t mean that PR people DON’T have something that they can bring to the table…”
      Typed and submitted faster than I could read…

  14. “PR people define themselves as communicators and aren’t comfortable with quantifying the effects of their communication.” – This is simply an assumption at best and untrue at worst. Having worked with PR professionals, journalists and now internet marketers I can certainly see the strong links between PR and social media and myself favour the foundations in rationality that PR lends social media. It is certainly unfair to make assumptions about PR professionals who take time and effort to measure the effects of their work.

  15. Well this one really got the people’s blood boiling. I think the PR the hurts the community is sort of the boy who cried wolf. PR done for link building with no headline value. I cam from a search marketing background and I love PR but you need to have something good to announce from time to time.

  16. Let’s get real; Whether it’s PR people or self-proclaimed “gurus”, social media is destroying itself.

  17. If PR-People are such dumbfucks, why bash them. If they are so obviously failing, just don´t even bother. But maybe there´s a deeper truth in all that,and if there is, we may find it in the battle damage assessment, ascribed to PR. And yes, there´s a threat lurking. The clear and present danger of PR unmasking the marketing Apostles’ Creed:

    – No Bottom-Line Results: De-emphasis on measurement and results, lack of critical thinking and lack of strategic creativity to achieve them

    What´s a Bottom-Line Result other than a perfect set of share- and stakeholder delusion? Intelligent PR knows that and establishes strategic narratives, that make even marketeers believe, that they can measure what they do. The truth is, there´s only one Bottom-Line, the one of the business. It either makes profit, or looses money. Except for corporate bullshiting and creating elaborate lies for the controllers, no one needs measurement.

    – Too Much Talk: Over-emphasis on communication for the sake of communicating

    Oh yes, marketing people don´t like talking – as it would mean they would have to think before. Marketing likes doing stuff. Not because it makes sense, but eases their ADHD.

    – Less Executive Support: Obfuscation of the potential of Social Media ROI, discouraging it as a goal, decreasing the enthusiasm of executives for Social Media

    Ha, ha, the most powerful change agent for executives is not Social Media ROI – but their kids. Daddy, why is you company not on Facebook is the killer phrase.

    – Lower Effectiveness: Confusion in corporate organization and control issues which decrease effectiveness of Social Media for the corporation

    Sorry, if we´re not in supporting the control phantasies of Execs. Good Execs (and PR) already know, that they lost it. It´s the ability to act despite that, which makes good leaders.

    And finally for the fundamental marketing mistake: You guys are too affirmative. You only ask, what Communication incl. Social Media can do for the company. However, in the new media world, we have to ask what a company (or a brand) can do communicatively. It´s that, what makes them social. It´s their public relations, shaped by communication.

  18. Defensive and hostile much? Others here have already doen a fine job in pointing out the ignorant assumptions and claims in your post, so I won’t repeat the obvious. Your bitter blog is an embarrassment to whatever credibility you may have had in this space. As CEO, I wouldn’t hire you for the simple reason that you seem inept at the very thing you are preaching and social media seeks to accomplish–listening, relationship building and of course, mutual respect.

  19. Wow.

    And I’ll have to say that folks that are trying to turn this into a systematic function of business where there’s is an equation to complete in every social interaction – aren’t helping either.

  20. At best, PR people are destroying Social Media _for marketers_!!

    What’s asinine about this entire post is the abundance of the phrase “Social Media” without any regard for what “Social Media” is: it’s social and thus _deliberately_ NOT commercial nor political. What’s destroying Social Media itself is people, like you, using it for non-social purposes.

    If you walked into a night club and started marketing, using ‘local & targeted approaches or lingo’ won’t change people’s opinion of you as invading their ‘social’ space.

    How about both PR folks AND marketers leave Social Media and go back to commercial spaces? Please don’t mistake the public’s tolerance of marketers (or PR folks) as acceptance or anything positive.

    And I’m far from the first one to state that marketers (and now PR) are going to destroy Social Media (or, on a smaller scale, Twitter and/or Facebook).

  21. So You are talking about those PR-People:
    * No background in web analytics or marketing
    * No Social Media experience before 2008
    * Loss of traditional PR revenue drove them to the Social Media opportunity
    * They favor Twitter over all other Social Media platforms
    * They think all of Social Media belongs under the PR umbrella

    Do I understand right, You are telling us the dumb are dumb? We urgently needed You to know.

    Besides: Why shouldn’t it be possible to learn enough about Social Media within 3 years?
    A friend of mine in Germany ( @luebue ) recently adviced customers to fire all social media consultants who tell it isn’t.

  22. Yeah, but what about the web analytics? Reducing people–or customers, as the author calls them–to behavioral statistics on a spreadsheet should be the goal of an organization’s social media strategy. People love being marketed at, especially when all they’re trying to do is interact with their friends and family on their favorite social network, right? I believe the Social Media Marketing term for that concept is “expectation of (social media) intrusion.”

  23. Clear writing is an indication of clear thinking. By the same token, imprecise writing is usually an indication of fuzzy and confused thinking.

  24. What is Your idea of Social Media anyway? How can anyone or any group “destroy” it?

    What is the nature of Social Media in Your opinion? An what is the nature of the Social Media business i.e. the consultants business? Ideas, plans of Social Media Consultants when turned into action are in the market of peoples attention. So let the market decide. RELAX.

  25. Brian – I hear you. There are some bad old world PR (and marketing) practices being retrofitted into social media. And yes, there are bad practitioners who wouldn’t know analytics from their…well, you know what I’m saying. But as a PR agency guy from way back who runs social media and digital things today, I need to defend my profession.

    While the topic of social media ownership has been bounced around for awhile now, the conclusion I favour is that the business function best placed to own the customer / candidate / employee (and so on…) relationship should be in the driver’s seat. Be that HR, Sales, Marketing, PR or Legal – these are the folks that are building relationships one tweet, blog post or forum comment at a time.

    That said, someone has to get them in the car and make sure the oil’s changed, tires are roadworthy and the destination is mapped out. PR folks – in our defence – have been keeping campaigns running since Ivy Lee put out the first press release in 1906. We’ve always taken a longer term view to communications and while I agree measurement has been a struggle (reflecting more the unwillingness for companies to spend as opposed to any lack of desire from my profession), this longer term view is where I feel the PR folks add the greatest amount of value.

    Good PR folks build 1-1 relationships – we’ve done this with journalists for more than a century. We’ve built community relations programs, managed employee communications and driven discussions with industry analysts. We’ve also told stories that go beyond a one off promotion, 13 week marketing ‘play’ or new web app. The ability to look at long term objectives and create a comms program using a variety of tools is at the heart of our profession.

    And while we don’t always get it right, we also aspire to speak as human beings and not in the language or hyperbole, press release or brochure. Just because you can publish, doesn’t mean you should – and folks who understand how people communicate will always have a role guiding those that struggle.

  26. Sorry Brian, you simply got it very wrong this time.
    I think you feel threatened as a marketer by the PR profession; this fuels your rant.
    Where do you base the fact that PR practitioners don’t measure and evaluate? Have you ever seen as legitimate PR strategic campaign? It is composed of measurable objectives, coupled with an evaluation plan (post-campaign) to measure the results of the campaign. Social Media is not PR for us practitioners, it is merely a tool of communication, a tactic.

  27. Sorry Brian, you simply got it very wrong this time.
    I think you feel threatened as a marketer by the PR profession; this fuels your rant.
    Where do you base the fact that PR practitioners don’t measure and evaluate? Have you ever seen as legitimate PR strategic campaign? It is composed of measurable objectives, coupled with an evaluation plan (post-campaign) to measure the results of the campaign. Social Media is not PR for us practitioners, it is merely a tool of communication, a tactic.

  28. First of all, I have to say I respectfully disagree that as a whole, PR people are destroying the industry. I’d also like to point out that your perspective on the industry is skewed. Overgeneralization never helps an argument and many of your assumptions about what publc relations people do/don’t do are simply untrue. Perhaps you were trying to ruffle feathers in the name of exposure. If so, touche.

    It has become more common for public relations professionals to use the web (social media specifically) to “publically relate.” That’s to say much of the activity that goes on within social media, especially Twitter and blogs, only serves to reinforce certain professionals positions within the industry.

    Rather than listening to customers and engaging the “social” aspect of the medium, certain professionals use the medium solely to establish their own personal brand as professionals. Perhaps you would argue this is a bad thing, but I believe this phenomenon only leads to greater understand about communication, people, and the forces shaping their behavior.

  29. “No background in web analytics or marketing”
    “They think all of Social Media belongs under the PR umbrella”

    As Tom Murphy said, Social Media is not as complex as open heart surgery.

    So dont worry. PR will not take over Social Media.

  30. “No background in web analytics or marketing”
    “They think all of Social Media belongs under the PR umbrella”

    As Tom Murphy said, Social Media is not as complex as open heart surgery.

    So dont worry. PR will not take over Social Media.