I’ve worked in digital since the dark days when we still called it “interactive.” Things were simpler. There was no Facebook or LinkedIn. An integrated campaign (which was a new term) meant one that included search-engine marketing, e-mails and banner ads. These resources were mostly given as added value on a print buy or an occasional microsite. Over the course of my career, I’ve watched as social media emerged from digital, creating two distinctly separate disciplines.
In the early years, the partnerships between interactive agencies, media buyers and advertising agencies were clear and the swim-lanes were fixed. Rarely, the public-relations teams would be brought into the mix, and if we’re being honest, this was mostly done in the interest of appearing collaborative to the clients’ eye. Marketers didn’t understand what PR professionals did and vice versa, so everyone agreed that it was best if our work stayed separate.
In 2006, the interactive landscape started to change and social media was born. MySpace was huge, and Facebook had just been opened up to the general public. With millions of active users, these sites immediately focused their attention toward media agencies, which quickly included them in their yearly buys for clients. The collaboration was still simple and the roles were clear.
In 2007, my team launched the first-ever pharmaceutical entry into a social network, focused on drawing girls aged 18 through 26 to become friends with a vaccine. It was a joint effort between the interactive, advertising and media teams, and excluded PR. The work followed the industry norm regardless of category. It was all about collecting fans and creating advocates.
This type of work continued for the next few years. These new channels were the perfect new marketing venue and a true complement to any integrated mix. Teams like mine continued to churn out work that was purely promotional. Despite what we thought, our work did little to provide anything that drove real conversation or impacted our audience’s perceptions and opinions. As the users truly made social networks their own and their usage matured, many marketers didn’t get the message.
What changed was simple. For example, Facebook went from being the largest photo-sharing site to the largest referrer to news-media properties in the world. As this change occurred, users of social networks stopped looking for ways to connect with brands and instead began seeing these sites as sources of information. Facebook’s peers followed suit; consider a LinkedIn or Twitter feed in 2007 versus today. In the beginning, they were a mashup of brand-driven advertising content, and now the networks have matured into places filled with breaking news and insight.
Enter PR, the communications discipline that’s about showing, not selling; influencing, not promoting; and earning, not buying. PR professionals have been engaged in pure social media since before the term was coined and should naturally be leading social efforts for a few simple reasons. However, at the onset of social media, PR firms and their corporate communications clients focused on reputation, earned media and reactive communications. In the beginning, little to none of what matters to these priorities took place online, while now nearly 100 percent of it does.
In 2012, I made the move from an advertising agency to a PR firm and very quickly realized that all of my social media experience for my marketing clients was really just practice for the real thing. The ability to act on information, react to threats and capitalize immediately on opportunities was a professional dream come true. In previous roles, my teams would receive social listening data and monitoring reports, but not really know what to do with them. Previously, an influencer was an ethereal concept that seemed far out of reach, while in my role for a PR firm, I began speaking with them regularly and finding ways to engage them on behalf of my clients.
However, despite these realities, teams from my peer-set didn’t give us a seat at the table unless we fought for it. The lack of understanding of PR still persisted. It took many meetings, trips up and down various coasts and a lot of explaining to finally get my partners and their clients to see the value my team and PR clients could bring. Slowly but surely, integrated efforts began to include PR, and then very quickly were led by it. This was especially true for global events, surveys, product launches and general community management where the emphasis focused on interaction, engagement and changing opinions.
In the new reality of integrated teams, we often talk about creating content that’s real or authentic, but due to the tyranny of a media buy, until recently, the execution rarely matched the intent. The roots of true PR pros have always focused on real and authentic content, because the PR teams have always dealt with an important reality–real media isn’t controlled and opinions can’t be bought. They must be earned and reinforced. We try to influence the opinion of a journalist, but we can’t control the story. We attempt to persuade a group of people to feel or think a certain way, but in the end, the decision is theirs.
More and more companies are realizing this to be the new reality, and while the media agencies still argue for the all-powerful impression, their approach to managing and controlling social media has already become obsolete.
Here’s why: Say a company like a bank, insurer, pharma company, etc. is looking to build a relationship with an audience that’s based on trust. Should the social media strategy emphasize placing a series of ads on Facebook that say, “We have great products,” or rather focus efforts on earning media that will ultimately reach News Feeds? The answer is clear, it but represents a fundamental shift on how the agency-sphere and its clients view the role of social media.
The shift will come with a fair amount of tension as it takes place, but regardless of how much resistance the traditional players offer, the new priority for social media is PR. This is not to say that there is no longer a role for the marketing-driven campaigns and content—rather, the field must be shared by the two disciplines. In many cases advertising will need to take a back seat on social channels to issues and opportunities that focus on relating to a company’s public.
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