Gini Dietrich

Does Social Media Belong to PR?

By: Gini Dietrich | September 24, 2009 | 

Identity Crisis

I’m having an identity crisis and I need your help.

It’s no secret we’ve changed our business model this year to incorporate social media into our traditional communication firm. All along I’ve been saying that PR deserves a place at the social media table, that so much of it is about relationships and messaging, which is what our industry has been doing for centuries.

So why is it, then, that the PR industry isn’t all over this? The global PR firms have begun to hire social media planners or experts to help them, but it seems like it’s just a “have to do this so we’ll hire someone” kind of thing. I’m not sensing a strategy or a change in the way the businesses operate, mostly because I think even the big firms look at social media like most companies – they don’t get it and don’t like giving up control of the message (which we know is just a perception).

Am I off my rocker or do we have a severe competitive advantage now that our business model completely incorporates social media….and has for a year?

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • PR, depending on how you define it, can be the cornerstone of a successful social media campaign or program. For me, the PR we do at our company seems very different that the traditional form of PR taught when I was a communications major. I read a lot of PR these days and so little of it is in the right format to take advantage of the power social media offers. In the end, it is about message or content creation and crafting a message designed to create buzz and draw people in more than just building brand or generating publicity. A stack of clips is useless if you don’t sell anything and you won’t sell anything unless you can get people talking about your brand, keep them talking about your brand and build enough trust and credibility that they buy.
    You’ve got this figured out and it is amazing that so few of your peers ‘get it.’

  • Gini, I’m with you on this one. Absolutely amazed that more PR firms are not approaching social media with more strategy. Done properly, it’s definitely a competitive advantage for your firm and others. Leverage the knowledge you have and the strategic approach fully. Eventually those firms which do not adopt a strategic mindset re: social media will either fail or be forced to do so. That’s my opinion, of course.

  • So the question becomes, then, why do so few of my peers get it? It doesn’t seem that difficult to understand.

    @Tom, you’re right about the useless clips. I actually wish more business owners and executives understood this.

    @Kristen, I LOVE your opinion (because it matches mine)!

  • Gini,
    Your comment “big firms look at social media like most companies – they don’t get it” may slowly become obsolete.
    I was out at Frito Lay-Pepsico HQ earlier this month and saw what they are doing with Social Media. They do get it.
    They are leveraging all of SocMed. And in unique ways.

    Like any new innovation, there are earlier adopters and laggards. Many companies are currently trying to write policy on how SocMed is to be used within their business (including recruiting). Unfortunately, some of the snail’s pace is coming from legal issues, not so much a Marketing Comm Dept’s fear of the unknown.

    I do agree that PR firms should take the helm at educating their clients as to the realities of the future of SocMed. Just like leveraging the Internet at its inception, the laggards will wish they had been early adopters.

  • Raymond Alvarez

    In 1995, the greater business world was asking questions about the Internet and email. The answers seemed a slam dunk. Why would anyone want to keep sending documents by fax? Email was simple to use. There wasn’t all that paper mess and waste. We got past the minor tech problems and were soon emailing friends and business contacts. Then someone discovered that email messages, when carefully crafted, could be passed along and the whole viral marketing phenomenon exploded. It took a few years for email to become recognized as a legitimate and necessary business tool.

    It usually takes a few huge successes before people begin to seriously investigate new business tools and models. As incredible as it seems, there are still people who won’t use email.

    You mention Twitter in any social context off line and you get giggles and even hostility. Some people just don’t like change. They’re not impressed with successes elsewhere. They’re just too comfortable with where they’re at.

    Just human nature, I suppose.

    Many of us have sales backgrounds. We know how to move people. The formulas are simple: You appeal to fear or greed.

    Fear: If you don’t start Linkedin, Facebook and Twitter accounts, all of your competition will be using them and growing phenomenally.

    Greed: That’s the growing phenomenally part of that last sentence.

    Public relations seems such a good fit for social media. I can imagine a day not too long from now when PR people will have fanned out into the media and will be regularly representing companies large and small. I think the press release will be discarded or reinvented for social media.

    It will take some more time.

  • @Jeff and @Ray – Aren’t there STILL some companies who don’t yet have Web sites? To go to your points, “my customer isn’t online” is what I hear A LOT. Really? Is that why the Cone survey found that 93 percent of Americans EXPECT companies to have a social media presence? That doesn’t apply to just consumer businesses. It applies to every company a person does business with – online and offline; B2B and B2C.

    @Ray – I HOPE the press release is discarded! It does no good in its current form.

  • Katrina Laflin

    It seems to me that any PR firm that is not completely integrating social media into their clients’ marketing plans and media campaigns are doing a real disservice to their clients. Kudos to the firms that are bringing it to the table and really serving their clients!

  • Yes, social media is a strategy best housed in public relations. And it must be a strategy like all other communications tools that we use. Just because you have a twitter account doesn’t mean you are doing social media. Equally as important, just because you have one doesn’t make you an expert either.

    It is incumbent upon all of us in the public relations profession to start discussing social media, plan for it like any other strategy, incorporate it into our communications efforts.

    You can either embrace it and manage or it will happen without you.

  • Gini,

    I think it’s the wrong question. The trouble that companies – of all shapes, sizes and industries – are having is that they still view the world through the silo’s of corporate specialization. So, viewing any function as “belonging” to any silo creates more problems then it solves.

    The “job” of every company is to create customers, delight them and manage the business so that it can be profitable. Every function of the company is responsible for these three actions – and they belong to everyone. “Social media” is only a tool that allows companies to create and nurture relationships.

    Now, should PR have a leadership advantage in this area? Yes. I’m not surprised, however, that they don’t. I’m also not surprised that “they don’t get it.” For too long PR firms viewed their core proposition as providing access. They viewed success by the number of times the CEO got quoted or how many articles appeared. Few viewed their core function as providing the intelligence and leadership to allow their clients to create and delight customers – profitably.

  • I think the biggest thing to remember is that everyone and I mean EVERYONE has a completely different interpretation of what exactly Social Media is. Some think its Facebook and MySpace, others think its message boards and wikis, others (my parents) think its instant messaging (I set them straight).

    Another problem might be your peers’ old school perception that this whole Social Media thing is just a fad for kids, and they don’t want to be perceived in that light.

    Just my thoughts…


  • Gini

    Think this is a great question, and I think that the answer is that no-one owns social media…we all do. It belongs to all of us!!

    It’s there and you’re either in it or you’re not. Social Media gives you access into conversations that are ongoing and have been for years, it’s just now they’re out in the open. Conversations about you, your brand, your clients, their brands, their propositions, their experience.

    A lot of companies hire SM specialists to create and manage their profile, just like they used to hire designers to design them a website, as if having a presence gives a message, and is some kind of end result. Of course its not, its only the beginning.

    Once the message is out there on Social Media you no longer own or manage it…social media manages it for you!!

  • Gini,

    I think you have made a very prescient move. Most companies are still not convinced of the staying power but have begrudgingly accepted the sheer volume of participants and jumped on the bandwagon because of that. I think you will have first mover advantage regardless of the flavor of the next phase. Public Relations firms are a natural for social media but then again so is any firm that wants to aggregate its messaging and communication into what people are using RIGHT NOW. Those who don’t get what you got will be signing up for what you already see as you are burnishing and polishing your communications in the newest iteration.

  • @Katrina – thanks for validating my feeling that I’m not off my rocker!

    @Abbie – You get it! Totally!

    @Doug – COMPLETELY agree with you. I was just talking to a friend about this. Everyone should be involved – HR, sales, marketing, PR, advertising, customer service, even the executive team. And what you’re saying about it being less about belonging vs. leadership makes sense.

    @Drew – LOVE that your parents think it’s instant messaging!

  • Public relations is about developing relationships to help achieve strategic goals. While “social media” is a big concept, there’s no question that PR pros understand relationship building as well as anyone does, and should be aggressively using these new tactics as appropriate. PR pros need to build their social media “vocabulary,” learn new technical skills, and gain experience in these new communities. At the same time, many “social media experts” don’t understand the basics – research, planning, implementation and evaluation. But for the properly trained PR professional, social media creates exciting new opportunities to engage audiences. This is what I’m teaching my PR students at Loyola University Chicago. David Kamerer, PhD, APR

  • @Mervyn – Agree with you, BUT someone has to own it. Like Abbie says, just because you’re using social media doesn’t mean you’re doing it correctly or that you’re an expert. Where does the strategy belong? Who develops the campaigns, the messaging, the conversations, the relationships?

    @Dan – You’re my new BFF? Want a job??

  • @David – You can send all of your students here for internships. You clearly get it.

  • I totally agree with you. I don’t think that anyone should pay a PR firm, or Marketing firm for that matter, for a Social Media plan if they are not implementing one themselves. Judging from the number of firms that need to go outside their own walls to even understand the basics…I am floored. Here’s to Arment-Deitrich staying on the cutting edge.

  • @Gini I thought I was your new BFF?

    Anyhow, everytime I sit down with PR firms, teams, agencies, or in-house PR pros, I just tell them to take ownership of social media as if it was theirs all along.

    Why? Social Media Marketing — well, the social and media part are both about relating to publics. The marketing part so that the CMO pays for it, and knows you speak their language, as most don’t like PR but love metrics and measurement — two things made easier through the web, social media, etc.

  • Social media absolutely belongs to public relations. It’s about communicating the company’s message to the targeted audiences. Like you said, it’s about relationships and messaging. We in PR don’t have to be the ones that come up with the marketing campaign, but we should be the ones who communicate how that marketing campaign benefits our audience.

  • Isn’t the goal of PR firms to effectively communicate “XYZ” on behalf of the client? Social Media is a form of communication, therefore it should be a BIG part of your strategy.

  • Interesting – @MartinWaxman just sent this to me:

    Report finds social media responsibility falls mostly to PR

    September 24, 2009

    The PR department leads digital communications at 51% of organizations, while the marketing team leads it just over 40% of the time, according to the 2009 Digital Readiness Report from iPressroom, Korn/Ferry International, and PRSA.

    The study broke down digital communications into several specific categories, finding that:

    * PR leads blogging activities in 49% of organizations, compared to 22% for marketing
    * PR leads in microblogging as well, 52% compared to marketing’s 22%
    * Marketing generally leads when it comes to the e-mail marketing and SEO aspects of digital communications

  • @ Gini I take your point…we shall see. No-one teaches a 15 year old now to use MSN, text, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter…they just do it and make it work for them, right or wrong, which I guess is what a lot of people are doing now with Twitter.

    My own view is that the reach, immediacy and flexibility of social media, together with mobile applications, will make it uncontrollable…lets face it, you can manage your retail clients profile on all social media to the highest standards, but the guy who’s standing in line at their shop having a bad experience can take out his iPhone and tell everyone he can reach on social media about his bad expoerience as its happening!

    Not sure anyone can control that!!

  • I’m not sure anyone “owns” social media whether departmentally in companies or externally however some individuals within and companies outside will become known for doing two things – Perpetuating and enhancing a brand and communicating effectively through whatever the most productive current technology and vehicle is. In this simple guys opinion the key is to become recognized either individually or organizationally as one of those who not only gets it but can leverage that insight into ROI. It appears that Gini and AD get it and without seeing the financials I am sure you would not be investing in this social media approach if you didn’t see the ROI side of the equation.

  • Hello: I agree with the premise of this post, but I want to issue a point of clarification: You state, “…relationships and messaging, which is what our industry has been doing for centuries.” Centuries? One may argue that the railroad barons and showmen like P.T. Barnum employed “press agents” starting in the 1850s. But the management practice of public relations really got its foundation in the early 20th century. Ivy Lee issued his “Declaration of Principles” in 1906 and Edward Bernays coined the phrase “public relations counsel” in 1923. Full disclosure: I looked up these dates in “Effective Public Relations.”

  • Gini: My read is that most firms don’t look at it the same way you do. Those that don’t see social media as merely a fad unworthy of serious attention are probably waiting for others to figure out the right business model before investing the time and money needed to offer those services. There are relatively few firms that like you are saying “we really need to know these new tools so that we can provide more value to our clients.” Which firms will clients turn to when they need help communicating via Social media?

  • Educating clients is part of our task, which, of course, puts us in the position of being the leaders of SM strategy development. I’ve taken a couple of key articles (many I have found thanks to Gini)and either synthesized the content or sent them directly to clients to support a point. See this week’s Newsweek column by Daniel Lyons for more great detail (get past the headline). Once they realize the financial implications, it’s an easy sell.

    Want a great way to put yourself in the driver’s seat on this one, go to (plug here) the PRSA International Conference in November. Tons of SM sessions in one setting.

  • Susan Schreiber

    I think social media can provide advantageous strategy for clients, however we need to remember that social media strategy should be just as thoughtful and deliberate as traditional components of a PR campaign. It’s also important to realize that all social media tools aren’t necessarily appropriate for every client. Furthermore, if you engage in social media only to participate 50%, you might be sending the wrong message about your brand.

  • @Mervyn – I’ve been thinking about this ongoing dialogue and you’re right…to a certain extent. As consumers, social media belongs to all of us. And no, we can’t control it. BUT someone has to own it for companies, just like someone owns running the business, HR, sales, marketing, advertising, customer service, PR, accounting. It’s not about controlling the message. It’s about listening to the stakeholders, participating in the conversations, and developing more trust…even when we screw up.

    @Dan – We’re a small business so we see the ROI really easily. We use it for thought leadership, talent recruitment, prospecting for new business, and developing even more loyal clients. Right now, I own it. As we grow, others here will have to own pieces of it. Maybe talent recruitment will go to HR, business development will go to sales, brand loyalty will go to the account leads, and I’ll keep thought leadership. Same philosophy for big companies – who owns it? Take a stance and make it happen.

    @Lance – I hope it DOES give us a competitive advantage! And most firms will figure it out and provide the service for their clients, but we’ll always be more than a year ahead of them. They might catch up to us a bit, because they have more resources, but I’m already looking at what’s next while they’re trying to figure out why they need something they perceive is only for their kids.

    @Denis – I’d add to your plug – any of the PRSA local chapters will have SM lunches, too. And thanks for the heads-up on the Newsweek article. I haven’t read it yet.

    @Susan – What a GREAT point about not participating fully. You are so right that if a brand gets out there, only to disappear or do it half-*ss, it will definitely hurt the brand!

  • Hi, Gini. There’s not much I can add here. But generally, I think that those of us who have been learning more about these tools forget that many companies, especially big companies, aren’t going to be early adopters. If big PR firms aren’t being pushed by their big clients to use social media, the PR firms are not going to see social media skills as a core contributor to the bottom line. The smart ones will be learning about social media and be ready to go as their clients catch up.

    All of which is to say that, when the explosion comes, you will have a HUGE competitive advantage. The big PR firms will talk the talk, but you’ll already have hard evidence and results to prove you know your way around. That’s when sea changes occur. You know, the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. Keep doing what you’re doing, and be patient.

  • Hi Gini –

    I think Drew may be on to something. The interpretation of Social Media, and what it can do, varies depending on age/demographic.

    Gen Y users may see it primarily as a personal communication vehicle, while I think traditional business is resisting because they don’t see immediate monetization, especially in this economy.

    I think the point that many companies, large or small, miss about Social Media is that it’s about relationships, not transactions. It’s the relationships that make readers and followers more open to your message. (Based on your description of your measurable ROI, you and your team understand that!)

  • Gini,

    I am currently a senior college student writing for an online PR magazine at the University of Alabama. Last semester I took a PR Writing course that devoted several weeks just to social media and how it interacts with PR. I think you have made a great point because public relations IS all about relationships and communications. It seems ridiculous that the PR industry isn’t taking more advantage of social media because it walks hand in hand with the goals public relations practitioners try to accomplish. As for my generation, we have become so accustomed to using social media because it has always been there for us (for the most part, anyway). While current PR practitioners need to utilize social media more, I think it is important to note that universities, such as the University of Alabama, are integrating more and more of social media into public relations courses. Maybe my generation can really change the relationship between social media and public relations!

    I would love for you to check out our online magazine and blog to see a students’ perspective on public relations and social media communications. Check it out at Thanks for a great blog post!

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  • Social Media doesn’t ‘belong’ to anyone and, no offence, the last place it should be is PR! Social media is not something to be owned or categorised. Its a step change in communication. A new phone, a new channel.

    PR, by its definition “Public Relations” refers to managing the communications, usually one way, from business to its audience, whoever they are. PR has never really featured in the management of and the interest in ‘customer interactions’ which have usually fallen into CRM strategies, typically owned by the line marketers or consultancies.

    Social media is a revolution in conversation – two way – between individuals. Its wrong to even try and group it by business etc. But its important for business because you cannot manage your brand (Personal or otherwise) in social media – social media manages it for you. Classic PR intervention in social media often looks unauthentic and can often backfire. Take a look on the web and you will find many examples of this.

    Its quite possible that we will shortly not be emailing any more, but instead talking real time via tools like google wave. this is not something to PR. This is just a tool. Whats important is the conversation and the power of that conversation which must be treated with the upmost respect.

    Great question!

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