Social media provides a revolutionary set of tools for people and organisations to influence each other in a way that has not previously been encountered. The web-like, and web-driven, capabilities of social media also encapsulate the fundamental, driving methodology that underpins the application of best practice public relations, that of two-way symmetrical communication.
Arguably, this positions public relations as the communication discipline best suited to leverage social media’s destruction of the old paradigms of command-and-control communication to the fullest extent possible.
Command-and-control communication is based on a one-way, essentially asymmetrical process that sees organisations ‘release’ information to their stakeholders in an ‘outwards’-oriented manner…and that is it.
If it is deemed newsworthy enough, maybe the media ‘translate’ the information on its way to reaching an organisation’s ultimate target audiences. And some organisations might employ mechanisms such as stakeholder forums or roadshows and/or attend expos/events that limited numbers of people can physically participate in.
Apart from face-to-face communication, there once wasn’t really an opportunity for people to interact with each other, engage in conversations and drive their own communication about this information. They didn’t get to, apart from in relatively small groups, ‘own’ the information and/or resulting discussion.
Well, hasn’t that been revolutionised! There are now citizen armies of ‘activists’ (i.e. you, me, our mums, anyone who is on the web) armed with the weapons to broadcast their knowledge, ignorance, prejudices and issues globally with a pretty low degree of difficulty.
Now, all organisations are under pressure to give up command-and-control and join in the new paradigm. This is a model that involves control of communication and reputation becoming shared between an organisation and its stakeholders.
The upside of this for organisations is that, potentially, they become more embedded in their stakeholders’ lives, their reputations are enhanced and organisation/product/service loyalty is built up. The downside is that they are, more than ever before, putting themselves out there in the ‘stakeholder environment’ and simply cannot control information/conversations and, hence, reputation and brand loyalty, as they once did (or thought they did, anyway).
The modern reality is that if organisations don’t listen to and participate in these social media-driven conversations then they are:
- leaving themselves open to reputation/brand/stakeholder relationship damage
- missing opportunities to develop/enhance products/services and/or enhance reputation and/or brand loyalty.
Additionally, social media is an excellent early warning, issues management system that identifies stakeholders’ needs, wants and issues and can help organisations get in front of a reputational firestorm if it happens to be going down.
The increasing power of social media/Web 2.0 is an almost poetically beautiful encapsulation of, two-way symmetrical communication, a notion devised and extended by James Grunig and his numerous academic colleagues and peers.
Two-way symmetrical communication defines public relations as a socially beneficial business discipline (no, that’s not an oxymoron), partly because it defines one of public relations professionals’ key roles as being boundary spanners. This is when PR professionals identify issues and information that will prompt an organisation to evolve as well as prompting organisational stakeholders to change – whether these changes be related to knowledge, perceptions or behaviour.
Social media reinforces the primacy and potency of public relations and its two-way symmetrical communication notion in the following ways:
- It is comprised of truly dialogic communication mechanisms; dialogue being a fundamental component of relationship management/public relations
- It is democratic – no one entity (organisation or stakeholder) has any more power or ‘share of voice’ than the other (i.e. In the eyes of God all Twitter accounts are made equal)
- It facilitates communication, interaction and reputational information being driven as much by stakeholders as by organisations
- It has immense global reach and is ‘plugged in’ to a range of senior stakeholders, including politicians, media and NGOs.
Public relations professionals are the best qualified to oversee the social media mechanisms an organisation uses to communicate with its stakeholders. This is essentially because public relations puts a higher priority on the WHOLE organisation-stakeholder relationship than marketing or advertising does. The latter, after all, is one tactical manifestation of marketing and is not cognisant of the larger issues at play.
Certainly, however, are many instances where marketers should drive the communication to promote products or services, but even that should fit into an organisation’s overarching principles (and this includes the cultural and moral principles that organisations have developed with their stakeholders, as well as whatever ‘communication principles’ exist).
One area where marketing can provide valuable insights into ‘managing’ (though being involved with, and influencing, are better ways of describing the dialectic) social media is through its superior expertise in leveraging databases. Social media ‘players’ are more fluid and organic than a relatively static database, but there are extensive synergies that come from managing large numbers of stakeholders that can be communicated to directly.
The best public relations practitioners are the ones that see the larger societal picture, society being the context in which organisations exist and what gives organisations permission to exist. Without stakeholders support and/or custom, it is highly unlikely organisations will operate to their optimum ambitions and capabilities.
At the very least, social media holds up a fractured, multi-faceted and many-peopled – but very, clear, reality-capturing mirror – to an organisation.
Forget the market research, forget the preconceptions/gut-feel: social media captures the world today (well, that part of the world which has access to it) as it really is – its thoughts, its experiences, its behaviour and its intentions.
Right now, it is imperative that organisations listen to their public relations practitioners more than ever. And PR practitioners, more than ever, need to be taking the opportunity that the emergence of social media is presenting to prompt their organisations to respect the needs, wants and issues of their stakeholders in order to survive, and prosper, in our new, technologically-fortified and conversation-empowered world.
NB. Since putting this post up, the Council of Public Relations firm have posted a relevant article called Nine Ways to Star in the Social Media Role on its blog which is well worth reading.
[For those on LinkedIn and in the Innovative, Marketing, Sales...etc group, a discussion on this post can also be found here.]