Is Social Media killing PR?

by Chris Kenton on November 17, 2008

ShatterproofIf you want find the front line on the debate over social media and its impact on marketing and public relations, two posts from late last week are worth reading. The first is a post on Chris Brogan’s blog about “Bob”, an enthusiastic employee at a Fortune 500 who ran afoul of his superiors by engaging customers online in the wake of a direct mail campaign. The post is interesting, but the ensuing debate in the comment thread provides a fascinating look at a number of fault lines companies face over social media–management vs. staff, innovation vs. resistance to change, control vs. collaboration–it’s a veritable cornucopia of management challenges.

I don’t want to rehash the whole discussion here, but I would suggest reading the thread if you’re a marketing manager. It’s a perfect case study on why every company needs an explicit social media policy. Without one, critical decisions over customer engagement that may impact everything from brand equity to employee moral will be left to the kind of petty internal politics that stifle innovation. Whether your policy is a lock-down on social media–which I certainly wouldn’t advocate–or a liberal policy that encourages employees to get involved, there’s really no excuse for allowing a void over social media policy to persist.

The second post worth reading is one by Charles Cooper at CNET, which is a rather dismissive post of a panel held by Horn Group asking whether Social Media is killing PR. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make it to the event, so I can’t give a first hand account of the debate, but Cooper’s derision is a good view onto another of the social media fault lines, dividing the true believers from the status quo.

As a tool for communications, social media obviously is of keen interest to public relations types. But let’s dispense with the nonsense about it being a paradigm changer. Maybe that day will arrive, but to date, the cheerleaders have overstated the results.

I had to laugh out loud when I read that. As someone who has worked in corporate marketing for 15 years, as someone who has run agencies serving some of the world’s biggest brands, I’ve worked with many Fortune 500 and Global 2000 marketing executives who have felt the impact of social media first hand, and are struggling mightily to adapt. I’ve seen a major telecom provider lose the loyalty of its developer network to a competitor’s wildly successful forum. I’ve seen one of the world’s biggest consumer electronics manufacturers blow their biggest product launch in years because they ignored consumer dialog that clearly pointed in a different direction. I’ve seen one of the world’s biggest software makers struggle to manage a marketing operation fragmented by aggressive consumer engagement. And I’ve watched one of the world’s biggest automakers leverage consumer engagement to drive product development decisions that delighted their customers.

This is nonsense? Was the wildfire of social media backlash against the pricing of the iPhone, and Apple’s initial lame response, nonsense? How about the social media initiatives leveraged by Barack Obama and netroots progressives to defeat Hillary Clinton’s vaunted PR machinery–led by none other than the head of one of the world’s biggest PR agencies? All nonsense, I’m sure.

Cooper’s dismissive denial of the significance of social media, and of those who have “drunk the Kool-Aid”, is based on a tellingly narrow view of social media’s domain–as if social media represents an upstart movement of arrogant whippersnappers wanting to seize the throne of Media Influence. He derides the bleating PR masses who have bought into this illusion.

What’s more, they are scared stiff of antagonizing the “influencers.” Especially when one or another bloviator from the blogosphere wakes up on the wrong side of the bed and issues a fatwa. But does a relatively small circle of (mostly California-based) bloggers still command the same influence it did a year ago?

The answer is “No”, but not because the A-Listers are losing influence as social media broadens, though that’s probably true. The answer is “No” because the influence of A-Listers was only a phenomenon within the echo chamber of early adopters and media personalities afraid they might lose their status and influence to mere “bloggers”. The real story is the day-to-day dialog among millions of ordinary people in little corners of the internet where they influence the brand impressions and purchase behavior of their peers. Like the 65,000 cyclists that frequent a mountain biker’s forum to share experiences with equipment, warranties and customer service. Or the 91,000 members of a hair dresser’s forum that share information about products and brands, as well as tips and techniques.

These are the real influencers, and the real driving force behind social media, and why it matters significantly to marketers as well as PR folks. Instead of putting the Horn Group’s panel into this broader context, Cooper dismisses the influence of A-Listers and then lauds the influence of one of his mainstream media peers:

Then the predictably prescient Kara Swisher from The Wall Street Journal‘s All Things Digital cut to the core question which–I believe–outweighs all others: If the message is empty, why bother? There is little point in trying to push a lame product or marketing idea. That’s a message some sales and marketing departments don’t want to hear. But in the end, doesn’t everything come back to value?

Again, the answer is “No”, not because value isn’t important, but because there is a long and messy process of discovering and defining value–a process in which good PR plays a role by interacting with, and understanding, the market. Social media is a game changer in this respect, because today, marketers have the opportunity to listen to customers like never before–not through focus groups or surveys, but through real engagement and active listening. Whether PR folks take that opportunity to broaden their focus and listen to consumers, instead of focusing solely on “influencing the influencers”, is a fault line that Cooper nicely illuminates.

One last nit. Cooper is dismissive of Jeremiah Owyang in a way I want to call out.

As I listened to the panelists debate the question, I began to fidget as Forrester Research’s Jeremiah Oywang offered a marketing-heavy spiel on the central role social media should occupy in any effective PR strategy. Oywang is earnest about this stuff so I can’t come down too hard, and yes, social media has its place. Still, it sounded like so much gobbledygook to me.

If saying “Owyang is earnest about gobbledygook” is not coming down too hard, I’d hate to see what Cooper really thinks. The reason not to come down too hard on Owyang is not because he’s “earnest”, but because he’s a professional. Owyang spends more time every day with a larger group of marketing executives and marketing practitioners than anyone I know; he’s one of the hardest working analysts in social or mainstream media. Maybe he didn’t lay things out in a way that Cooper understood, or maybe Cooper isn’t a position to want to understand what Owyang has to say. Owyang wrote his own post about the event. You be the judge.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeremiah Owyang November 17, 2008 at 12:43 pm

Thanks Chris, I appreciate your backing on this.

Tabitha "Tabz" Smith November 17, 2008 at 1:16 pm

Full disclosure – I’m in social media PR, I didn’t start off in PR – I started off in blogging and it evolved into me doing social media.

This is an amazingly well-thought out article Chris and I agree. People dismissing social media as a paradim shifter sound like people who say “Who cares what’s going on in New York in regards to fashion”. Dismissing a sub-set of people (ie people who use social media) off-handedly because of some snake oil salesmen who do (in my opinion) overhype their grasp is as ridiculous as listening to the snake oil salesmen. And who suffers? Not the consumer, but the brands.

I had a totally 100% bad experience with Comcast. I would have never dreamed of giving that company a second chance. I told everyone I knew how much they sucked. Yet, a couple months ago, Frank started Twittering and now I have a glowing recommendation of him and a better overview of the company as a whole.

So yes, a shift is happening and smart people are utilizing it while everyone else can worry about fructose corn syrup in their koolaid.

Venkat December 2, 2008 at 7:08 pm

Finally got some time to look through some of your pieces. There is a lot here, and you ought to think of writing a book. You need a high concept though.

On this particular piece, you should perhaps think about the PR crisis as a race to the bottom between corporate messaging and the messaging vehicles they target. A grim game we are playing now is watching to see what dies first: traditional news media or the PR industry that tries to drum up impressions through them. Phil Meyer’s awesome and influential “The Vanishing Newspaper” tells the tale of the ongoing collapse of the media, leaving PR wondering where to look for more impressions, and how. Gannett just announced the biggest layoffs in newspaper history.

One reason people have an incentive to ignore this shift is that acknowledging it means accepting that you have to work at a tougher game for the same reward. Social media’s big plus is 1:1 messaging, but that also means more work in creating 1:1 messages efficiently on a mass-customized scale. 1:1 eyeballs are the only kind left, and they don’t come cheap. That’s why people delude themselves with splogs in place of strategy.

An analogy I like is to energy. We lived for decades on very cheap energy, which was cheap mainly because it existed in vast and easily tapped underground reservoirs. Now, not only do we have to go to a complex portfolio of multiple energy sources (not “switch”), but each source takes individual cultivation. The hard-to-reach pockets of “attention oil” require specialist drilling for every well. Every new source from wind to ethanol needs its own infrastructure. So the overhead cost per joule extracted is increasing rapidly.

Shifting back to messaging in PR, the cost of finding the right microchannel to that last eyeball-second is dropping. We are now tapping into the hardest-to-reach pockets of attention in the attention-scarcity economy.

Game on. Ostriches getting separated from non-ostriches. To the extent that marketing/PR had a slight reputation as the “party” function of the corporation, the party of cheap eyeballs is over. They now have to work as hard as other functions, ranging from engineering to sales.

Venkat

Chris Kenton December 4, 2008 at 12:20 pm

Venkat–

Thanks for posting. I’ve been enjoying your blog at http://www.ribbonfarm.com and recommending it.

Thanks for the Phil Meyers suggestion. I’m picking it up today. I actually started out in journalism, and I’m the child of two lifelong journalists. My father was an editor at NYT for many years.

So many thoughts to explore on this topic, but we’re very much on the same page. I’m reading Habermas now as well, trying to get my arms around the changing implication of Publics….

I’ll keep the thread going on your blog.

/chris

Venkat December 4, 2008 at 6:27 pm

Thanks for the PR for ribbonfarm.com :) . I haven’t read any Habermas. That, along with the 2 recos you left in your comment on my blog, suggests that we might be on the same page, but likely in different books, and in different libraries. Should be learnings aplenty in the blog cross-talk.

Continuing the cross-blog conversation, I am developing a post that attempts (from an armchair, admittedly) to reframe public influence games (PR, marketing, sales cycle communications) by reconstructing two terms that I find very intriguing: ‘narrowcast’ and ‘broadcast.’ I think such construction efforts are necessary, since vague exhortations to use social media are rightly criticized for being hand-wavy.

Will shoot you a heads-up when I post that, and I look forward to an interesting exchange about that.

BTW, just finished the ‘Bob’ thread you point to in this post. I can’t help feeling that we’re getting only one side of the story there. Getting the manager’s story, as well as the other ‘evil’ manager’s story, would make for a great and complete case study. But I guess that’s too much to hope for.

Venkat

Chris Kenton December 4, 2008 at 7:21 pm

Venkat–

I’ve written a few pieces on media that might add some fuel to your fire. I wrote a series for Unica a while back, and talked about the meaning of “social media”, as well as the use of social media by businesses trying to leverage new vehicles to develop customer intimacy.

Someone else I’ve come across that we may want to invite into the discussion: http://gmrwvu.blogspot.com.

Definitely looking forward to continuing the dialog.

/chris

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