Social media, PR industry priorities and the PRIA

For as long as the blog can remember someone in the PR industry has been telling it that something or other is transforming the industry ensuring it will never be the same again.

The latest transformation allegedly comes from social media and the blog concedes that while it is actually transformational the worry is that too many PR people are obsessed by the tool itself and give insufficient thought to how it can best be used and what the risks and limitations are. The last blog post on Tony Jaques’ analysis of the Victorian Taxi Association Twitter campaign disaster and similar “hashtag bashtag” results are an example of what can go wrong. Yet questioning the role of social media is a quick way to get dubbed a Luddite or a grumpy old man.

The advertising industry has started to wake up to some of the problems, particularly the fact that a lot of the ‘visits’ to sites and posts are actually by bots rather than people. Inadvertent inappropriate placements are so common that Private Eye runs a regular column called Malgorithms which details them. In a recent issue Private Eye recorded a few of them. Reuters had an online story about Aylan Kurdi’s father taking the drowned boy home for burial. The accompanying ad: “UK Dads without life cover in for a big surprise.” The Guardian reported on the British Airways plane catching fire at Las Vegas airport. Accompanying ad: “British Airways ‘The early bird gets the deal – Book Now.’” A Daily Telegraph (UK one) had an article about the lack of borders in Europe making it impossible to end the migrant crisis. Accompanying ad: “Please call to discuss your move with one of our experts.” And, as the blog has remarked before, online ads keep popping up after you have done the online research on a subject you wanted to find out about and no longer need to explore.

One of the most favoured concepts in social media advertising and PR is the concept of engagement.  It was promoted by Facebook and Google and basically asserts that unlike typical traditional advertising, which is conventional and one way, social media allows for ‘engagement’ – like it did for the Taxi Association. Given that for many years the only really worthwhile theoretical insight into PR, taught to generations of students, was the Grunigs’ insight about symmetric and asymmetric communications it was no wonder that PR people leapt at social media potential despite there being many more theoretical concepts developed in recent years which should make practitioners assess more carefully how they use the channels.

The advertising industry’s doubts about social media were crystallised by an important book, How Brands Grow by Professor Byron Sharp at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute at the University of South Australia. Essentially the book did something very radical – it looked behind the hype at the empirical evidence and found that a lot of the beliefs about brands and engagement were just nonsense. Not everyone has got on board yet but the book is probably one of the most remarkable marketing texts for years and equally of significance to PR people because it upends much conventional wisdom about target audiences and provides new insights into segmentation and motivations. For more details about the book, published by OUP in 2010 with a second part coming out this year, go to  OUP.

Sharp’s findings were complemented by a recent Forrester Research report which, according to the FT, found that the rate of engagement with brands among Facebook fans is 0.07% and with Twitter it’s 0.03%. Remember – this is people who have joined brands’ Facebook page or Twitter feeds so just imagine what the penetration is with people who don’t consider themselves friends/likes etc.

The heavy emphasis on social media was apparent at the recent PRIA Conference in Tasmania. There were some exceptional papers on various topics (declaration of interest: the blog was on a sub-committee which worked to develop the conference theme and program) including an excellent talk by Sarah Cruickshank, a senior NSW public servant speaking in a personal capacity, on communicating reform. The blog couldn’t help asking her whether reform might be progressed more effectively if people stopped using the words ‘reform’ and ‘change’ and adopted different language. “Yes” was the very succinct answer. Alisa Bowen (a former blog colleague) talked about News Corp’s digital strategy; Susan Redden Makatoa gave new perspectives on crisis communication; and the ALP’s Stephen Donnelly described the astonishing Victorian grassroots campaign which helped win the 2014 State election. The message – word of mouth is back (indeed never went away). The PRIA President also gave two speeches, which the blog sadly missed, but which listeners described as quite remarkable.

The blog chaired successive sessions with Susan Redden Makatoa and Stephen Donnelly as well as Mike Verhoeven from the Copyright Agency. The first two were well attended the third sadly not in the face of competition from yet another presentation on social media. Yet the few people at the Verhoeven presentation, including the blog, learnt an awful lot about what they didn’t know about copyright and what they thought they knew but which was wrong. As the session demonstrated, social media is important but there are other practice areas which are far more important to practitioners who want to succeed and avoid being sued.