PR in a Web 2.0 World

The 35 years I have spent as a public relations professional have provided me with a healthy dose of experience and good judgment – enough to guide me through challenging and often complex cases. But who says that an old dog can’t learn a new trick or two? This “old dog” has actually found it thrilling to wade into the brave new world of social media with a vocabulary that sounds like a sci-fi dictionary. My younger colleagues seem to find humour in the fact that I actually understand the meaning of wikis, vlogs, aggregators, metadata and ajax (a scripting language. not the household cleaner)!

As I see it, social media is probably one of the most exciting phenomena to impact the communications industry and I dare say that public relations professionals are ideally suited to embrace the potential of Web 2.0. It is not hard to understand why.

In the simplest sense, we are in the business of helping to build relationships between an organization and its varied publics. And this is where the world has changed. Communication is no longer about persuasion; it’s about conversation, and this conversation is happening online. It’s happening in increments of seconds and minutes. As a result, public relations professionals have had to completely rethink such tools as media kits, news conferences, editorial tours and press releases.

The launch of the U.S. Democratic Party’s presidential campaign was a striking example of the power of social media, as was the CNN-YouTube Democratic Debate. Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama chose to speak to voters directly, in their own homes, via the internet. Imagine the impact this event had on the supply chain, including rentals of campaign buses, accommodations, media services and staffing?

As a result, we need to dramatically transform the way we think, the strategic counsel we provide and the tactics we recommend.

Consider the facts: More than 70 per cent of Canadians are online; there are currently over 55 million blogs, with the blogosphere doubling every six months; podcasts outnumber radio stations and online social networks are outpopulating cities, provinces and countries. Stakeholders are now able to hunt for information 24 hours a day, seven days a week and they have unparalleled access to information.

By definition, social media describes the online tools and platforms that people use to share opinions, insights, experiences and perspectives with each other. The web has opened the floodgates to citizen journalism, whereby volunteer journalists contribute to the news effort, often much faster than mainstream print and broadcast media. Access and dissemination of news no longer belongs to a select few who determine what is or isn’t important. Virtual communities, made up of those sharing common interests in cyberspace rather than in physical space, are able to exercise considerable influence through discussion groups, chat rooms, listserves and newsgroups. For the PR industry, this represents a real opportunity to apply our intrinsic skills in developing content and engaging publics using new and improved technologies. Press releases need to be short and concise and contain hyperlinks and smart keyword placement to optimize searches.

The inherent integrity characteristic of social media communication fits beautifully with the notion of third-party endorsement and credibility, which remain hallmarks of the practice of public relations. Online communities can spot a fraud from a mile away and if they are not certain about the validity of a claim, they will collaborate to verify the information. Now more than ever, transparency is a must.

Carol Levine APR
Communications MECA,
Public Relations