In 2007, Tony Sapienza, then a principal partner at a Boston-area public relations firm, wrote an article for the Public Relations Society of America newsletter. In the article
, Sapienza discussed the gap between traditional PR and social media at that time, warning that such a divide between the two would need to be bridged.
That was then.
“Any gaps that existed between traditional PR and social media have all but disappeared,” Sapienza writes in a recent email. “Today it's impossible to execute a successful PR effort without integrating social media into your strategy.”
In his article of six-plus years ago, Sapienza wrote that PR pros too often left the social media work to specialists and that that work fell outside mainstream PR programs. Consequently, messages did not align, he wrote. Blogs, podcasts, and other forms of social media might not have matched up with news releases and media pitches.
Now, he says, traditional PR and social media are inseparable. There are fewer social media specialists, and social media has become a larger part, if not the largest part, of the PR professional's world.
“It's not unusual to see social media as the primary driver, with traditional media as secondary—but still valuable—validation,” says Sapienza, who co-founded the PR firm Topaz Partners in 2001 and has more than 25 years’ experience in the industry.
Traditional media consolidation and simply the rise of social media as a channel for news and commentary were the main forces merging the two sides, he says.
Understanding the platforms
Tom Kelleher, a professor at the School of Communications at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, says there is indeed a tonal disconnection between press releases and social media. Most releases on commercial news wires, says Kelleher, “still have very much a corporate tone that just doesn’t fit with social media.”
He adds that financial disclosure releases, of course, require a corporate tone in compliance with certain regulations. “But if the idea is to reach out via social media to generate interest and sharing, the information must relate more directly to people in those networks,” says Kelleher, “and the tone needs to be more conversational.”
Kelleher also says the role of gatekeeper has changed. Traditionally, for example, PR folks have pushed their message via news releases, media disseminated the message, and the public consumed it. Now, with social media, the gatekeeper role has shifted to the end users who have set up their own news feeds.
An important note to consider, too, is social media’s power as a form of two-way communication. Old-school PR had agencies feeding the public a certain message. Now, with social media, consumers can respond, retort, and even overwhelm that message.
Kelleher encouraged media distributors, which certainly could encompass many different people these days, to understand what kinds of information and what style of communication fit with the forums in which they want to participate.
“Ask yourself this,” he says, “would you want to see [your] news release on your own LinkedIn Pulse page? Facebook news feed? As a link on your Twitter timeline?”
PR adapts and thrives
Kelleher suggests companies get “their real people” participating in “distributed public relations,” that is, distributing the PR work across the company so the marketing department isn’t doing all the work. Yet, he warns, it’s important that organizations have conversations offline first to discuss how they can balance professional interests with open, authentic communication online.
“PR people should embrace the idea that different people from their organization are communicating interactively online. Work with those people—and listen to them,” says Kelleher. “Your organization’s social media rock stars may not have a job title that includes communication or public relations, but they may be in a position to keep constructive, engaging communication flowing in a way that helps your organization.”
Sapienza adds: “It's obvious the shift in balance toward social media will continue, but I believe there will always be a place for the traditional media that has been the primary focus of PR in the past. PR will be forced to find ways to adapt as the balance of social media and traditional PR practices shifts—but given PR's role in both, there is undoubtedly a future for the public relations profession.”
An engaging merger
These industry experts are echoing what we at Business Wire hear daily from PR pros across the country. Although PR and social media verbiage differs, the most effective programs use both tools to increase awareness, engagement, and action.
Pushed out to tens of thousands of reporters and media outlets, press releases serve as foundational pieces, providing complete details and quotes, upon demand ensuring the company voice and message can always been found. Press releases also build and protect company reputations. Whereas social media moves at the speed of light, with messages exchanged and altered within seconds, the press release serves as an anchor, a single source of accuracy among a litany of “modified tweets.”
Social media messaging, though equally powerful, is completely different. By design, these messages are much shorter and therefore must rely on more accessible, audience-oriented headlines and images to initiate and sustain audience sharing.
The best communication programs use both traditional PR and social messaging to ensure maximum reach and return on investment. Previously social sharing started from the social channel, with a tweet sharing the press release. Today, organizations are inserting social sharing prompts within their news releases
to initiate sharing from the release end.
Click to Tweet is one popular social media sharing tool as it enables you to mix up your press release headline for maximum social impact. In addition, more and more releases and social media messages are including audience-friendly photos and video, as the response rate to multimedia continues to grow at dramatic rates within all audiences
(press release and social media channels alike).
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There is no doubt that in 2014, social media and PR are two exceptionally important elements of the communication program. The communication gap of yore has been bridged.
Luke O’Neill is an editor at Business Wire, where he also regularly contributes to the company's blog, BusinessWired. He has a master’s degree in multimedia journalism and 14 years of communications experience.