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.
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.