Come in Spinner: The social media revolution (?)

Everybody in PR agrees that social media is revolutionising PR – it’s just that most of them are a bit vague about exactly how.

A recent Public Relations Institute of Australia Women in PR Lunch featured a panel, moderated by NBC journalist Sara James, comprising Linda Bracken from the ABC, Jeffrey Browne Network MD Channel 9 and Mark Moncrief  Data Editor The Age, discussing the topic ‘Cutting through the content clutter’.

Linda Bracken talked about the very successful ABC local community-based program creation scheme, ABC Open; Jeffrey Browne deftly handled some aggressive questions about discrimination against older women in TV (he had obviously been asked the questions before); and Sara James recounted how a story about Ronald Reagan’s shooting unfolded in pre-mobile phone days.

While the messages from the panel were about the ubiquity, speed, breadth and potential of social media one couldn’t help feeling that most of the practitioners at the lunch would have swapped a minute on Browne’s network for any number of social media mentions.

At the lunch, probably because I was the oldest and probably longest-serving PR practitioner there, one of the other guests said to me that I must have witnessed a huge amount of change in the industry over the years. Well, yes and no. There is no doubt that the speed (and volume) of communications has changed enormously, but the core bit of the business is still the message and how you target the people you want to hear and act on it. Sometimes that might be social media, sometimes word of mouth and sometimes mainstream media – but the channel is less important than the message. Plumbing has changed over millennia from the heights of Babylonian civilisation through the lead pipes of the Romans to today’s plastic pipes but all the plumbing systems still have one thing in common – they are designed to transport either water or sewage. Equally the same is true of PR – the channels change but they might still be transporting sewage.

Recently Telstra PR manager, Paul Crisp, was invited along to talk about his job to Deakin University students and surprised quite a few them when he said that it was the message – not the medium  – that was still the key. Former Sensis manager, Thomas Arthur, had a similar message to a group of media and communications people meeting at RMIT when he said it was not the technology that counted but the business model – useful advice over the past couple of decades for people thinking of investing in internet IPOs such as Facebook.

The latest Asia Pacific Public Relations Journal (Vol 12, No. 2) throws some light on why all this is so. First, because PR people (along with everyone else) are struggling with just how they use PR2.0. Two University of Newcastle researchers, Prue Robson and Melanie James, undertook a survey of non-capital city PR people’s social media use. Among other findings they discovered that the PR people in their sample were more likely to be using social media for personal use or professional development than for communicating on behalf of clients or employers.

Professor Jim McNamara, UTS Sydney, in an analysis of social media governance, found that: “…PR and corporate communications practitioners have a strong interest in social media and most private and public sector organisations now use social media for work-related purposes.” However, says McNamara, most of them seem to have less knowledge and competence in the area than they believe. Worse, almost two-thirds of organisations have no governance structure for how social media is used; half carry out no, or very little, social media monitoring; and, many practitioners are hung up on the concept that they can control the message. As a general rule, over the years, whenever you heard a PR practitioner talking about controlling the message you could bet that they didn’t really understand communication. In the world of PR2.0 you can bet that they will also be delusional.

So social media is important, mainly because it’s everywhere and because so many people have access to it, but precisely why it’s important to PR and how PR people use it are different questions altogether. One insight into the challenge is shown in another paper in the journal, by Monash University’s Karen E Sutherland, who cites some US research which showed that students who are heavier users of Facebook tend to get lower grades than students who are not such heavy users. The implication is that getting locked into Facebook or other social media might diminish rather than enhance your openness to wider knowledge even when it is of direct interest to you.

In the second last millennium there was one really revolutionary technological development – water power. In the last millennium there were two – printing and the Pill. In this one it may be the Web, but equally it might, as Zhou Enlai said when asked by Henry Kissinger about the influence of the French Revolution, be: “too early to tell”.

Declaration of interest: The author is an Asia Pacific PR Journal Editorial advisory committee member