Has social media changed PR?

It has certainly had an impact on how professionals do their jobs, but it hasn’t changed what makes communication effective.

Odds are you read that headline and clicked on this link with the thought, “Of course social media has changed public relations.”

You know what, you’re right. But stick with me.

It’s been slightly more than a year since I left the world of journalism and began as a PR pro. Among the many lessons I’ve learned has been how to take advantage of social media and social media analytics to get to know and connect with an audience. As I follow conversations on Twitter and read various blogs, the question of how PR pros should use social media keeps coming up.

For all the discussion surrounding the effects of social media and how it’s changing the way we do business, I feel confident in saying that social media has not fundamentally changed public relations.

At its core, public relations, including media relations, community relations and marketing, is still all about creating relationships. It’s even in the name.

I am not saying that social media hasn’t changed how PR pros do their jobs. Of course it has. Social media has given PR pros new tools and methods to reach people. However, the age-old rules of creating and maintaining good relationships, the core of what good public relations should be, has not changed.

As I was learning more about how to be a good PR pro, one of the first people with whom I happened to strike up a Twitter conversation explained that his business philosophy focuses on relationships—with his clients, with the media and with customers.

And as a PR rookie who came from the world of journalism, where creating and maintaining good relationships was crucial, that was a relief. It reassured me that PR wasn’t just all about message and spin and eyeballs – it was about actually connecting with those eyeballs, and that was something I knew how to do.

As I continued my quest to learn about public relations, the two most common comments I kept coming across were that companies and PR pros should “act more human” when interacting with people online and that PR pros can’t just “[blast] information out at an audience.”

What those ideas mean

They mean that PR pros have to be pros at communication, interacting with people, engaging with people and answering their questions and complaints. It means PR pros have to be interesting enough that people want to engage, join you and help you spread your story.

What does that sound like?

It sounds to me like what businesses and PR pros should have been doing all along. It sounds like you should interact with people online just like you would if they walked into your office, called you on the phone or wrote you an email. There’s no difference. Social media just makes having those conversations easier and more common and faster.

Was there ever a time when just blasting information out at people and not acting human and creating relationships was the preferred strategy? Maybe it’s one way of doing business, and perhaps information blasting does have its (very limited) uses, but has that ever been the best way? I can’t find any evidence that it has.

Public relations, marketing and media relations are all about making strong and deep connections with your audience whether they are customers, clients or the media. Social media has just changed the ways we make those connections – not the fundamental essence of public relations. So the next time you’re working on your social media strategy, remember that it’s really just an old-fashioned conversation in a new medium.

Matthew Whittle is a former reporter and editor with 10 years of newsroom experience for community newspapers in Virginia and North Carolina. Today he is a digital media communications specialist for the State Employees Association of North Carolina, the largest state employee advocacy organization in the South. Find him on Twitter @mwwhittle. A version of this article originally appeared on the Belle Communications blog.

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