Why Social Media Is the Perfect PR Channel

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.

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.