Social media: is it the new PR?

21 March 2011

Written by: Jessica Buccolieri

Social interaction is part of what it is to be human. Every day, people are socialising in cafés, at school and at work. They are conversing over the phone and on the street. But as new internet technologies emerge, the conversation is forming its way onto online social networking sites, creating a new era of social media and subsequent careers.

Kara Gibson is the former social media coordinator at La Trobe University in Melbourne. She now works for World Vision Australia, but her previous position was literally non-existent five years ago.

‘Social media was definitely around, but it wasn’t seen as a full time position,’ she explains. ‘Facebook was still a walled community that you could only join if you were a student, and MySpace was still pretty strict on companies trying to have a page and interact with users. Twitter was a buzz word… and people were making a living blogging or writing, but that wasn’t yet coined as a social media job.’

So what did Ms Gibson’s role of social media coordinator actually involve?

‘Most days I’d come in and check our social media accounts. I compiled monthly reports on how all of our channels were working – Facebook, Twitter, Habbo, LinkedIn and iTunes. I worked with the advertising team and other committees to create social media campaigns that aligned with upcoming events and advertising promotions. I also worked with external vendors [creating banner ads] for online marketing.’

According to Ms Gibson, her former job at La Trobe, where she was paid to blog, write and tweet about the university, is not the only one available in social media.

Large corporations hire social media strategists to purposefully manage their communications online, while community managers strive to engage and grow a social media community for a company.

There are also other social media jobs that do not necessarily constitute a career.

‘Most companies still have someone in marketing that’s interested in having a Facebook or Twitter account, and so do it as part of their job. Some people just make their living blogging,’ says Ms Gibson.

‘Whole companies are [also] based off social media; so everyone working at LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook, etc. I know the people that started Urbanspoon. They are now millionaires from their Web 2.0 start-up.’

Social media has gained so much prominence that even the public relations industry is having a go at it.

Public relations, according to the Public Relations Institute of Australia, is ‘the deliberate, planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain mutual understanding between an organisation (or individual) and its publics’.

It is the key to effective communication between businesses, institutions and the public, and traditionally involves media and government relations, public affairs, internal communications, event management and generating publicity.

Modern PR still does all that, but now with the added element of social media technologies.

Ms Gibson clarifies the difference between the two fields:

‘They can be really related at times. The difference is that PR has a certain strategy that can use social media, but social media will not always be PR. If people use social media as their [only] PR channel, they won’t have much success. Social media needs to build or engage a community, have a company contribute to a conversation. This is definitely a part of PR, but PR still does a lot more outward bound sharing of information.

‘At smaller companies, we haven’t used PR at all, and we just use social media. It’s a lot of work, but amazingly effective. PR still plays a big role in media, but social media can be really useful in that field. It’s about engaging your clients, being in the places they are, providing relevant information to your audience, helping with conversation and contributing.’

Former editor of The Age and director of Inside Public Relations – a specialist agency on media, issues management, crisis management and corporate strategy – Michael Smith, says:

‘Social media is the modern form of word-of-mouth PR which has always been considered the most powerful way to get messages across. Social media allows word-of-mouth to spread so much more quickly when it is done well, which is not all the time.’

Mr Smith believes social media and advancements in technology are having a larger impact on some sections of the industry, such as product marketing and political campaigns (think the use of Twitter during last year’s election campaign), than others like corporate PR and issues management.

The introduction of social networking sites to PR has created demand for instant news and updates about businesses and institutions. The pressure of time constraints raises ethical concerns about accuracy and quality of information.

‘Same issues apply in PR as in the media on this issue,’ says Mr Smith. ‘It’s a huge issue because it affects credibility which is the most important thing for the media and PR.’

Ms Gibson says it’s different for every company. ‘This does demand companies to respond much faster than they are used to, but it can also cause conversation (both good and bad) around an event. It’s more about having a company and their staff prepared on how to handle an emergency.’

As for the future of social media and public relations:

‘In many ways, social media is the future,’ says Ms Gibson. ‘Newspapers are going bankrupt and news is all coming online. Facebook is one of the most visited sites in the world. I pick restaurants from other people’s reviews online, and I’ll watch a YouTube video if everyone keeps talking about it. We are all connecting online more and more, so I think it’s silly if companies don’t embrace social media. They will miss out.’

Mr Smith says, ‘In all its forms, PR has a good future. PR boils down to communication and this is one of the biggest and fastest growing as well as important fields of the human endeavour. PR is simply getting the right messages to the right people in the right way at the right time. Social media is just another vehicle to achieve that’.

‘I think students should keep [careers in social media] under consideration but I would not leap into it. There are already signs that people are signing off from social media – it may even turn out to be a fad.’

Jessica Buccolieri is a Journalism Honours student at La Trobe University and a member of the upstart editorial team. She is currently writing a thesis about the affects of social media on modern journalism.