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Does PR equal an automatic Social Media Pass?

August 13, 2009

Ever since I posted about it a few months ago and my good friend David posted about it yesterday, I’ve been thinking: I really don’t know if PR agencies should be executing social media for their clients.

Ok, before you get in a tizzy, hear me out. Many PR professionals are rockstars at social media. They know what they are talking about. They are intelligent and bring great ideas to the table. I think PR agencies can help with strategy, types of platforms, messaging and HOW the brand should execute it. Should they be on the ones to execute it?

I really don’t know. Is there a good example? Comcast, Zappos, Southwest Air – all run internally.

In my opinion, that might be stepping over the line. It’s almost like you, as the agency on record, are the spokesperson for the brand. That should be an internal thing. You can help them with marketing strategy, alignment, what to say – that is what we do as PR professionals.  But they should be the ones saying it – not the person who is getting paid by them to say it.

When I write a press release, I always try to quote a member, or if media asks for an interview, I don’t want them talking to me. I try to volunteer a member first. Why? Because they are the brand. I represent it. I’m quoted all the time as the spokesperson, and on the corporate side, I know the brand backward and forward.

They have the 100 percent genuine voice and understand the brand like the back of their hand.

PR agencies are valuable in so many ways to a client. But is it a type of ghostwriting if the agency on record is tweeting for their brand? I realize that PR is in the background a lot – and that could be the case here – but is it how it should happen?

So what do you think?

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38 Comments leave one →
  1. August 13, 2009 8:06 am

    Girl, you always have to tackle the sticky subjects! I love it!

    I do think it is a form of ghostwriting if agent or agency takes over blogging. We are guides in this wonderful world of social media and can help forge tools with strategy. If we preach authenticity, we better practice it.

  2. August 13, 2009 8:13 am

    Agreed. I think agencies are highly valuable to their clients, and within the job function, bringing information, ideas, helping with messaging, etc. – that is what they are there for. That’s my thing – is it really authentic (like so many preach) if we aren’t letting the brand near a computer?

  3. Erik permalink
    August 13, 2009 8:20 am

    I have to agree with you. I think PR agencies MUST advise and make recommendations more on a strategic level, but shouldn’t be the ones interacting with the public as the company… it only creates a false presence and at the end can make more harm than help.

  4. August 13, 2009 8:22 am

    Disagree With Me Will You…You Realize of course, This Means War!

    Ok, Only Kidding. I do think that the brand’s internal communications team should be at the forefront of the operation. My post was meant to point out that PR Pros understand the territory and should be the ones guiding and overseeing the initiative. I do advocate the interaction between brand and consumer – without the buffers of marketers or even PR people. And I do agree that Marketers, Advertisers, Cust Service Reps, and Internal Brand Members all have a place in a comprehensive social media plan. However, the penultimate goal being establishing a relationship with the public (and only after that driving traffic, sales, raising awareness, branding…etc) – that’s the forte of PR – and why we should be leading the charge – not that we should be the only ones involved, by any means.

    • August 13, 2009 8:24 am

      Oh D, I know. 🙂 I was so riled up last night when people kept beating me down because I didn’t think that being in PR meant you automatically got to execute SM. Your post just made me think further – and your writing has some amazing points which you reiterated here. Kudos, my friend!

    • SethOrNone permalink
      August 13, 2009 8:33 am

      Aerocles is right… PR agencies are perfect for leading the charge, but transparency and genuine-ness (new word created by Lauren last night) demands honest involvement by the client.

  5. rebeccadenison permalink
    August 13, 2009 8:26 am

    I completely agree with this. When you first Tweeted about this, I thought you were implying that large corporations were using other internal departments for SM, and that was concerning to me. I didn’t understand who else might be better suited (is there, though?) but this helps me understand what you meant.

    Who do you recommend handles SM internally if a PR agency is used? Those corporations with internal PR should definitely utilize PR departments for SM, but what if a corporation doesn’t have any PR professionals on staff? Or is that unheard of?

    Also, I would add that the agency should go so far as to train whoever will be handling SM internally. As you said, a lot of PR folks are absolute rockstars, and who better to learn from? I think a good amount of guidance would be a great thing for internal SM users, but without crossing the line. A PR agency is not the company or the brand, they have their own brand to represent. However, we all know how disastrous social media can be if approached with the wrong mindset, and I think there would be tremendous value in a PR agency continuing to offer guidance on SM use throughout execution.

    I hope that all makes sense!

    • August 13, 2009 8:27 am

      Rebecca – PERFECT. That’s exactly what I was trying to get at and open up the convo with – the PR people should absolutely be at the table. What have we done in the past? Trained on messaging, helped with strategy, etc. We are here as counsel to the client – and if you’re on the corporate side, then you get a taste of both.

      Thank you for such an insightful comment!

  6. Nick permalink
    August 13, 2009 8:44 am

    The person who should handle the companies social media is a person or firm who knows what they are doing. Yes it is their “true” voice but that doesn’t really matter so much. It is about results, not BFFs.

    • August 13, 2009 8:46 am

      Nick – I’m not sure if I can agree. Social media to me is about engagement, not just about results. How can you measure results if you aren’t using the platform to hear what people say? If you’re just promoting, it won’t work.

  7. August 13, 2009 8:45 am

    100% agree.

    There is definitely a role for agencies to play in social media with clients, but it should be on the strategic side, not execution.

    Transparency is key to social media and that becomes difficult when an agency is participating on behalf of a client. Do you identify yourself as an agency rep? Does that hurt the client’s credibility in the space? (I think so)

    • August 13, 2009 8:49 am

      Kelly – I agree. I think it can hurt credibility if it’s the agency that is doing the execution. It kinda makes me feel like ” Yeah, we totally rock at SM, but we make someone else do it…. that doesn’t even work inside the company.”

  8. @mikeschaffer permalink
    August 13, 2009 8:48 am

    Social Media execution is a service PR agencies should offer, knowing we aren’t the BEST person to man the controls for the entire campaign.

    Perfect example: I was talking to a Mixed Martial Arts (not UFC) client yesterday about expanding their fairly robust online presence. The client said that he hired someone to take over website and social media operations from him full-time, but that our help in getting him started and advising him would be very important. So we will be a PART of the campaign, but have their internal operator manage the process.

    From my experience, many clients WANT to do SM, but don’t know how. Maybe then, our role as PR agencies is to teach them and guide them and keep them at the front of the pack…

    • August 13, 2009 8:55 am

      Agreed. If a brand wants to do SM, the PR person or SM strategist should be able to guide them and help them, especially if they have no idea where to start. If they do it blindly, they risk ruining the brand.

  9. August 13, 2009 8:59 am

    Having worked extensively in both corporate PR and agency PR, I can say with some fairly strong conviction that corporate PR professionals know their business (in-and-out as you like to say LAF!) far better than anyone in an agency ever could. But that isn’t a bad thing.

    From the corporate perspective, you live and breathe your company. As a PR practitioner, you are the public face and voice of your company, so you better damn well know what you are talking about and doing when it comes to social media because at the end of the day, even if you aren’t running your own SM strategies, the public is going to look to you if something goes wrong or if an explanation for some social media strategy is needed.

    From the agency perspective, I have said this many times to anyone who will listen to me (sometimes that’s not a whole lot of people!), but my view is that more of our job is to provide strategic counsel, oversight and strategy advice in regards to both traditional PR efforts and social media. Therefore, like David points out, it is much more of the agency’s role to develop a plan for SM that will help to build brand awareness and identity, increase public exposure, help the brand reach out to its key influencers and consumers, and ultimately, drive traffic and sales back to the company’s Web site. An agency needs to take more of the long-term outlook for the brand and it’s social media efforts, as that is very much what we are hired to do. While the corporate PR person, or whomever within the company that is managing the day-to-day functions of the social media efforts, should be focused more on the actual integration and management of the SM efforts.

    Of course, that isn’t to say that corporate PR people should not have a long-term outlook and approach to their SM efforts and initiatives, but like I said, because they know the company better than anyone ever will, they can focus more heavily on implementation of social media, while the agency can help the company and brand focus on development and strategy.

    Keith Trivitt
    @KeithTrivitt

    • August 13, 2009 10:26 am

      Keith, I love your points. You expanded on my thoughts and said exactly why. I have nothing else to add – this is great. Thanks!

  10. Dan Fuoco permalink
    August 13, 2009 9:57 am

    Tough question. I do beleive it depends on the situation, but if you’re looking for an overall answer, it is: AGREE.

    Even though we as PR pros do create publicity for our clients, for the most part, we don’t know the organization well enough to speak on it. We may know about a certain event that we’re publicizing but not necessarily the company’s financial situation or the allegation on the VP of HR having an affair…

    We should train the Communication department on SM and have them relate THEIR company’s message.

    Isn’t SM about being transparent? How is a rep from a PR firm talking FOR a client transparent?

    • August 13, 2009 10:27 am

      Dan – Exactly. We can’t practice what we preach about transparency if we don’t do it. We aren’t the brand, even if we are hired to do their PR. It’s something we have to remember during SM strategy sessions.

  11. August 13, 2009 10:06 am

    You smarty with all your smart readers. 🙂 I love it around here!

    I have to agree with you. Providing guidance for an organization’s social media initiatives is completely reasonable to me, but a brand needs to represent itself in its entirety, without false pretenses or behind the wall of its PR agency or team. As involved as you PRos are in the inner workings of your company or of a client’s, there’s so much more to the story that other people will be better able to represent.

    I’m all for the guidance, but that’s where the line should be drawn.

    • August 13, 2009 10:28 am

      Thanks, T! I’m glad you enjoy it!

      And you’re right about the line being drawn at guidance.

  12. Julie Turner permalink
    August 13, 2009 10:15 am

    I think when it comes to social, we can definitely help those clients who are just wading in for the first time. Shorten the learning curve, help identify useful content, etc. But as far as ghostwriting, not a good idea with the whole transparency thing. When you show up for a date, do you send your brother or sister in your place??

    • August 13, 2009 1:24 pm

      Julie – I loved your analogy. I actually did send my sister in my place once on a date. It’s false representation – and you make a great point.

  13. ColinP permalink
    August 13, 2009 10:34 am

    there are so many different ways to go with this…i love it!

    i think it’s important not to make generalizations about who should or shouldn’t execute SM. there are so many different roles that SM can play for a company such as networking, company or brand awareness, product promotion, customer service, etc., and each of those could be attributed to a different aspect of marketing. another varibale could also be whether you’re representing a consumer or b2b client.

    i think we can all agree that PR people should almost always at least be at the table, or have the chance to be, depening on the messaging purposes.

    something else to think about…if you are a PR agency representing a client that wants to begin engaging in SM, how is your messaging and your role really going to be any different from your traditional PR methods? the only thing different should be the delivery method. if you find yourself in a situation where this isn’t the case, then maybe PR doesn’t need to be involved and maybe that is a possible means of deciding when PR should or shouldn’t be involved in SM in the future…

    as a PR major in school most of the SM curriculum i was exposed to was for with a PR twist…it’s important to understand that SM can and often will play a much larger role that just PR

    • August 13, 2009 2:32 pm

      Collin – I really like your point about generalizations. I think we fall into this because it’s easier. Rather than define the job by branding, we define it by the person. Not true. It needs to be the person who knows how to engage and to what level, plus understands the messaging.

  14. August 13, 2009 11:48 am

    I posted something similar to this on David’s blog: I don’t think SM has to all always be done by an external PR agency. To your point, while I agree SM needs internal management, I do not think it’s the SOLE domain of the in-house communications department either.

    To play devil’s advocate, regarding transparency and who is tweeting: were I a shareholder or employee of huge company I’d be a little concerned if my execs spent more time blogging and tweeting rather than, you know, running the company. And as someone in PR, I get that he or she are not doing all the listening, researching, linking, tagging, and writing on their own; they have help, professional help.

    IF it is not ghost writing when the internal director of corporate communications posts the blog or a tweet, the why is it when that person happens to work outside the building?

    What matters is the relationship between the Company and the PR Pro (be that an internal MarComm manager or firm AE). An outside contractor can be just as involved with the development of the brand if they have a strong relationship to the company and its leaders. Ideally everyone works together to plan, execute and achieve SM objectives. FWIW.

    • August 13, 2009 2:32 pm

      I think it’s different with external v. internal for one reason only: as external, you just don’t know everything that’s going on. You can’t claim to know your brand inside out when that happens. It’s a thin line of ghost writing.

  15. Julie Morgan permalink
    August 13, 2009 1:22 pm

    Great topic, as always!

    I think ultimately social media ends up being a mixed bag – just like all publicity tasks – in that both internal PR teams and external agencies end up being responsible for the results, however I’m in 100% agreement that the execution should fall to the company itself.

    PRWeek actually just posted an interesting article discussing the results from the 2009 Digital Readiness Report from iPressroom, Korn/Ferry International and PRSA, which found that social media currently falls mostly to PR. The full report can be found here: http://www.prweekus.com/Report-Social-media-falls-mostly-to-PR/article/141473/?DCMP=EMC-PRUS_Technology (requires free PR Week memebership), but I think this shows that you’re on top of the current PR and marketing trends and controversies – as usual.

    Keep up the great work!
    @JulieMorgan

    • August 13, 2009 2:34 pm

      Thanks, Julie!

      What I found interesting about that study though: It was conducted by PRSA, and quoted many PR professionals. Where were the non-PR people? I think that SM does mostly fall to PR, since it’s an enhancement of communication. Who’s at the forefront of that? PR people.

      Great points – thanks for reading.

  16. August 13, 2009 5:07 pm

    Let me play devil’s advocate (this isn’t necessarily my true feeling regarding this subject) and ask why can’t an agency handle the entire SM relationship? As long as the agency is transparent, I don’t see an issue with it. Are you setting your client up for failure if you try to educate them and then pass it over to them? You can only talk and educate so much, a lot has to do with actual knowledge. Is social media the space to allow clients to learn from mistakes?

    Look at CEO blogs and newsletters. I would say a majority of the content is written by a communications person, not the actual CEO. The ideas may come from the CEO, the CEO may have some input, but it’s written by a communications pro and signed off on by the CEO. Is that wrong?

    @kmskala

    • ColinP permalink
      August 13, 2009 5:32 pm

      that’s exactly where i was trying to go with my “how is this any different than traditional PR methods” thought.

      i’ll continue playing devil’s advocate…in reality unless the messgaing on SM is not consistently PR related there’s no reason the PR person can’t operate SM. how is the PR person being the one behind SM any different than the PR person being the one behind messaging and delivery of traditional PR? i understand you always want someone from corporate to be the spokesperson and not the PR person, but i’ll bet the PR person is almost always providing the spokesperson with some form of guidance (key message points, practicing interview questions, preparing quotes for releases, etc.) i guess at that point it all comes down to a matter of ethics.

      • August 14, 2009 7:07 am

        I think the difference between blogs/newsletters v. SM platforms like Twitter is the engagement.

        On Twitter, you engage A LOT. The value of authenticity is in your face much more.

  17. Randy Smoot permalink
    August 14, 2009 2:51 am

    One point to consider that has been over looked here so far is scale. A company like Frito-Lay may seek the outside help of an agency for strategy, and yes… then the execution should or could occur internally. But now what about a smaller local retailer or restaurant that could arguable benefit greater pound for pound from SM than a larger brand but doesn’t have the knowledge, man-power or mere hours in the day to effectively run a SM plan for themselves and still run their business? I go back earlier to Aerocles saying “that’s the forte of PR – and why we should be leading the charge”, so… why not? In this case, it can be a wise business decision to not just participate, but to participate effectively in SM by hiring an agency to do it for you and do it well. We call plumbers, painters, doctors and attorneys for their trade so why not retain an agency for SM?

    Regarding the transparency concern– Any agency or individual entrusted by the client to speak on their behalf is a partner with them and has common goals. For it to work (regardless of it being in-house or external) you must be skilled, engaging, wooing, a great listener and know the brand inside & out. So whether that person(s) is the PR rep or the SM in-house manager running the show isn’t the only difference between the two where they park each morning and who signs their checks? I believe it can be done and done right for any client with a vested agency partner who’s able to speak to the brand and communicate better than they can on the SM networks. Just because your business card looks different doesn’t mean you’re not part of the team and can’t represent the brand without a transparency stigma. If the agency is empowered to do this SM job (as it is a job for the agency or the brand) and the brand excels via the SM results this approach shouldn’t be tainted for a “transparency rule”.

    • August 14, 2009 7:06 am

      Can that small company or biz really afford it though? I work for a large association with a small staff – and I run the SM campaign. Yes, it takes a lot of work. There are some days when I can’t twitter. I have a lot on my plate, but there is no way we could hire an outside source.

      The difference to me is how much knowledge they have of the company.

  18. August 14, 2009 6:57 am

    Lauren – tough topic. Good post and really good comments from folks above. If I could offer another agency person’s perspective on the debate. I definitely feel, as you do, that agencies can play a role in the monitoring, strategy development, messaging and measurement of a social media effort. Here’s the thing though…companies were already overwhelmed by the prospects of social media before, but when you show them how much work it takes to get started and maintain the presence the “freak out” factor goes MUCH higher. In this environment, communications departments are running on fumes. There isn’t enough resources to get all of the work done that needs to be done. So, if we were to monitor, develop strategies and messages for social media, chances are good that nothing would be executed. Maybe the middle ground is an agency executing until the company feels comfortable taking it over full-time? Yes, I know that could be a slippery slope because they may get comfortable with that setup and never take over, but if our hope is that more companies get engaged in this space we may need to live with agencies doing the executing. And no, if the company doesn’t have the resources to execute SM that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be here, which is what some of the “purists” think.

    • August 14, 2009 7:05 am

      I think that in that case, Chuck – they shouldn’t do social media. There are times when PR pros just have to say “Look, you don’t have the time to do it.” My suggestion for them would be to bring in a social media strategist to work internally.

      Not saying that they are more qualified, but I feel that my wall against it is always external v. internal. It’s not something I really got when I worked in agency, but being on the other side, I see why clients act the way they do with their external PR.

      This also might be why so much of the time, the first thing cut is agency.

      • August 14, 2009 7:21 am

        Sure, our rec would always be that they take the execution portion of the process in house. If they couldn’t leverage existing resources (people), than they should go out and find someone who can execute it. This, of course, is the real world though with finite communications budgets that are made even tighter by an economy in the dumps. Few are paying agencies to do more than the bare minimum right now, and even fewer are interested in taking on additional resources (namely people).

        If we’re fine with companies sitting on the sidelines until they can dedicate additional resources to SM, than that’s cool. I just don’t want to hear the purists cry about brands not engaging or paying attention to the space.

  19. August 14, 2009 7:22 am

    You know they will. 🙂

    I think it goes back to the argument of if the company is ready or not.

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