About a week ago I enjoyed a very stimulating discussion with some of my colleagues from the Institute for PR’s Commission on PR Measurement and Evaluation. We were talking about social media and how it is challenging to comment on in a way that is useful to the PR practitioner community, because it morphs so rapidly.
It occurred to me that what morphs rapidly in social media is technology, but the technology is not what makes social media important to us.
The history of the communications industry, as we know it, has been primarily one-sided. Yes, the PR masters of old all recommended research and understanding publics before communicating with them, and advertising agencies have done this kind of research for years. But we in public relations, for the most part, have ignored the advice and the practice. We’ve considered communications to be one way. We send to our target audiences the information we want them to have. Generally there has not been, nor have we actively sought, a feedback loop.
What is new about social media is our target audiences have found their voices. We can, and many do, use social media for one-way messaging. But that’s the same thing advertisers did in the 1950s when they sponsored a television show. What is new is we now can listen and, what is more, engage in conversations. Even if we did research in the past, we couldn’t really engage in conversations the way we can now through social media. The research became a static document that told us something about a group of people at the time we did the research. Social media gives us a window into what our stakeholders want and need today, and it will give us a window into any changes in these wants and needs tomorrow.
So, in my mind, the real change engendered by social media is this ability to engage in conversations. We’re still learning how to use these conversations, but they are what’s new. Certainly, the technology is enabling, but it is not the big story, the conversation and what we can make of them is.
Still, the conversations our employers and corporate clients have with interested parties is not the whole story. These people talk to each other as well, and, if they think they need a community, they develop one, and these have their own lives and live by their own rules. They are not like the old media in any way except that they can be widely read by anyone who has access to a computer. Still, it’s the conversation that’s new, and in my mind, that’s what we must learn to manage.