Are social media changing the DNA of public relations? Not one bit!

In a note to my colleagues this morning, I recapped a few things I learned from last week’s presentation by social-media evangelist Peter Shankman (at Cleveland PRSA). Let me sum up in 72 tweetable characters:

How have social media changed the DNA of public relations? Not one bit.

Peter Shankman

Peter Shankman

For the past 5 years we’ve been hearing that social media are “changing everything” about the practice of PR. For 2.5 of those 5 years, I’ve been arguing they are not (most notably in this post). Have social media tools like blogs, social networks, bookmarking, etc., altered how we practice PR? Yes, and radically so. But have they changed PR’s DNA — the basic building blocks of the function? Nope.

No matter how much the tools and the environment change, what we do in PR remains the same: We build and maintain relationships through 2-way communication. Peter Shankman’s presentation reinforced my beliefs.

Shankman began his Cleveland presentation with a new mantra for social media: Credibility is the new currency.

Spot on, but hardly new. Credibility has been the key to building trust and building relationships since, well… Let’s just say Aristotle covered it in the Rhetoric. It’s a lesson we teach in the first week of PR 101 — a lesson underscored in hundreds of textbooks and articles about PR for the past half century. But it’s a lesson worthy of reinforcement, and Peter did that.

Among Shankman’s key messages for social media use: 1) transparency, 2) relevance, and 3) brevity. Again, spot on, but again, all lessons of PR 101 and written long before communication went digital. Here’s how we  presented it pre-Web: 1) be honest with your publics; 2) deliver information that matters to them (What’s in it for me?); and 3) do it quickly, as you are competing for their attention.

Peter’s fourth point, maintaining top-of-mind presence, also reflects an idea long held in both PR and marketing: Gain positive awareness and keep it. He offered some excellent tips on how to use social networks to accomplish it, tips I will share with students.

Digital media have shortened people’s attention spans, Shankman said. Also not new, but I did enjoy how Peter framed the challenge using Twitter. Can you state your key message in 140 characters? It takes 1.7 seconds to read the average tweet — further shortening the attention span of our publics. I’m thinking that’s a great class assignment!

Some in social media circles may read this post as criticism of Shankman. It is not. Peter is an entertaining and engaging speaker who understands the social media space far better than I ever will. Let’s remember he was talking to 120 people, many of whom have limited experience in Web 2.0. Like any good speaker, he served the entire audience, not just folks like me who spend half their lives online.

Introduce all the social media applications you like, but the practice of PR as defined over the past 30-or-so years will change little, if at all. The goal is to build relationships, and the tool is meaningful 2-way communication.  Cutlip & Center covered most of that in 1952. Grunig & Hunt closed the loop in 1983. We’re not going back to the days of press agents and pitch men. And where we’re headed is up to folks way smarter than I.

I’m wondering if those who insist that social media are changing PR’s DNA really understand the business, or if they simply see PR as a branch of marketing.  That’s another post — one I believe I’ve already written.

24 Responses to Are social media changing the DNA of public relations? Not one bit!

  1. Lisa Cruz says:

    Spot on. Couldn’t agree more with your blog. Fundamentals are the same in PR. Practicing (or not) by those fundamentals is also the deciding factor between the great PR professionals and the not-so-great. Thank you!

  2. Well presented. I might agree with you. I can see that the DNA has not changed, just as it hasn’t changed with strategic communication. The foundation is remarkably the same. The measurement has not changed. So what has?

    If anything, social media has contributed to the acceleration of the message, the number of situational events, and the number of public participants. But the DNA we use to address those changes, has not changed. Except, of course, for people who might not really understand public relations.

    All my best,

  3. Great synthesis of Peter Shankman’s main points and wonderful analysis. With enthusiasm, skill and speed, Peter provided valuable insight into how practitioners might navigate Twitter, Facebook and the like. It is a brave new and exciting world. Social media provide new tools for the PR practitioner. As you suggest here and in previous posts, using social media is a game-changer. But it doesn’t change the core principles of PR.

    Peter’s points (transparency, brevity, relevance and top of mind awareness) are so important because to ignore them is to fail. And because of the power and speed of social media, one has the opportunity to fail more spectacularly and quickly than ever before. For practitioners new and not-so-new, having these points hammered home is vital — even if one first learned them 20 or 30 years ago at the feet of Ralph Darrow at KSU’s J-School. So, big thanks to Peter for applying them to today’s world.

    And thanks to you. I really appreciate your drawing upon Cutlip & Center and Grunig & Hunt, and in previous posts Edward Bernays and others to illustrate the foundation principles. Your posts on social media remind me of a point hammered into my head more than a few years ago by Betsy Maitland, my PR professor at Kent: there’s nothing new under the sun.

    One question: what were you arguing for those other 2.5 years?

    With gratitude,

  4. GREAT post! I agree, the fundamentals of what is excellent and makes for great business will never change.

    What I do believe, is that Social Media has increased the opportunities for interacting and made it easier to connect all types of barriers, time and distance to name a few.

    DNA hasn’t changed, but on some level, the way people play the game and engage, has.

  5. Bill Sledzik says:

    To Steve: What I’ve been arguing for 2.5 years is exactly what you see in this post. PR hasn’t changed; how we do it has. With emergence of social media, the speed and complexity of the whole process is a little mind-boggling. Social media have expanded our options and — as you point out — upped the stakes for communicators. The world is more exciting now, but also more perilous for our clients and employers.

    In reality, social media help to create an environment in which symmetrical PR is more of an imperative than an option. But to steal a line from an album popular when I was in the PR classroom, “The Song Remains the Same.”

  6. Ike says:

    Bill… my take:

    What “Social Media” has done is extend conversations on two dimensions, space and time.

    People from around the world can quickly plug into and shape a debate, prior to professional framing.

    And they can either listen to the echoes five months later, or even light them anew.

    The new danger is adjusting to the pace of the immediate threat, without making mistakes that become etched in eternal echo.

    The DNA hasn’t changed, but Social Media is the equivalent of the Polymerase Chain Reaction that makes things grow faster (for good or bad).

  7. People shouldn’t confuse DNA with Environment.

    The pr folks flogging their science just want to sell their potions. Those pr types ignoring the environment make it easier for clients to try that juice.

    Advertising, direct marketing and the other marketing arts are hardly different.

  8. calebgardner says:

    This is a great point, Bill. I think that the goals of PR actually fit social media very well, as you point out.

    Social media is changing marketing more than PR – I would go as far as to say that online, the two are becoming indistinguishable.

  9. Ken Kadet says:

    I think what’s really changed in PR is that PR folks have the opportunity to practice what they’ve been preaching, particularly in terms of creating meaningful 2-way (or multi-way) communication.

    The reality is that PR has always preached this, but done little of it in practice. Pre-Internet, PR’s primary tool was media relations. Audience feedback was limited at best. And for all the content analysis that has been done on media message pull-through and the like, few PR campaigns, outside of the biggest consumer products companies and political campaigns, have been connected back to audience behavior attitudes that would truly measure its impact. Much impact measurement, in practice, has been either inferred or anecdotal.

    I agree: PR has always wanted to connect organizations with their publics in credible and meaningful ways. Social media has brought these ideals within reach for a far broader range of organizations — which is great news.

  10. […] YouTube and Facebook and all that jazz — have changed the core principles of the PR business, this is a good place to […]

  11. […] If you’re new here, you may want to subscribe to my RSS feed. Thanks for visiting!Please read this. […]

  12. I’m sad to have missed Shankman’s presentation last week, but am thankful for your synopsis. I see two relevant points here:

    1) SM apps are tools used by PR practitioners to do the work they’ve always done, be it conducting research, implementing strategies or sending messages. Now it’s just faster and more invasive (that is if your key audience is plugged-in to these channels).

    2) Echoing Ken and Caleb’s points, the Web 2.0 world demands that companies are transparent, engaging in open 2WS communication. This means no more hiding behind elusive marketing campaigns, which would surely be ousted in today’s online world.

  13. Bill Sledzik says:

    To Ken’s point, social media do help PR practice what it’s been preaching. SM make it easier to connect, and easier to stay connected. Your point that PR’s primary tool, pre-Internet, was media relations is hard to argue. But the concept of connecting directly with key publics wasn’t born in the ditigal age, nor was 2-way communication.

    Caleb’s point that social media and marketing are becoming indistinguishable is both scary and uplifting. I remain uncomfortable applying marketing tactics to SM, since those tactics have traditionally been lacking in transparency and authenticity. Of course, PR has been accused of same, hasn’t it?

    Chris, you make a great point about those “elusive” marketing campaigns not cutting it in the digital world. Maybe what we can conclude from all this is that SM are changing the DNA of marketing. I’d say that’s a welcome change.

  14. Bill Huey says:

    Social media may move the Twitterites and the blogheads but what is going to move the nation?
    The world? Persuasion (which is at the heart of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, BTW).

    Consider this quote from one of PR’s most distinguished practitioners:

    “The effective PR professional never loses sight of the fact that PR is about influencing attitudes and opinion so as to motivate a target audience to a specific action ranging from buying one branded product over another to investing in one stock over another.
    In the 60 years I have practiced PR, this has not changed.”
    –Harold Burson. “PR: Same As It Ever Was,” August 17, 2007

  15. Bill Sledzik says:

    At the risk of offending some friends in the academy, let me agree with Bill on one important point: Advocacy is part of PR’s DNA. And as long as PR people are paid by organizations, that is unlikely to change. (More in this post.) So thanks for that reminder. But let me add that persuasion has ALWAYS been easier to achieve in an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect — thus my belief that relationship-building remains part of PRs DNA as well.

    I’m not ready to dismiss the “Twitterites and the blogheads” so quickly. They all play a role in the communication mix and the process of persuasion. Sometimes that role is large, but more often it happens in the micro level conversations. Thanks to technology, those conversations can scale quickly, which can help or hurt our clients. But also thanks to technology, we can listen in and act accordingly in the clients’ interest.

    PR’s old mantra of “controlling the message” fit nicely in a mediated world. But now that we have a new group of influencers and potential influencers, our strategies and tactics must change. And they have. But let’s not forget that “building relationships” is not the end in itself. Our goal is to earn public support and to change public behavior in order to make our clients more successful. Why else would the SM specialists work so hard to document return on investment (ROI)?

    But let’s also put social media in perspective. Most people in this world have never heard of Chris Brogan or Robert Scoble. And nearly every non-PR person I know — when asked if they use Twitter — responds with a big fat, “What?”

    Aside: When I saw so many messages and “retweets” about this post on Twitter, I thought, whoa, I’m in for a record day. NOT! So far this post has drawn 303 views. Hell, I’ve taught classes with more students than that!

  16. Doug Lacombe says:


    Small error on my part put a bum link in your comments section. I pulled the trigger too soon on a blog post which generated auto-tweets etc. and a bum URL.

    The post where I mention your blog is actually here:

    Sorry for the confusion, you may wish to delete my comment and/or edit.



  17. […] i dag, som det var, da det blev et fag i USA i 70′erne. Det har Bill Sledzik skrevet en blog om, og jeg er fuldstændig enig med […]

  18. […] has been noted here and elsewhere, what is essential about public relations has not changed: moving people to action by creating […]

  19. […] no one has yet convinced me that social media have fundamentally changed the DNA of public […]

  20. John Coonen says:

    Has anyone with professional credibility argued that the practice’s DNA has changed one bit?

    Re-read your opening comment: “For the past 5 years we’ve been hearing that social media are “changing everything” about the practice of PR.”

    “Changing everything” is hardly referring to the core principles and practices of Public Relations, is it? Doesn’t that really refer to the tactics and tools, rather than the strategy?

    Hmmm…come to think of it, you’re the one who said “changing everything” in the first place.

    Oops, I think you may have crafted nothing more than a classic strawman argument here. You had me goin’ for a minute there though!

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      Actually, John, a lot of folks in the PR 2.0/Journalism 2.0 circles have made this argument, including the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto. The actual “changing DNA” quote was one I first heard from NYU scholar Jay Rosen, who I believe made the statement at the first New Media Academic Summit, hosted by Edelman PR in New York (2007). You’ll find similar thinking in just about every social-media PR book written since 2004.

      You and I are clearly on the same page on this issue. Everything hasn’t changed. But I just want to assure you that I didn’t make this up.

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  22. […] Bill Sledzik, believes that although social media has had a major affect on the media, there are still two that remain, building relationships and two-way communication. […]

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