What is Social PR?

Social PR is a weird concept. First off, forget the idea that it’s anything to do with non-profits or the environment; it might have done ten years ago...


Social PR is a weird concept. First off, forget the idea that it’s anything to do with non-profits or the environment; it might have done ten years ago – but today social = online. Secondly, forget press releases, forget having lunch with the Editor, pitching your story and forget everything you previously associated with traditional PR. Forget it.

Social PR is fundamentally confusing because, I think, of the absence of The Media, as we’ve come to know it. With social media messages aren’t broadcast any more, but are shared (many to many) via social media channels – blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr etc. So in this sense social PR isn’t about creating news, it’s about seeding it and then stimulating it’s spread through natural, organic, personal referrals.

Now, last month I heard a fascinating presentation from Guy Esnouf, Director of Communications at E.ON UK in which he explained how the power company used social media to outwit environmental protesters during last year’s protests at Kingsnorth Power station. “What do you do when you’re involved in an argument you can’t win?” he asked. Well, in his case you use YouTube and Twitter to get the news (your preferred news) to journalists (the traditional ones) before the protesters get their message across. You provide instant video footage of bloody and beaten policemen, publish pre-recorded videos of staff explaining how scared they are, and Tweet that a policeman is being air-lifted to hospital. All the while the “other” story, of brave climate protesters fighting to save our world, is still on its way to the cutting room. When it arrives – it’s too late. The 6 o’clock news is already scripted. Job done.

That’s definitely impressive PR and it certainly uses social media, but in my view that isn’t social PR. Now, I know that companies in so-called evil industries (power, oil, banking, defence etc.) feel they have nothing to gain by trying to engage online – yet at the very start of his presentation Guy actually made a very impressive case for E.ON – saying that everyone urges them to provide affordable power to warm their homes, but when they pick an affordable power source, they’re described as evil.

Yes – it’s another one of those arguments with two sides.

It’s true that when they create a Facebook Page, evil companies risk opening a can of worms (Nestle anyone?). But what about Twitter? By picking a medium through which they can engage without offering a platform for grand-standing, these brands can connect with their supporters and start to show their positive side without being overly exposed. Obviously, it takes time and energy to develop friendships and followings online, but once there – it’s far easier to gather feedback, spread good news and allow your supporters to counterbalance bad buzz (rather than try to squash it – which actually is evil).

I’ll be discussing this – plus crisis & reputation management, monitoring and measurement, influencer analysis and outreach and more at Social Media PR (2011) in London on 28th February. Join us for a guaranteed fascinating day.

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