PR Seeks Social Media: A Match Made in the Digital Era

By Seth Grugle, vice president, ICR

As public relations professionals, we can’t so much as “swipe right” today without considering the important impact social media makes on every story we tell, every connection we make and every result we report. PR is to storytelling as social media is to story making. And that story must be told properly in order to effectively grow a brand, solidify (or re-build) reputations, reach a target audience and, ultimately, drive business results for our clients.

Public relations professionals must also be cognizant of, anticipate and plan for the potential pitfalls of social media – most notably, the ease and speed at which one negative consumer comment online can reverberate through social and traditional media channels and to key stakeholder audiences in the offline world, impacting corporate brand reputation, customer loyalty and investor sentiment.

Relationship Status
The most powerful tool when it comes to trial and conversion is word of mouth, the holy grail of PR. Our interpersonal relationships are still riding the downward slope of the “real life” bell curve, one could easily argue that word of mouth for a new generation is entirely born and bred online. Content, therefore, is king. Upwards of 86 percent of people fast forward through television commercials these days according to Demand Metric; therefore, we as PR professionals can find inspiration in the fact that 60 percent of people seek out additional information about a product or service after reading, watching or being exposed to digital content about it online.

Exercises in brand building can be told entirely through a social lens. A brand’s social following is its most authentic audience and should be treated as such. “Break” news first online, engage regularly with your most loyal ambassadors and know when it’s timely and appropriate to disengage. If PR and social teams are working seamlessly together, the story should flow from Facebook page to newspaper page without so much as a single disruption.

Swipe Right
PR and social media work best together, of course, when united to tell a single story – one that sparks action both on- and offline. Take the United Nations’ 2016 #ShareHumanity campaign, for instance. In an effort to drive awareness surrounding World Humanitarian Day, the U.N. and its partners developed a powerful platform whereby celebrities, influencers and everyday users could “donate” their social media feeds for one day to tell a true story of humanitarian aid in action. Imagine scrolling through your Twitter feed and spotting – in 140 characters or less – an announcement from a global popstar that his passport was stolen while attempting to emigrate from Syria or a television star was on her way to Kabul, Afghanistan, to start a skateboarding school for girls. Coupled with well-timed media relations efforts that led to a myriad of placements across a variety of verticals from tech to entertainment to even sports outlets, the #ShareHumanity campaign ignited a movement that not only out outpaced all key performance indicators, but saw the hashtag trending across multiple platforms on the day the entire world was listening – all thanks to the combined coordination of PR and social efforts.

Swipe Left
On the flip side, social media can negatively impact a brand’s bottom line just as much as a poor showing on Yelp or a bad review in the Times. Take Pizza Hut’s recent row with reality television personality Abby Lee Miller. The Dance Moms star took to her Instagram account to point fingers at a Santa Monica store that supposedly hung up on her multiple times. More than 2 million followers were instructed to call and harass the unit, which, apparently, they did. Pizza Hut received a barrage of calls and a few terse words in traditional media, as well. The chain subsequently asked Miller to remove the post, but in the merged worlds of social media and PR, you can’t fight fire with fire (or a $5 flavor menu). When your beef is hashed out on a digital stage, often the best plan to attack is to extend that figurative olive branch by way of an extra side of breadsticks. For life.

It’s Complicated
The value of social media to a PR professional goes well beyond added impressions or a secondary avenue of storytelling. Consider the following when planning your next product launch, brand building exercise or consumer campaign:

Mining for Content: As mentioned previously, PR and social media are fundamentally all about the “story.” PR professionals can use social as the most consumer-connected tool we have at our disposal to mine for content that can be used to create said stories and build brand ambassadors. Did a couple get engaged in one of your stores? Did a sports superstar dine in one of your restaurants following a championship win? Find those news nuggets, forge those connections and craft better stories on- and offline.

So Sentimental: Facebook recently upgraded its “like” functionality to include “reactions” – like, love, haha, wow, sad and angry. While this update might seem small at the onset, PR professionals now have a new social measurement tool at their disposal, all centered around sentiment. We can monitor reactions in real time to, say, a posted news article about our clients or brands and adjust accordingly. If our most loyal fans have an adverse reaction to one of our stories, switch course!

Teach, Don’t Preach: We’ve all seen the “how-to” videos that have taken over our newsfeeds recently, and those types of minute-long creations are quickly becoming the new normal for storytelling. Not surprisingly, consumers are more apt to engage with and place more value on a brand that provides teachable moments. Share a recipe, a life hack or a “how to” guide on a topic or product closely associated with your client’s brand or service. Plus, with publishers now operating countless social media pages and accounts that target a variety of audiences (BuzzFeed has 90 different Facebook pages, while The Huffington Post counts 79), the PR and social amplifications of teachable, shareable video marketing are endless.

Pick Your Platform: A study from found that 61 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs have no social media presence at all, while another study from Rivalfox showed that only 38 percent of the Fortune 500 have a Pinterest presence. Does this matter? It does. Consumers expect a level of one-on-one engagement and interaction with their favorite brands and companies (and the leadership of each) at unprecedented levels today. Be the author of the story. Share, discuss, interact – especially in those places your customers already frequent online. If you don’t, your public will, and there’s no guaranteeing a happy ending to that story.

Watch Out for Pitfalls: As is the case with traditional media, companies need to think about and approach social media as part of an integrated strategic communications program, including corporate communications and investor relations. A negative, misleading or factually inaccurate comment on a company’s Facebook page can quickly escalate into traditional media coverage that is then read by investors and analysts, followed by questions about the validity of the comment on the next quarterly earnings call and mentions in subsequent analyst reports. This potential escalation needs to be taken seriously and managed quickly and properly in order to mitigate damage to the corporate brand. Proper management of these situations must be evaluated and determined on a case-by-case basis – one size does not fit all.

The synergies between PR and social media are endless – and don’t have to be complicated. From crisis situations to new product launches, mining for content to engaging directly with your most influential of brand loyalists, the more the right hand speaks to the left, the more your client or brand wins in the end.

Better Living
Public Relations