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Social Media: Anti-marketing Marketing

Last Monday June 11th was a blast! I was in a room brimming with exuberance from dynamic presenters and passionate attendees of Starting the Conversation, an interactive workshop designed to help professional communicators ‘get’ social media programs started painlessly and effectively in the corporate workplace. We discussed the strategies, case studies and technologies being used in the rapidly evolving world of social media.

I feel like we’re in an exiting, transformation period now where the rules of engaging customers and generating publicity are being rewritten by social media. Many conversations among and between customers, companies, investors and analysts are happening much quicker, easier and more efficiently because of a variety of online social media tools. And companies are starting to join those conversations because it’s a more efficient and effective way to build trust and loyalty in their brands, products and services. (For example, I think Kristie Wells mentioned that she received about 40 inquiries within the first hour or so by “twittering” her employer’s new product announcement, compared to zero media responses resulting from traditional media outreach and press release distribution during the same time. I could be wrong about the exact numbers, but you get my point).

Social media has also had the benefit of enabling a more authentic, human feel to professional communicators. It’s a kind of anti-marketing marketing where companies focus on engaging customers more closely, listening to them more carefully, and speaking with them, not at them. Microsoft’s Channel 9 has become the de facto standard for this new level of transparency and no-frills approach to allowing customers an honest, inside view of the company and its employees’ personalities. (Threadless takes this one step further: its customers actually design the company’s tee shirts!). Companies now have the opportunity to become more human and, therefore, to become more trusted as a result of social media.

So where does that leave Public Relations in relation to social media? I think savvy PR pros – even those who don’t yet use social media tools regularly – have solid storytelling and relationship-building skills that mesh nicely with social media. As highly social people who make a living by building relationships and engaging in daily conversations, PR professionals are well-suited to help companies maximize the value of social media. But, of course, you need to actually use social media tools to really know what you’re talking about. And therein lays the rub: many PR people talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk – in my humble opinion.

If you take that one step further, historically speaking, the public has often viewed PR professionals as spinsters of truth, masters of deception, and auteurs of manipulation. While I personally believe that’s a grave misunderstanding of the role of PR, it is a perception that must be dealt with if our industry is to maintain its credibility. PR needs good PR, so to speak. And social media represents an exciting conduit for communications professionals to take a leadership role in not only restoring credibility, but actually increasing the value of our industry.

The main reason for that, I think, is due to the transparent, honest nature of social media and its ability to whole-heartedly capture and rapidly amplify the interaction between creators and consumers of content. In effect, social media is humanizing marketing. But can social media effectively coexist with traditional marketing, where broadcasting a carefully controlled, one-way message is often the primary way of “connecting” with various audiences? I guess time will tell, but many think that time has already come.

Shel Israel, co-author of Naked Conversations and our workshop moderator, seems to be one of those people. I’m probably not getting his metaphor completely accurate, but I think he was basically trying to say that integrating social media with traditional PR was like trying to force a sheep to breed with a cow. In other words, don’t do it. Instead, communications professionals should view social media as a complimentary way of creating and spreading buzz alongside their traditional bread and butter – media relations.

But one thing is clear: the time is ripe for PR to take a leading role in helping companies get the most value out of social media. What will it take for PR pros to accomplish that?

Darn it! I gotta run for now, but I’ll explore that question more in-depth the next time around. In the meantime, feel free to drop me a comment here with your thoughts.

Categories: Public Relations, Social Media