Social media means opportunity for public relations practitioners

I frequently am asked the question, “Where does social media belong – with advertising or public relations?” My answer invariably is that it resides with those people who have the imagination and intelligence to explore and understand social media’s potential.

Off the gridSome of those people may come from advertising backgrounds, some from public relations, some from journalism, some from technology, some from other places. My own social media community reflects this blend. My feedreader includes social media opinion leaders who started out in advertising, public relations, journalism, design, marketing, government, and other diverse places. Their backgrounds are disparate. But they all share in common an intellectual curiosity and willingness to take risks.

Having said this, I do feel that social media presents an unprecedented opportunity for public relations practitioners who embrace it.

The driving force of social media is people’s desire to connect with others. Public relations’ focus on conversation and relationships attunes PR practitioners to social media and its potential for community building and long term relationships between organizations and communities of interest.

Social media require skills that public relations practitioners have – listening, analysis, clear writing and speaking and, above all, a sensitivity to the interests and needs of the community. Defining and understanding the interests and predispositions of “target audiences” has long been a mainstay of public relations.We should be able to master the shift in perspective from “audience” to “community of interest” and from mediated communication to conversational communications.

Have your sayThe new realm of public relations is in defining and understanding communities of interest. Who are they? What brings them together? How can you contribute? What do you have that they might value, want and appreciate? What is their culture? This requires the skills we’ve always had – to listen, to frame content in a way that is meaningful and responds to the interests of the person at the other end of the line; to communicate clearly; to respect others’ time and attention.

The rewards will be great for PR pros who embrace social media.

We will expand the scope of our practice, escaping the shackles of media relations by joining and contributing to communities of interest, without intermediaries, in our own voices. Let me say that again – in our own voices. No ghost writing wanted.

We will gain attention from key decision makers looking for strategic insight about what these new media mean for their organizations.The need for authenticity presents the opportunity to build a practice on the provision of solid strategic advice to forward looking clients who see the potential but seek expert guidance. No arms and legs work here.

52 facesOf course, we must do it right. Success in social media will come only if we open ourselves to new possibilities and explore them with energy and patience. And above all, if public relations professionals are to fully realize the potential that social media has for our practice, we must be open about sharing our experience and knowledge with one another.

The advantage of proprietary information is ephemeral in a world of open sourcing and peer creation. The successful practitioner will realize that we all rise on a common tide of understanding and expertise.

The true winners will be those who are seen to give more than they receive, who truly understand the gift economy and the culture of generosity. Success in social media starts with this understanding.

Cross posted on the blog of the Canadian Council of Public Relations Firms

UPDATE: Brendan Hodgson carries these thoughts further. It’s not just about “joining and contributing to communities of interest, but knowing the “hearts and minds” of those audiences we need to reach.”