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PR: Not the final puzzle piece in Social Media

June 1, 2009

Should youss-5322817-puzzlePiecer marketing/PR/advertising department always be the one to run the social media campaign?

In essence, no. Do many companies default to their PR person? Yes.

Not every PR professional is the same. Some are great with interacting with people with ease – I call them “conversationalists.” Some are great at strategizing. But it’s the people that can do both at the same time that should head up your social media campaign – and you never know, it might be the mail room guy who knows every little thing about your brand. Is this likely? No. Should it be? Yes, it should always be someone who truly understands your brand and strategy. The social media person should know backward and forward your brand, your image and what people expect from it. Sometimes, the PR agency doesn’t know all of the information since the client only lets out certain information.

There is constant chatter that social media is replacing public relations. Egad. They aren’t the same and never will be. Social media is a communication enhancement that can be used to solidify your brand, how it is perceived and receive feedback. It also lets you interact with others on an informal basis. You have to understand your audience and what is being said about your brand. I think this is why CEO’s default to their PR person – a good PR person will be able to research what is being said, understands the audience and should know a lot of information. But where a PR person might mess up is if they can’t converse with anyone – or respond to the negative.ย  A laid out plan and strategy is great, but you must be able to execute it. You also have to be willing to change it if it fails, and admit to that.

Some of the best public relations professionals I know would make terrible social media strategists (I’m at a loss for how to describe the role at times.) Others would make great ones, as their strengths lie in conversation and relations.ย  Social media is all about being yourself – and you can be yourself with a brand twist.

Checklist for picking a social media person:

1. Know the brand
2. Knows what the company wants to accomplish with social media – well defined plan
3. Discusses different topics, not just promotions
4. Interacts with followers – no matter who they may be or what they say
5. Show a level of transparency on both yourself and the brand
6. Has a plan laid out if a crisis arises (PR 101)
7. Has practice through personal Social Media – and understands the basics

This is not to say that a PR person would not be the best person to head up the social media campaign. But it should never be the default because someone at the company is not willing to fully understand SM. The reason “Well, our competitor is doing it” or “Everyone else is” doesn’t ever fly in the business world – so why should it here?

31 Comments leave one →
  1. June 1, 2009 1:19 pm

    Lauren, you bring up interesting points here. I agree that the PR professional shouldn’t be the default/fall back point person. However, I do think that if a PR professional is going to be of value to their organization, she/he will already be a “conversationalist” well versed in many effective communication tools (including social media tools) and thus campaign responsibility and oversight will fall on their shoulders. My $.02

  2. June 1, 2009 1:21 pm

    Richie – Great point. I wish all PR professionals were well-versed in all communication tools – and I think thats why many succeed over others. The best PR professional will be able to handle the SM campaign – but for many companies, that just isn’t true. It might also be why many companies look to their interns to do it.

  3. June 1, 2009 1:37 pm

    I’m not sure if I disagree or not, but that would be because of the word “campaign.” For a lot of companies, social media is not a campaign, but an ongoing part of what the public relations or marketing communications department does. So the PR or MarComm department, as spokesmen and women for the company, are naturally the spokesmen and women on these social media outlets. And for the criteria you list 9 times out of time, I would say a communications person ticks those boxes.

    In my case, the media relations aspect of traditional PR and social media combine because so many bloggers and journalists in the travel industry are on Twitter, Facebook and search Web sites like Digg and delicious. It all blends, so – at least for me – it doesn’t make sense to break up the responsibilities and move some away from MarComm.

  4. June 1, 2009 1:45 pm

    When I first read the title and got into a few words of your first paragraph…I had to admit I was steaming! I was adamantly disagreeing…PR people should head it up or be heavily involved. I even wrote about it in a blog due to be posted today and on Wednesday on Then I read further. I agree, PR professionals must be proficient in all tools of the trade. I can’t stand when we are pigeon-holed into one tool or discipline. PR is all about relationships so you must be good at building them. And becaues customers, media and companies “receive” messages differently, we must be good at relating to everyone on their own level and in their own way.

    • June 1, 2009 1:48 pm

      Leslie – Thanks for pointing that out, and I am very glad you kept on reading!

      I was really trying to point out that many companies throw SM campaigns at any PR person – without really thinking through strategy or who is best for the job. Many view SM as a bandaid for a communications approach, and mistakenly think it’s only a PR thing. If there is a great PR person on staff who truly understands all of the criteria (and while I am not an expert in the least) then they are definitely the best fit. However, it might be the marketing person that understands the concept the best – or for an association (like what I work for) the membership director might understand audience even better.

      You make some great points and I truly appreciate your feedback.

  5. jaywalk1 permalink
    June 1, 2009 2:15 pm

    Uh oh, saying that the marketing person may be better suited to lead the SM campaign…treading in stormy departmental

    I do agree with you and your checklist. I have to say that I’ve found few marketing pros who even consider #3 and #6. So while the PR pro may not be best suited to run the campaign (depending on the company and campaign), they definitely should be involved every step the way, imho.

    • June 1, 2009 2:17 pm

      Might have not been the BEST example – but as the Marketing Coordinator for AML, I handle both. As we see more integrated communications, I truly believe that a marketing person will be just as well equipped to handle the campaign. I really wanted this blog post to serve as a reminder to always evaluate who is the best person to head up the campaign – whether they are the PR person or not.

  6. June 1, 2009 2:22 pm

    That’s a good point, Patrick.

    I don’t want to take away the social media responsibilities away from the PR person – if they are the right fit to head it up. Many companies fail at SM because they don’t think through a strategy, and that all starts with who heads it up and what ideas they bring to the table.

    Thanks for reading – and great points, as always.

  7. June 1, 2009 2:34 pm

    I think PR people should ideally be the primary social media practitioners within their companies. Like Richie above, I think PR people of value should have the “conversationalist” skills already – so with that as a baseline, here are a few reasons why I think they should manage social media:

    1. PR people know (or should know) how to engage and respond to the ongoing dialogue going on through SM. These are the people others within the company look to for these skills/abilities – doing it this way maximizes efficiencies throughout the organization.

    2. They also are as close as anyone within an organization (surely more so than senior executives) to the everyday execution of external messaging and branding, so they can better ensure that SM conveys messages and brand attributes to the audience.

    3. PR people either have the time/resources to execute on the work necessary to keep a company’s social media outreach up and running, or they are better suited to find/allocate/appropriate time or resources to do this than others (especially execs) who have many other more “pressing” items and/or priorities on their plates.

    4. If social media, as we’ve all argued, is simply a tool in the PR/marketing toolbelt, then the PR staff should manage it. Like I say above, this ensures consistency of messaging and branding across the entire PR/marketing spectrum. It also allows SM to be fully integrated with other PR/marketing functions, allowing all of them to work together and deliver more value to the organization.

    Interesting post…thanks!


  8. June 1, 2009 2:39 pm

    J – Rockin’ comment as always. You already have me thinking about it’s not even 10 a.m.!

    All of your points are exactly what a PR person should be – in an ideal situation. Sadly, not all professionals are that way – because they won’t apply themselves. It’s my hope that a PR professional will always be the best fit – but sometimes it might be someone else in the department.

    I see this as more of a trend as marketing, communications and PR become much more integrated. I also see it more apparent in an association/non-profit – especially since we wear so many hats.

    Thanks for so many great points – and for taking the time to respond.

  9. June 1, 2009 2:46 pm

    I’m Actually in the middle of writing a post on a similar topic – namely, that explosion of social media is forcing the overlapping but discrete disciplines of marketing, pr, customer relations, and advertising into one new industry – or at the very least – engendering the development of a ‘social media’ field that must take lessons from each of its aforementioned predecessors in order to succeed. Social media isn’t an isolated bubble. There are many reasons, some of which you state (like negating a potential crisis) that would lead us to think PR is the right fit for social media. Another might be that PR is essentially the practice of feeding a brand’s biased message through an unbiased (or at least perceived so) medium). Social media works the same way – taking a brands message, principals, personality, philosophy, and articulating it to the masses, making it digestible and consumable so it fosters a relationship between the brand and its user base.

    Yes – Interaction is essential, as is transparency. But I think there are those of us in the PR industry who have embraced social media in a way that we can apply and adapt our traditional media outreach practices to these new and evolving forums – so long as we keep up to speed on what that entails.

    With traditional media – PR people have to concern themselves with what the reporters, editors, and journalists want. Social media changes all that – Now we must consider what the individual reader wants, and the power that the individual reader has to propagate that message or conversely – to damage a brands reputation…

    Stay tuned for my own parallel post.

    Lauren – Great Post, As Always – You Have A Knack For Posting Content That Incites Conversation and Discussion – THE Crucial Element For Successful blogging & Social Engagement


    David (Aerocles)

  10. June 1, 2009 3:01 pm

    Nice Conversation Starter, Lauren! Especially since anytime any one organization or person claims that there is a ‘formula’ to handling social media, there’s a good chance that this person is either
    * not throught this through enough
    *trying to sell you something

    The one thing I know for sure is that you need a TEAM OF PEOPLE to handle social media. As with any other team sport, you need so many different players, handling a variety of tasks (defensed, offense, the Alley-Oop, etc.) and communicating TOGETHER.

    Oh, yeah – you can do it with just one communications discipline taking it all on. But, you’ll get limited results – kinda like hitting a double instead of a home run in baseball.

  11. stuartcfoster7 permalink
    June 1, 2009 3:52 pm

    This is why I grapple constantly with deciding on whether or not brands should rely on in-house employees or contract outside brand managers. Sometimes the brand manager will know far more then anyone at the company about their unique positioning.

    Conversationalist+Strategist, I like that designation for an SM person a lot Lauren. Mainly, because you need to be fluent in both in order to be successful.

  12. June 1, 2009 4:46 pm

    Great convo going on here. Good input by all.

    I tend to agree with Narciso–it needs to be a team approach. Here’s the real twist for PR pros: They need to act more in the coach role and less in the “command and control” role. That’s a big shift, but a necessary one in today’s market.

    I also agree with Jason that PR folks need to be accountable to lead these social strategies as they are just another tool in the toolbox. But, they need to be able to put others across the organization in a position to tell their story and further the brand through these tools. Customers and stakeholders can get to know a brand much better if they hear from different folks in different roles behind the brand. Look what Ford’s doing. Zappos. Ideally, that’s the model (IMO). It’s obviously not a one-size-fits-all approach, but I think that’s where we’re heading…


  13. June 1, 2009 4:46 pm

    David – Sure, there are a ton of PR rockstars who have truly embraced social media and continue to use it as an enhancement of communication. I view these folks as leaders of the field – but others can be leaders in other ways as well.

    Many PR professionals do not use social media, as they are afraid it will replace PR. Those are the folks that should not be heading up the SM for the brand – but that doesn’t mean they aren’t a good professional. They just aren’t a good fit for that specific task.

    You were right about the brand – and a good PR person would know all of that. Sometimes, though, circumstances limit what they may or may not know – as well as personal work challenges and ethics.

    Great comments – thanks for reading.

  14. Adrienne Bailey permalink
    June 1, 2009 5:27 pm

    This is very intense discussion. I just wanted to give my two cents. With the changes in technology and domination of social media, I feel the PR person SHOULD be the point of contact behind the SM campaign. On a daily basis, PR folks are engaging on conversation, building relationships and shedding positive light on the brands they represent. Often times, people are doing PR and not even knowing it, especially with social media.

    While the PR person might not be the most knowledgeable on the brand, they certainly know the best way to generate buzz– it’s their job. If I did not implement and execute social media into my client’s campaigns, we would miss out on a whole realm of opportunities. Learning the needs of the client and its brand, PR professionals can accurately execute a SM campaign that is personalized for the client and its target audiences. Regardless if the client does PR/Advertising/Branding in-house or uses an outside agency, I believe the PR practitioner is the best person to effectively execute a social media campaign.

    Excellent comments from everyone, I look forward to reading more!

  15. June 1, 2009 5:40 pm

    Arik – Great points about the team approach. Everyone needs to be willing to respond and be trained in the brand. Zappos is a great example of this – you can truly see the team effort.

    My question is this though – will that work for all companies? Some people have no interest whatsoever in SM – so should we force the passion they need to execute it?

    Thanks for reading – Great points as usual.

  16. June 1, 2009 5:42 pm

    Adrienne – Great points. Thanks for reading. SM is used to generate buzz – but at the same time, one must know how to interact with their audience. A good PR pro will know how to do that. I think that if the PR person does not head up the SM strategy, they should at least have some input.

    At Mensa, I do head up our SM efforts – and receive input from all departments. Sure, it might be a little different for an association, but everyone has a hand in it. As Arik pointed out, it’s a true team effort around here. I wouldn’t be able to execute a lot of stuff without asking questions of my co-workers – and knowing my brand backward and forward.

  17. June 1, 2009 8:21 pm

    Great conversations going on in the comments, Lauren! To jump in on your question:

    “Will that work for all companies? Some people have no interest whatsoever in SM โ€“ so should we force the passion they need to execute it?”

    The team approach works best when there is that underlying culture that’s already been built within the co. (a la Zappos). Its something that can’t be forced upon the employees, management, etc. There has to be the understanding and complete buy-in on the culture itself and the specific mission the company has.

    Just my perspective as far as team approach + company cultures goes ๐Ÿ™‚

  18. June 1, 2009 8:37 pm

    Great article, Lauren!

    My comment is that if a home contractor is made aware of a new tool that would add to their skills or a boxer heard of a new way to punch that would lead to knockouts and made the conscious decision to NOT use them, would that be OK?

    Social networking will never 100% replace PR, since they are not identical. However, a communications person should be able to communicate in any way possible to achieve their clients’ goals.

    You’re right though, that the BEST person in each company may not be in their PR or marketing departments. However, that shouldn’t be seen as a good thing!

    This is a whole new world we are entering as PR pros, and we have to be prepared to lead our companies into it.

  19. June 1, 2009 8:42 pm

    As a PR person, I tend to agree with most of the commenters: The right PR person can lead a brand’s social media efforts. At its core, social media is about developing relationships and sharing information. That’s the same basic premise that drives good PR as well.

    But, to play devil’s advocate, I think us PR people need to remember that social media serves many other purposes. For example, it’s a great customer service tool. @comcastcares isn’t run by the PR team, but it’s a very successful example of social media in action. Also, as Chris Brogan likes to point out, he’s not a marketer or a PR person, but clearly he “gets” social media (obviously). In general, I think PR should spearhead the social media engagement, but we need to take steps to make sure we’re not limiting our effectiveness by shutting out other departments within the company.

    Great post, Lauren!

    Heather (@prtini)

  20. June 1, 2009 8:50 pm

    Definitely an interesting point & it addresses many of the important questions to ask before launching into an emerging media campaign. To your point (There is constant chatter that social media is replacing public relations. Egad. They arenโ€™t the same and never will be.), I think of emerging media as a new tool in the PR toolkit. It is a supplementary medium & device for communicating the same messages w/ the same (and different!) audiences you’ve always worked with. Emerging media isn’t a strategy. Emerging media is part of a bigger strategy.

  21. June 1, 2009 8:52 pm

    My comment was more around taking advantage of the existing champions. To Sonny’s point, it can’t be forced, that much we know. But, you can give the folks who are passionate about your business the tools and resources to tell your story through these new channels.

    Again, it’s that coaching role that will be so crucial for PR pros down the line.


  22. June 2, 2009 1:13 am

    Hmmm, I’d like to come at this from a different angle because I had a similar debate with Jason Falls last year about PR vs. Marketing handling social media after which I came to the realization that PR and Marketing might both be the wrong place to handle social media (ultimately it depends). Shocking, I know… ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Because I come from an integrated marketing background…PR, advertising, etc. all are under marketing. So, I probably have a totally different viewpoing that most PR folks.

    You mention that the social media person should know the brand. I don’t think that’s enough. I think whoever is involved in social media needs to have deep product/service/industry expertise and understand the customer/client. And sometimes that’s just not the marketing or PR folks because they only “skim” the surface of product/service knowledge.

    Let’s take the high-tech industry as an example. The product developers, product marketers, support, sales engineers, etc. people will know a lot more than the marcom or PR folks about any given product…and because of that they’d be the best folks to engage in social media. Why? Because they can have technical conversations, answer questions on-the-fly, and they certainly aren’t message pushers.

    As well, social media requires people who don’t feel compelled to constantly “control” the message…and sorry, but I don’t think most marketing/PR folks are quite there yet (especially if they view SM as only tools or a campaign mechanism vs. an on-going 2-way communications culture).

    Now, would the people I mentioned be the ones to handle the planning/strategy/measurement? Most likely no…that’s where marketing communciations would come in. But for it to work, there has to be a corporate culture that embraces social media as a concept (not just tools) so that everyone on the social media team is aiming to reach the same goal/objectives.

    Also you mention that social media will never replace PR. ‘Egads,’ I think it was? ๐Ÿ˜‰ I think we still limit PR to media and bloggers when we really need to expand it to all constituents in an unsiloed manner utilizing social media. So, will social media replace PR? No, not as a profession. But, I think we will begin to see PR professionals be lumped into two categories: “Media/Blogger Relations” and “Public/Social Relations (including media/bloggers).” Personally, I want to fall into the second group…

    A great post Lauren! Thanks for sparking such a great conversation…

  23. June 2, 2009 1:32 am


    Sorry I’m jumping into this so late…so many great comments already that I really don’t have much to add but I will do my best.

    I really like Beth’s approach to this in the end. I like how she split up the responsibility of communicating and that of strategizing, because these are two things that are very often lumped together when they shouldn’t be. Someone can understand how social media should be embraced, how to track the conversations, where to engage, etc… but they have no idea how to actually talk/relate to the audience.

    If a …i dont know…coal mining company asked me to do social media outreach for them. I may have an idea of where to find their audience and the best routes to engage with them…but I’ll have no idea how to actually talk to them and do the engaging. This is where I would have to just advise.

    It’s one thing to know how to use the tools/understand the concepts. When it comes down to it, if you can’t relate to the audience (in an honest manner) you’re not the right person for the engagement aspect of the job.

    Hope that made a little sense…long day.

    Either way, great post Lauren. Well done! Will definitely think about this further and possibly post a response.


  24. J Keith permalink
    June 2, 2009 2:06 am

    All good stuff here. But I think that as social media continues to gain in popularity and influence, and the traditional media continues to shrink and lose a foothold in terms of being THE dominant influence, any PR pro who isn’t well versed in both will be sorry. It’s a good question, should your PR person run your SM. The truth is, most times no one else has any idea HOW to run the company’s SM efforts, so the PR guy wins by default, which has been mentioned. So it’s either a crash course, or the person has to take it slow. Personally I’ve been taking it slow, and we’ve already seen positive results with our efforts. Like everything in life, it’s a learning experience, and the learning curve is a steep one here.

    But one thing that I have learned quickly is that there is no such thing as a “social media expert” because you never know how people will react to your various efforts, and what the impact will be. Social media can take on a life of it’s own rapidly, and be it the PR guy or the marketing guy or the SM guy, you’d best have a plan going in.

    Good discussion as always.

  25. June 2, 2009 12:58 pm

    I’m still catching up on my reading, so a little late to the game here. You’ve raised an interesting point and the comments here prove that.

    I think Beth has really articulated it well– social media is so personal and predicated on having deep, meaningful and “uncontrolled” interactions with stakeholders that sometimes the PR person may not be the best fit because they don’t have the in-depth technical or product knowledge to engage with customers. Having a design engineer or product manager or some other role might be a better fit (depending on the industry/company, of course).

    But as you, Sonny and Arik all alluded to, it’s important that person have the passion and time resources to dedicate to social media. The PR and marketing team can play a large role in shaping the strategy, teaching about the tools, and developing interaction guidelines to keep things somewhat in check, but sometimes handing the reigns over to someone a little more specialized in the field can be more effective.



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