All of Us and None of Us

IStock_000004925337XSmall“Who ‘owns’ Social Media?”  This question spawned a fascinating debate over at Jason Falls’s Social Media Explorer blog last week.  Jason posited that the PR group is best positioned to take the lead on a corporation’s Social Media outreach:

“…Social media is essentially public relations in the online world. Divide the category up by component — blogs, social networks, microblogging, podcasts, Web TV, wikis … — they each ladder in some way to a component of public relations — writing, corporate communications, community relations, media relations, event management.”

While I don’t think Jason’s thought process precludes the participation of other corporate insiders, such as customer service reps, HR supervisors, tech geeks, legal eagles, etc., he does rightly note that these folks will need to be both tech savvy, and, literate communicators (and will likely need simple guidelines from the PR team).

Regardless of whether “PR takes the lead” or not, it is an unescapable conclusion that these employees will find creative outlets.  If blogging is too much of a time sink, there’s Twitter, Utterz, Seesmic, YouTube.  Mostly, this will be awesome.  It will truly humanize the faceless corporation.

But every now and then, one of these employee content creators will screw up: they’ll pass on a corporate secret; or post a libelous comment to a blogger’s harsh expose of their company; or they’ll TwitPic a latter-day Xerox-style photo of their butt-cheeks.  And they’ll get fired and/or the Corporate Clamp-Down will occur, chilling the air for all employee content creators, for a bit.

IStock_000006621465XSmallThere are purists who suggest, however, that these antics are the essence of The New Way of Doing Things.  To them, any and all “Marketing/PR” programs are, by their nature, false and doomed to fail in the Social Media era.  They only want to see blog posts, tweets, etc. from those “regular” employees.  They want the marketers to tag-out of The Conversation all together.  These purists want all news to be blogged – without further outreach – and expect that the relevant representatives of mainstream and amateur media will find their way to the newsworthy items, buoyed by the wisdom-of-crowds.

Stuck in the middle (literally) are Advertising and PR firms, along with new specialist agencies like The Conversation Group, crayon, and Social Media Group (the latter now bolstered by the mad skillz of Geoff Livingston).  These latter don’t aspire to be “PR agencies” yet don’t shy from the suggestion that they help companies “influence the influencers.”

TCG says they “help brands listen to and engage with influencers and customers in traditional and non-traditional ways.”  SMG suggests that its “team of Blogger Relations Specialists have the skills and experience to identify and engage with the online influencers that have the greatest reach and impact…”  That’s fine, and they’re better at it than most traditional PR agencies, I’d warrant – but that doesn’t mean it’s not Public Relations. 

IStock_000005268823XSmallAs for the “traditional” PR firms (and in-house PR folks) – they are just now beginning to figure out that “social media is essentially public relations in the online world.”  The good firms are realizing that it’s not enough to hire a few (newly-graduated) bloggers and check-off the “Yea, we do Social Media” box.  Following this realization (and diligent action), the combination of traditional mainstream media savvy with newfound blogger etiquette skills is formidable. 

Granted, this process has taken too long and is still far from complete.  We’re turning battleships here, folks.  PR has always been about inspiring relationships between brands and consumers, but until recently did not have the tools to do so: mass communications required mass media.  It was an imperfect if unavoidable model that caused the industry to lose its way. We’re groping for the right trail again.

Meanwhile, while many have bemoaned the travails of Advertising types who thrived on “interruption marketing,” my gut tells me (and others) that these very creative people will figure out how to play in this sandbox. 

Where am I taking you on this ramble?

To the place where we all acknowledge we don’t know what the hell is gonna happen.  And that’s okay.  We can’t make rules about the unknown.  We’ll just have to figure it out as we go.

 ”My definition of an expert in any field is a person who knows enough about what’s really going on to be scared.” (P.J. Plauger, Computer Language, 1983)

Posted on: July 21, 2008 at 6:56 pm By Todd Defren
6 Responses to “All of Us and None of Us”


  • Hilarye says:

    I am still astounded when I speak to my fellow PR peeps and they don’t get the fact that social media is public relations. Time and time again I have heard them say- shouldn’t the marketing department handle this? Correct me if I am wrong but public relations is about message crafting and I dunno relating to the public? If thats not social media I don’t know what is. I don’t want someone not trained on handling messaging for the company I represent out there commenting on blogs- that is exactly why people post libel and get fired, they don’t understand public relations.

    The social media train is leaving the station… are you on it?

  • You Don’t Own Me (and Other PR Blog Jots)

    Todd Defren examines the latest debate about who “owns” social media. He notes that while any one in the company can contribute in the social media space, there will likely be unforsee complications that could be helped by a little PR. Also: a good Pod…

  • Agreeing wholeheartedly on: “The good firms are realizing that it’s not enough to hire a few (newly-graduated) bloggers and check-off the “Yea, we do Social Media” box.” I’m confident it’s not so much a game of who’s doing it (i.e. social media) but rather, who’s generating buzz that translates into quantifiable results for the client’s benefit. It’s not enough to be just “out there” in social media – it all has to be done with strategy, networks and goals and never forgetting the altruism that I think has to accompany every Tweet, Stumble, Xing or new friend.

    Me? I’m scared poopless about the direction of the web and social media. But it’s also that same exhilaration/anticipation that keeps bloggers and other practitioners of social media’s eyes, ears and comment streams open. Those who close the door when they tick-off “doing it” on their list of services are missing that cool/scary mixed emoticon :)

    Thanks for the cool/scary emoticon this morning, Todd!

  • Brian Block says:

    Speaking from the PR side, I’ve brought these things to the attention of clients and coworkers and some don’t get it. No matter how much evidence I can show someone regarding the online interaction and conversations taking place about them, the client still has yet to sign off on it. As budgets tighten around the country, people are hesitant to try new things. And without the opportunity to actively work on social media related accounts, some PR and ad firms do not get to practice their craft online.

    My suggestion, when convincing a client to back your plan to join the conversation online, don’t show them what they could be doing; show them what the other guys have done (show good and bad examples).

    Great post Todd!

  • Thanks for that post Todd – especially for the second but last sentence ;-) . You made a good point here: Concerning social media we are all still in the learning process and will be for some time to go – but hey: That’s what makes it fun ;-)

  • I agree…to an extent. Yes, many more will jump into the sandbox, but PR needs to step up and take some responsibility. This does not mean total control, but we can be a guide.

Show some social media love would ya?

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