Martin Waxman

Community Management is the New PR

By: Martin Waxman | July 24, 2013 | 

The New PR

By Martin Waxman

Yesterday I talked about the future of PR and why the industry is at a crossroads.

I touched on the challenges we face, and the choice we must make to redefine and recreate who we are, and what it is we do.

So here goes: I believe community management is the new PR.

I’m not the first to say this.

For several years, Shonali Burke has spoken about how the essence of PR is community.

And if you think about traditional PR, it’s been all about building and engaging a community – in this case media. Creating and alerting them to stories that (hopefully) matter to them.

Helping them. Celebrating them. Working in tandem so they would amplify stories to benefit both of our respective industries. At least that’s how it worked in theory.

A Natural Evolution

Community management is a natural evolution of PR with a few key changes:

  • Instead of focusing on one fairly homogenous community, we now have many diverse ones.
  • Instead of relationships we carried around with us and guarded, we become relationship builders and managers because we understand behavior, and what people want and need.
  • And instead of pitches, we create stories that can be told across many platforms.

Community Management = Strategy + Creativity + Storytelling – B.S.

That’s the formula, and the good news is many of us are already moving in a community management direction.

Four Pillars to the Approach

Listening. Yes, you’ve heard this before and it’s almost become a cliché, but that’s because it’s so fundamental. Listening and research is at the heart of what we do. By careful listening, we’ll find the communities who’ll be interested in our stories, and that takes hard work and time. A word of caution: Don’t start by turning to existing lists. Lists are a great resource, but they should come second to your own research. Always.

Publishing + Publicity. We need to wear both sides of the journalism and PR hats and truly become experts at publishing (creating content) and publicity (how it’s amplified). That means beginning with a digital editorial approach, looking at the calendar, picking up on trends, and then handpicking influencers who will be interested, and can help spread our stories. A hub and spoke model like the one proposed by Lee Odden works well: The hub is your blog/newsroom, and social networks become your nodes of distribution.

Dazzling. OK – we all have to take a pledge – swear off corporate-speak or else face a severe and public penalty! Otherwise, things won’t change. Instead, let’s turn back to roots of creative publicity, married with the ethics of two-way communications. Whatever we do must surprise, entertain, inspire, and mean something of value to our communities. I’ve said this before: We’re all in showbiz.

Measuring. Deep down I’m a creative type, and so I’m not naturally drawn to charts and numbers. But we’re in business too, and that means understanding how to move the needle. The new PR is all about the customers: thinking like them, understanding what they need and helping them. They’ll soon begin to trust you and will come back. It’s that simple. And then set quantifiable business goals, and use good tools to track and analyse them, find insights, and adapt.

Of course this all requires a paradigm shift, which takes time – but not too much time or we’ll miss our opportunity.

Boomers and GenXers: You can no longer ‘hang on to what we have.’ People don’t log hours of phone calls to pitch media anymore! It doesn’t work. We build relationships in other ways. Get with the program or get out!

Millennials: You have to understand the traditions in order to break them and create new models. Think about how you consume digital media, and how that differs from other generations as a starting point. What are the similarities? Where do things diverge?

PR has often been defined by what it’s not. I think it’s time to redefine it by what it is.

What do you think about new community management as the new PR? Do you have any ideas to add?

P.S. And don’t forget…we have DJ Waldow doing a webinar on email marketing tomorrow! Register for free here.

About Martin Waxman

Martin Waxman is president of Martin Waxman Communications and conducts digital and social media training workshops. He’s a and LinkedIn Learning author, one of the hosts of the Inside PR podcast, and past-chair of PRSA Counselors Academy. Martin teaches social media at UToronto SCS and Seneca College and regularly speaks at conferences and events across North America. Find him on Twitter @martinwaxman.

  • This resonates big time with me.

    • katskrieger Thanks! I really appreciate that. Interested to hear if you have any other suggestions on how we could move in that direction.

      • martinwaxman katskrieger I just took on a new project where I will be building all of this from scratch. It really is community management, but I think the term gets somewhat of a bad wrap. Your elements elevate it to what it can truly do when done right. Does that make sense?

        • katskrieger Thanks. Yes, it does! I agree with you about the bad rap community management is getting. Maybe it’s the name itself – manager connotes mid level and in many ways it’s been considered a junior to mid-level task.  But really, it’s more nuanced and strategic than that.  Good luck with your project. Interested to hear about it.

        • evanhamilton

          martinwaxman katskrieger I think part of the problem is also that lots of companies hire “community managers” to post junk to Twitter and Facebook. These are actually social media managers or marketers…very different from building community. But once someone associates a 19-year-old posting kitten photos with community management, it’s hard to get them to take the real craft of community-building seriously!

        • evanhamilton katskrieger That’s for sure. I think it’s a much more strategic and creative role and one where you need to understand people and know when to promote something and when not to. Thanks! And good meeting you on Twitter, too evanhamilton.

  • LouHoffman

     When I first read the holy grail is “community management” I’m thinking that’s a leap worthy of Evel Knievel. Yet, you lay out a pragmatic road map for getting there.
    Well done!

    I think there’s “killer app” in not only swearing off the corporate speak, but bringing levity to the table. Because this type of communications scares so many companies, there’s even more of an opportunity to stand out.

    • LouHoffman Thanks Lou. I have to say I was hoping that I wouldn’t have too many scratches or bruises after that jump. But I’m happy to take them. 
      And yes, we do need to add humor! Being able to laugh at ourselves and our foibles (I don’t get a chance to use that word enough) turns us from faceless corporate flacks into people you might want to hear from and get to know.

      • LouHoffman

        martinwaxman Mark, it’s interesting that you used the word “humor.” For the longest time, we tried to push clients toward the H word with mixed results. Since changing to “levity,” our success rate has improved. The way one client explained to me, levity = amusement while humor = laughter which in turn makes the levity bar much lower (and less scary).

        • LouHoffman Thanks. That’s an interesting distinction. I didn’t realize we had an H-bomb :). 
          It’s funny how changing the word we’re using to describe a strategic approach alters a perception. But it does make sense.   
          And I have to mention that it’s Martin – though I do respond to many different things…

        • LouHoffman

          martinwaxman Sorry about that. I suppose getting the first consonant right only takes me so far.

        • LouHoffman Usually I get Max – which I guess is an amalgam of my two names. No worries! And thanks for the comments!

  • Listening can’t be emphasized enough. And spot on with lists!! I used to work for Cision and helped create those resources, but they are just that – a resource. A place to start. PR pros need to do their own research and build relationships with the people on these lists, not just shoot off an email. That’s just a good way to piss someone off!

    • yvettepistorio Thanks Yvette. 
      It’s funny, when I used to interview interns, I’d say, you’re about to launch a new shampoo (we were doing a lot of beauty PR at the time 🙂 ), how do you figure out who to send it too. The answer I wanted was we’ll go to the publications and blogs and research who’s writing what and then cross-reference with the list to see if we’ve missed anyone. The answer I usually got was – we’ll start with a list…
      But primary research – listening – whatever you want to call is is so important. That’s where you find nuggets of insight!

  • Tim McDonald

    Community management is PR plus. 🙂

  • Lauren Vargas

    Tim McDonald Indeed, it is. I remember the days I said that and got a wild-eyed look in response as if I had grown three heads. I would say that community management is more than what is summed up in this post and not all community management is equal.

    • @Lauren Vargas @Tim McDonald – I know what you mean. I think of this as the starting point – lots more to add.

  • You had me at “swear off corporate speak”!

  • It’s interesting to see how the space has evolved.  As someone who started in PR right when social media began to flourish, and then quickly moved to focus on community, I’ve seen this shift first hand.
    I have a hard time saying that community is the new PR, because that assumes that they are the same at their core.
    True, there are many skills that are translatable from PR to community management like storytelling, relationship building, branding, etc.  This is why we’ve seen the PR world first take root in the world of social media and community.
    But community is something different, and it’s been around since the beginning of the internet.  Community is about user to user interaction.  It’s about building relationships amongst a network of people who share a common interest or passion.
    At the same time, just because someone is good at building a community does not mean they are good at pitching a story to the press, or managing a twitter account.  
    Community is growing fast as a role.  Companies are discovering the importance of keeping a userbase/audience engaged and connected once they’re in the door.  With this growth, we’re going to see more people with a PR background taking on community roles.
    Just a word of caution PR pros, community is a whole different beast.  The good news is you already own some of the needed skills. 
    Just don’t mistake it for a simple swapping of titles.

    • DavidSpinks Thanks David. Your point about simply swapping titles is an important distinction and I agree completely. I also think that in order for PR to move into true community management, we need to stop pitching (a term I never liked) and act like we’re part of a community by sharing stories or social objects of value. When I say new PR, I mean just that – taking some of the things we know how to do well and then adapting to the new community reality. That’s easier said than done, of course because as humans we tend to fall back on habits and the things we know.
      But now it’s time to break those habits!
      I also think that publicity, that is making a story public, is something that fits with community when it’s done in a respectful, strategic way and doesn’t rely on hucksterism or spam.
      Interested to hear what you think.

  • evanhamilton

    Love the post, as I said on Twitter.
    The more I mull on this, the more I think there’s an important message that you sort of hit on in “dazzling” but deserves to be highlighted.
    Stop making crap.
    Ok, ok, that sounds really mean. What I’m getting at is: a lot of press releases are terrible, and a lot of stories that are told aren’t worth telling. The clients are probably as much to blame for this as the PR companies, to be honest. But it has to stop. If we’re going to build communities we have to do so by only sharing things of value. If what you’re writing or trying to get others to write about isn’t interesting, they’re increasingly not going to share it. There’s plenty of news out there and there’s plenty of things that ARE interesting to read.
    Make good…no, great stuff and you’ll be able to build and leverage communities. Make crap and they’ll stop listening to you quicker than you can say “community management”.

    • evanhamilton You’re not going to believe this – but I almost put that in the post. That’s where we have to start – stopping all the crap and there’s so much of it we’re clogging the pipes of the internet! Then, as you suggest we have to be sure we focus on great content. I look back on some of the corporate videos I used to do 12 years ago and am embarrassed by the stilted language.  We just have to say no to crap! Thanks Evan!

      • martinwaxman evanhamilton the problem is this can’t stop. To make great content takes talent and money. There is a reason we aren’t all Oscar winning actors or directors or artists making big money, While the internet and tools allow us all to be content producers the fact is most of us will always suck at it. And the more money you have the better content you should have. Though that isn’t always the case.

        • It sure isn’t easy, that’s for sure. I guess we’ve got to take risks and aim high. Thanks!

    • evanhamilton “Stop making crap” hahahaha!! Everyone should have that on a sticky note, stuck to their computer screens. 🙂

  • dnovich

    I think that the idea of managing communities is a good way to look at it. But it can’t take away from the foundation of all successful PR: finding and telling compelling stories. After all, everyone knows how to post on Facebook and create hash tags, but no one knows what content will go viral and have a measurable impact for a client. It comes down to the  experience and talent that  PR consultants bring, and as you said, experimentation and persistence in social media.

    • dnovich Thanks! Absolutely – creating standout stories is key. So often we settle for less-than-stellar and wonder why no one’s engaged.

  • Love this two parter Martin, great information, and real ‘forward thinking’. As you say above, instead of trying to figure out what PR *isn’t*, let’s MAKE IT what it can and should be! Cheers, LB

    • belllindsay Thanks (only a few days late…)

  • HonoureBlack

    Dear Martin, 
    as a newbie to the PR world and someone who falls into the “Millennial” category,  this post particularly resonated with me. Before I even reached your paragraph where you mention millennials, I was already jotting down notes and asking your page, “where do the millennials fit into all this? Will he mention them?” Millennials are what I would deem as the front line of the community of skeptics, question askers, critics, researchers, etc. They are capable and fast to do their own research, they are in touch with all that is media, and most are obsessed with their “own” PR image at the same time. 
    Millennials demand a sense of value, and an understanding for importance. They place themselves at the center of whatever community they are a part of, and they are always on the look out for change. Millennials are in charge of their own PR and are connected virtually to whatever they want whenever they want. 
    I thought your ideas of the importance of finding the trends, and broadening the community was very important. I also recognized that your position implies that  PR has “big boots to fill”; to surprise, entertain, inspire, make everything meaningful and valuable…these are all huge expectations while still maintaining cultural awareness, trending and maintaining a non corporate speak…..More importantly, maintaining approachability.
    This is a community I am excited and so new at. Thank you for putting the current evolution of PR into such an approachable perspective.

    • HonoureBlack Thanks for your comment and perspective. And welcome to the PR community (and Spin Sucks community, too, since I noticed it’s your first comment-hope there will be lots more).
      I like how you describe what matters to millennials and it’s very important for all of us to understand how your generation thinks and discovers news and information as we all work together to redesign and reenergize the profession. 
      P.S. I think we may have a shared home-town :).

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