What would you tell PR students about social media?

I’d like to test social media’s culture of generosity by asking for your help in giving young PR students a sense of the impact of social media on PR as a discipline and their prospective careers as PR practitioners.

Social media requires new skills

Social media demands new skills

I’ve been invited to speak about social media to the the students in the public relations program at Humber College in Toronto. In setting up the session, the organizers have told me:

We feel our classmates will benefit most from a lecture focusing on how social media is functioning within PR, primarily how it has emerged and how it is changing the field. As we all have first-hand experience with social media and popular sites (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc), we would like you to focus on the aspects of social media and PR of which we may not be aware: are there new technologies or sites that will impact the field in the next year? Are there common preconceptions about social media that we should know as we enter the field? How should we be incorporating social media into our careers

I’ve pulled out of this three topics to discuss with the students of Humber College:

  • how social media has affected PR;
  • new developments, technologies or sites that will impact the field in the next year; and
  • how aspiring PR practitioners should be incorporating social media into their career preparation.

Here’s where you come in

If you were talking to a class of PR students, what would you tell them about social media?

  • How is social media affecting organizational and group communications?
  • What are the technology trends that they should be watching?
  • What will it mean for their careers?

I plan to show the Humber class this post and the comments it receives as an illustration of the power of crowdsourcing. So, please give generously of your experience and advice.

  • Dave Law

    Social media is opening up organisational and group communication up to everyone. Anyone can see what is being said about a brand. Brands can be made or severely damaged by conversations in social media.

    Technology trends to watch: niche social news websites like Tip’d, Hugg etc, Microblogging – Twitter is going to continue to grow.

    It means their careers are going to be continually based online. Online and offline PR is going to need to work hand in hand. Offline PR is not going anywhere quickly, but online can not be ignored any longer.

    It also means people need to pay attention to how to communicate on the web, how to reach out to bloggers. It is no longer a one-to-many conversation, it is a many-to-many conversation. We are no longer broadcasting, we’re conversing. I particularly like the term
    for Online PR and what is happening to PR in general.

    Good luck with the talk!

  • Thanks for the thoughtful comment Dave. I hadn’t come across the P2PR concept. Nice.

  • Ed

    1. How social media put to test (or break/expose) certain practices in traditional PR

    2. How social media illustrates and bring to the foreground, intangible results which in some cases, are immeasurable

    3. How PR can master and mentor in multi-disciplinary application of social media in other parts of the corporation

  • How to listen to and measure social media is the first thing. I would explain how RSS works and show them a few basic tools like Yahoo Pipes, Google Analytics, Netvibes etc.

    Once these basics are in place, I would explain the types of social media (ie. Social News, Social Bookmarking, Social Networking, Blogs, Wikis etc.) and a lot of the techy terminology (lots of people still seem unaware/overwhelmed.)

    I would provide examples of campaigns that have gone extremely well. I loved Beth Kanter’s example earlier this year; sending the Cambodian girl to college within minutes… and also how a brand can go sideways if you’re not watching (I liked Jeremy Owyang’s example of EXXON’s “Janet”)

    Finally, I might add that just getting out there and testing an approach doesn’t have to be a huge endeavor. In fact, I wouldn’t invest much in a PR campaign via social media until I have tested the waters somewhat.

  • I believe not enough attention is being spent on SM strategy. People tend to view SM in silos (Facebook, twitter, blog…etc) In reality, it is an interconnected grouping of applications and users. When my company (InnoGage) consults on SM, we take a holistic approach figuring out what the company or higher ed. institution strategy is, analyzing current and upcoming applications and tools and then mapping all the connections between them.

    For example, we usually recommend coupling a twitter strategy with a blog strategy as these are highly correlated and help to cross-pollinate each other. You also need to look at not only Facebook but all the apps and plug-ins that can be leveraged with it.

    Last thing to know about SM in PR is that SM is living and organic. It’s not an email blast or a spot in a newspaper. It’s an ongoing conversation with interested parties. Therefore, proper execution is critical as is an understanding of the current and ongoing burden on those who are maintaining the SM channel. We’ve seen too many companies jump into too many SM channels at once and fail miserably. Be strategic, be deliberate, know the risks and benefits of your strategy, go in SMALL at first, expand to other channels in a controlled and systematic way.

  • Oops. Meant to say Jeremiah Owyang… Not Jeremy.

  • I’m sure you’ll get plenty of input regarding philosophy of SM and its integration with more traditional communication. But don’t over look the need for students to experiment and to experience the applications themselves. As Nike reminds us: Just do it!

    You’ll find all the students very familiar with Facebook and MySpace. But it tends to end there. Encourage them to:

    Set up a blog and write. Few students have the interest or the patience. But we learn by doing. At Kent State, in a class call PR Online Tactics, we require students to blog weekly on a niche PR topic. Some get turned on, others not. But they learn what it’s all about, and they enter the profession better prepared.

    Tweet. The Twitterverse is microscopic in the scheme of Web 2.0, and only a few students are part of it. (I only jumped back into Twitter a few weeks ago after more than year away. I found this post b/c of your tweet.)

    Twitter is more than conversation. Twitter, like more traditional blogs, is a valuable research tool for classes and for life. You have all these passionate people sharing their expertise and linking you to more more. It a freakin’ gold mine when you learn to use it, and I’m still learning daily. (Biggest challenge is cutting through the fluff, and Twitter has plenty of it.)

    Read and learn from top bloggers! Today’s students are not readers, but I’m sure you know this. In the class I mentioned, we require students to open a feeder account and follow a dozen PR bloggers. Each week, I ask several several students to report on what they’ve learned. Once again they learn by doing — but only because it’s a required activity.

    You’d be surprised how curious students can be when they’re doing if for a grade! Something tells me I was just like them 35 years ago.

  • If I were talking to the Hunter students my recommendation would be a few questions…. whatever you decide try to figure out what the answers are regarding these questions, such as:

    1) who is your target audience – chartered accountants, consumers, investors, or what – they will be using media differently …. adjust your strategy accordingly

    2) whatever you do, measure it using measurement metrics that make sense – 30 min Twitter a day, 2 Twitter postings each day, suffice
    remember, your customers may not have time to read your blog posts nor tweets, so less at higher quality is probably better in the business world.
    – explained: http://commetrics.com/?p=58

    3) track your effects/impacts using the measurement metrics you defined (see 2), track it over time please….. and yes Paris was not built in one day either it does take time
    – explained http://commetrics.com/?p=34

    And much more and just before we forget things are different in other countries and when doing it in another language than English 😉 of course you knew.

    Salue Urs

  • I’m actually doing a very similar presentation to a different group of PR students this week, and one of the things I plan on telling them is that getting involved in social media is a great way for them to meet an interact with people they might not otherwise get a chance to. For the immediate time, this means interacting directly with their future colleagues (and potential employers) via blogs and twitters. Once they’ve started working, they can apply this knowledge to having better interactions with the people they are trying to reach on behalf of their companies.

  • Some good responses and thought-starters here. I’m giving a very similar presentation to a group of students in the UofT Commerce program tonight, and one of the things I intend to tell them is: start now.

    This generation, more than any group of young adults before them, have truly (in Tapscott’s phrase) grown up digital. Navigating the social media world should be something that comes absolutely naturally to them. Their online, participatory existence should be an intrinsic part of who they are and what they do, not something that exists as an afterthought or sideline.

    Start now. Start writing, using Seesmic, Twittering, participating – learn the language and etiquette of the space by engaging in it. The risk, early in one’s career, is low: so dive in.

    At the same time, as they participate in and contribute to conversations and communities of interest to them online, I would counsel the students to be mindful of their public persona.

    Every comment you leave, every blog post you write, every Facebook status update and every Flickr photo shared: these are all data points that illuminate your reputation. Google never forgets. Just be the best person you can be online and you’ll never have cause to regret.

    In terms of technologies to watch, I know it’s been said many times, but I think we should all be looking towards the fast-approaching era of wireless ubiquity. Pretty much everything you can do on a desktop you’ll be able to do in the palm of your hand. The front page is in your back pocket. People are telling you what they think about your company’s messages instantly from their mobile devices. How will this trend impact the life of a PR person?

  • Hi Joe,

    I think one of the most valuable aspects of social media is building a network.

    Knowing how to properly navigate social media as a networking tool is important for so many reasons, and not just to connect with future colleagues and employers (although it’s definitely useful for that too).

    Building a professional personal brand has become important for young people like myself in this digital era. It’s not unheard of for clients, employers or colleagues to Google you, so it’s important that when they do, they find that you have an online presence that is postive and professional.

    Social media is also useful for networking with clients, reaching out to potential clients and being to be able to show that when you recommend using a certain tool, you know what you’re talking about.


  • Luckily, you might be addressing an age group which views this new interactivity in PR as the rule rather than as exceptional and ground-breaking. This group tends to IM and post on social environments as naturally as we ‘older folks’ breathe air, and who ‘get’ the lateral interactivity of SM that has diminished the impact of more traditional marketing – TV ads, print media, radio – all the unidirectional methods.

    I’d be interested to hear how they define PR, media presence, adverts. What influences them? How do they view traditional advertising, traditional media directions? How would they change the architecture of media presence in the upcoming decades? What would they ‘do different’ in order to morph this into an acceptable and meaningful bidirectional data stream to them, to their peers? Odds are high that, instead of them receiving a lecture, the workshop approach may demonstrate the lesson (and we’ll all learn from them in the very near future as our old methods begin to lose their shine).

  • I’ll echo the comments of a few others about keeping in mind who your audience is in all your communications.

    I do search engine optimization as well as PR. Many people in the SEO field seem to think their target audience is other people in the SEO field when their audience should be potential clients. It’s kind of ironic.

    What I have learned about Twitter is that it’s not about pushing out a message like traditional marketing, but having your audience come to you. If you’re constantly pushing messages out to your Twitter followers and not engaging in a real conversation, you’re in danger of them just tuning out.

    Don’t use social media as just another method of pushing out the same old marketing.

  • Hi Joe,

    You already have some great responses here; I’ll second many of their comments:
    – Start now – get used to these tools, build a presence, develop your network and learn
    – Consider your audiences before and while deciding which tools to use
    – Learn about the ethics behind social media engagement
    – Think strategically – don’t rush in to using every tool in every context. Consider what you’re trying to achieve and who you’re talking with, for example. That will affect the tools you use.
    – Consider an organization’s culture before recommending something that may or may not be appropriate – sometimes other work is necessary first
    – Make reading and commenting on blogs that interest you a regular part of your day
    – Integrate social media within your other communications activities. Treating it as stand-alone will lead to failures.

    I hope this helps.


  • This is something I’ve (kind of) addressed before:
    http://brendancooper.com/2008/08/14/so-you-want-to-get-into-social-media/ – feel free to use this any way you see fit.

    Also, for a very interesting take on the future of PR given the effect of new technologies, check out this link on Shel Holz’s blog:

  • Since I teach units on social media in the Royal Road University M.B.A. program and in a course at Ryerson University, I can say that students are surprisingly confused about how they take their personal interest in social media and bring it into their professional careers in public relations.

    Where they find the bridge easiest to understand is the role of social media in creating or managing crises. There are so many examples of YouTube, Facebook or blog-driven crises and examples of companies starting to use the same tools to explain or apologize with respect to a crisis event, it is relatively easy to convince them that to ignore social media in a communications campaign may be professionally irresponsible.

  • Brad Buset

    This presentation should be great based upon all the tips so far. I’ll just expand on mention something about technology/ trends to watch:

    Technology will change, but people are still social creatures. We appreciate help, strive for knowledge and we learn best from experience.

    No matter which medium you choose listen first, contribute when you can and share what you know. Everyone has to start somewhere, and listening is the best way to start. Contribute when you can whether it be comments, photos, expertise or opinions. Be honest about your intentions behind the contribution and it’ll always be appreciated. Finally, everyone has a different viewpoint and we all view information through a different lens. Share with others how you synthesized information and what it means to you.

  • Joe,

    Started a comment – due to a combination of the snowstorm and some post-election time off: the comment turned into a quick two pager PDF on social media with a bit of a Marshal McLuhan-academic tilt. It can be downloaded here: http://drop.io/vybdhko

    If it is of use to others making similar presentations, anyone can feel free to use or make use of parts of it: please consider it CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0. (http://creativecommons.org/about/license/)

    Ian Capstick

  • I think I’m a good living example of how involvement in social media is extremely beneficial to students. Not to be all up on myself, but you said it yourself, Joe: After using my social networks to help make a name for myself, I had my choice of shops and organizations to choose from.

    There are going to be a lot of great responses to this post, but I thought the students you’re speaking to would like to know where someone who was in their position this time last year is now.

  • Social Media (SM) is more than a trend, it’s become part of our everyday lives that said, SM is not for everyone immediately nor should it be used like an ad in a newspaper for example. This is about building relationships over a long period of time by offering content that is relevant, engaging and interesting. So in this sense you still need to target audiences appropriately and make sure you are engaging in a way that isn’t just convincing but instead do it like you mean it. A bit like CSR. Because in the long run with SM, it’s only the hardcore that remain to reap the benefits. E.g. when I had a baby I signed up with babycentre.co.uk. This was 2 and a half years ago. I moved from the UK to Toronto Ontario and still receive updates from them regarding the healthy development of a child which I’m always as a mother going to be interested in. Next to this you will also find forums and then of course marketing of relevant products which because they don’t violate adjacency in terms of context, I don’t mind receiving , even clicking into at times.

    One last point, don’t become obsessed with this ‘trend’ because there is a place for integrated marketing solutions. PR should always be about the challenge and not the channel. E.g. I still like getting catalogues in the post but I’ll probably purchase online.

    The great thing about SM is that it provides yet another channel to throw into a mix – but beware to use it wisely.

  • Joseph, Lots of great comments and so I’d mostly say “I agree” to much of what has been said here. Start now. Realize that we are increasingly moving our “Internet access device” down to a mobile phone – think about how you can deliver or access content from an iPhone/Blackberry, etc.

    I’ll second Michael O’Connor Clarke’s comments, too, about Google’s long memory. When I’ve done these presentations to college PR classes, I’ve asked them to look at their Facebook or MySpace pages from an employer’s point-of-view (and to realize that a social-media-savvy employer *will* find them). My mantra has always been “Never put online anything you wouldn’t want to appear on the front page of the New York Times” (or insert relevant media outlet). There have always been a few nudges/winks or dazed expressions when I’ve mentioned that. (“They’ll really look at my MySpace page?”)

    Finally, from a technology point-of-view, more and more of what we are doing is being pushed out “into the cloud”… whether it’s Twitter and other microblogging services, Facebook, MySpace, blog hosting sites, etc. or sites like Google Docs and GMail… we’re moving more and more of the services we use out onto the network. What does it mean for access? What does it mean for the way we write our content? What happens when Internet access isn’t available? All of those will be things they’ll need to think about.

    Enjoy your presentation – I’ve always found these types of talks to be a lot of fun,

  • I think it also fair to warn students they need to carefully consider their employers, as they may have to convince them or clients that social media is serious business.

    To a dismaying degree, I still find myself trying to bridge the digital natives with those waiting around for the cluetrain. I’m hardly an SM expert, but am viewed as a go-to among some of my peers because they are exceedingly uncomfortable with social media tools. And others use SM for personal reaons, but don’t see the business opportunities.

    Some get it, some don’t. And those who think they get it may ask for social media tools for the wrong reasons. Again I think it’s important to let students know these are important skills that may not be viewed as important by everyone — even if they need it.


  • Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who took the time to offer advice in comments to this post. Your insight and suggestions are great. And they will definitely show the PR students I’m speaking to the power of an online network. If you are part of the culture of generosity, if you give good value all the time (which I try to do), people will respond in kind.

  • Hey Joe,

    You got some great advice here! FWIW, I wrote a post about how to approach mommy bloggers (or, for that matter, any bloggers) with a pitch after we discussed it at Third Tuesday talk last year. It’s here: http://danigirl.ca/blog/2007/10/16/the-best-way-to-appeal-to-a-blogger-is-through-her-ego/

  • As a PR student myself, I thought I would put in my two cents. So many good points have been made so far, so I’ll just point out what has worked for me.

    1. Listen – A lot of PR is about listening, and students can treat their learning process the same way they should treat a communications plan. One can learn a great deal about PR with little more than an RSS reader and a twitter account. I’ve learned as much through blogs as I have through class, and if you want to know what’s really going on in PR outside of your textbook social media is where to find it.

    2. Do it – It’s free, easy and fun to try, so why not give it a shot? Also, if you plan on ever giving a client any sort of advice about the online space, you had better walk the walk. This is one type of media that you need to do, not just absorb.

    3. Engage – This is really all about dialogue and conversing with real people, so approach it as such. You’ll catch on to the rest.

    The bottom line for students: try it out! At the very least it will be a very valuable resource to learn about PR. I won’t pretend that I’m the most active blogger/twitterer out there, but the rewards are tremendous. You will get back as much (or more) than you put in.

  • Stephen Heckbert


    You have an open invitation to come to Algonquin, as you know.

    This thread has been helpful to me as well in my new role at Algonquin, so thanks everyone for the advice.


  • Joe,

    Like Rayanne, I was lucky enough to have a professor– Gary Schlee– who was experienced enough in SM to instill it in his curriculum. I attribute having to create and maintain a blog in his Writing class to the reason why I’m so involved in the space today.

    As Bill mentioned, students experience with SM pretty much ends with Facebook and MySpace. Provide them a list of some top PR blogs to visit and start commenting. I learned alot just by browsing the blogrolls of blogs like yours.

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  • These are great and helpful points. Joe invited me be a panelist at the Centennial College Unconference where I’ll have the pleasure of discussing how SM can help start and build careers in PR. I’ll certainly be better prepared having read the content above. Thanks for the invitation, Joe, and for encouraging input from the smart people above.

  • Sarah Geddes

    If I was a PR student now, I’d want someone to tell me ‘specialize, specialize, specialize’. As new grads, they have the opportunity to enter the workforce with a set of skills many senior practitioners need to complement their own experience.

    I’d also suggest the obstacle of not having the experience many firms seek when making a hire is eroding. With a little creativity and a demonstrated ability to incorporate social media into strategic planning, students have an opportunity to build a portfolio and their own hands-on experience without necessarily needing a job to do it.

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