guest post by Beth Harte
Understandably, some organizations struggle with the notion of being publicly ‘social’ with customers, prospects, stakeholders or investors. And the social tools—blogs, forums, communities, Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, etc.—they are being advised to use can be a downright shock to the ‘tried and true’ systems that most organizations have in place.
The good news is that the comfort level that has been developed and embraced in the past with public relations will actually provide an advantage when it comes to being social. For organizations to be successful moving forward, they need to first recognize that their comfort zone has been irrefutably shaken by the very people they are uneasy being social with.
Public Relations: What’s Old is New Again
With mass marketing and consumerism, companies haven’t had to work diligently with their publics for many years. Their only challenge, or so they thought, was developing relationships with the media so that stories about their products and services would be featured. But, times have changed.
Every month it seems like some of the biggest media outlets in the country lay off journalists. And the third-party media endorsement that was typical, and while still important, no longer only comes from the media. Every day customers talk about organizations and their brands on the Internet and that’s where public relations professionals need to focus. Given the current media and social environment, strong public relations will be one of an organization’s best assets when it comes to marketing in 2010. To understand why, let’s take a look at what public relations is truly all about.
There are a lot of public relations definitions available on the Internet, but rarely do they define the two key aspects that social media shines a spotlight on...
From “Effective Public Relations” by Cutlip, Center and Broom (8th edition, 1999):
Eleven years later, this definition is even more important. Organizations need to realize that it is no longer enough to simply establish & maintain sedentary relationships. Relationships must be mutually beneficial and actively engaged.
Social media allows for public vocalization of satisfaction or dissatisfaction and it’s important for both publics and organizations to effectively establish boundaries and come to mutual defined terms of what satisfaction/dissatisfaction means. This is important not only to public relations, but marketing as well.
If we look at public relations and how it can integrate with marketing and marketing communications, it makes sense that our publics are listened to in order to develop and deliver products and services that meet their needs. Beyond marketing, public relations professionals are responsible for managing relationships with all constituents to maintain an open and cooperative social and political environment for the organization.
The first step in moving forward is to understand that public relations does not equate solely to media relations.
The Seven Areas of Public Relations
When one says “public relations” most business professionals think “media relations.” How do we get on/in CNN, Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, trade publication, etc. Contrary to popular belief media relations—or publicity— is only 1/7 of the management activities that fall under public relations.
The following activities make up public relations’ strategic whole:
- Publicity (non-controlled media placement)
- Advertising (controlled media placement)
- Press Agentry
- Public Affairs
- Issues Management
- Investor Relations
All seven areas may not be used by one organization, but it’s important to know, in a social media era, that public relations does not equate to media or blogger relations alone.
2010: New Operations for Truly Social Public Relations
Given the definition of public relations above and the seven activities that can be a part of an overall strategy, how then can organizations make public relations fit into operations that are geared towards an open and cooperative social environment that mutually benefits them and their publics?
Below are several first steps in moving from being an inside-out focused organization towards being one that is outside-in focused.
- Listen to your publics. Sounds simple, right? But listening versus speaking (i.e. direct mail, email marketing, telemarketing, advertising, etc.) can be very difficult for organizations because a moment without speaking seems like an eternity without lead generation. Engage in active listening (via monitoring software or similar free tools like Google Alerts) to find out what publics are saying and what they potentially want. Doing so will save both traditional and new media resources and budget in the long-run.
- Reach out to publics. One of the best steps towards public socialization is to reach out to publics in ‘protected’ settings. Invite key publics to interact with the organizations by attending town halls, customer committees, executive management councils, etc. The key to these types of interactions is to not lead the discussion, but to let the publics lead it so that the organization can learn what is truly going on with both their markets and constituents.
- Write a plan. Once initial listening and outreach is done, be sure to write a plan that includes a clear goal, measurable objectives, focused strategies and target tactics based on findings. Think “what do our publics want and are we in line with that and our business goals?” Otherwise, time, resources and potential revenues can be wasted by floundering.
- Prepare for the worst. Even with the best of plans, issues are bound to occur with publics. Being proactive internally can help in determining what issues will lead to a potential crisis versus which issues can be handled before they escalate will prepare any organization to handle the situation with confidence, potential public support, and ease. The public relations team should lead crisis communications planning through the organization—not just within their own department or the marketing department.
- Tell Stories. Forget pitching. Concentrate instead on well-crafted stories that provide enough detail and elements to help the media and bloggers to write their own stories. In today’s world of public relations, the media and bloggers usually search for information that helps them to formulate and write their article or post...they don’t wait to be pitched.
- Be found. When a story is written to also contain SEO keywords, chances are you’ll be found by customers, prospects, investors, etc. searching for industry-specific information (and perhaps not necessarily your organization), which is helpful in making purchase decisions.
- Create action. Be sure your stories include links back to your website, landing pages or other online site. Another key element is a call to action or offer that instigates action.
- Craft news releases. Many organizations spend hours, if not days or weeks preparing the perfect press release to be sent over the wire in hopes that it will attract media attention. Again, the media is not always waiting for your release; in fact they are waiting to ignore it. Instead focus on a news release that contains the news you wish to share not only with the media, but your customers, prospects, employees, investors, and local community as well.
- Produce videos. Instead of putting together an elaborate media tour or product/service infomercials, consider spending that time on videos that tell your news or story. They don’t need to take a lot of time or money to produce. In fact, in today’s world of user-generated content, videos that are professional produced and polished tend to stick out like a sore thumb.
- Tell your side. Organizations often used paid advertisements (not to be confused with promotional marketing ads in this case) as a controlled media mechanism. Some examples include announcing recalls, class-action lawsuit settlements, or to provide corrective information that the media or bloggers have not provided to the public. Today all of these things can be done using a blog.
- Get socially acclimated online. Once an organization has initially reached out to it publics, planned carefully and has started becoming more social with their outreach, the next step is to become socially acclimated online with tools such as blogs, forums, Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, MySpace, etc. Each and every online tool potentially has a community and culture that exists. And so does an organization. Public relations professionals are usually in tune with the nuisances that can occur in both places and this is the time to slowly engage and become a member. Be sure to create internal guidelines for social activities.
- Create or join communities. Community relations (or public affairs) is nothing new to public relations professionals, although it may be somewhat forgotten. In today’s online world, communities where people gather over likenesses are everywhere. Communities develop based on industry, products/services, hobbies, sports, etc. An organization needs to determine is it better to try to create a branded community or to join a community that already exists. Either way, when handled properly becoming a sincere part of the community often leads to the development of brand evangelists and third-party recommendations and/or endorsements.
- Share the knowledge. Information kept to one department is useless. Organizations need to make sure that all departments—from Human Resources to Accounting to Marketing to Manufacturing to the Executive Team—are included in listening, public interactions, and ultimately changing from being an inside-out to outside in organization in order to develop true mutually beneficial relationships.
Public Relations: What’s New Was Once Old
The above steps might seem obvious to some organizations, but to others it will be a new way of thinking. Regardless, the one thing all organizations must keep in mind is that people have always been social.
In the 19th century people shared their pleasure or displeasure through word of mouth, demonstrations or pamphlets. Not that much has changed. Today, people are just as empowered. The question is, as an organization how will you harness that public power?
Beth Harte is a marketer, blogger, speaker, communicator, thinker, connector (people & dots), adjunct professor and Community Manager for MarketingProfs.