Can PR Really Claim to Own Social Media?

This week I attended New Media Knowledge’s excellent debate on What Happens to TV? The crowd contained professionals from the whole spectrum of digital media: PRs, advertisers, recruiters, content makers, hosting providers, journalists, you name it. One of the themes that came out – particularly from the advertisers among the crowd – was ‘who owns social media?’

The answer, as I understood it, is that PR believes it owns social media within organisations. Is this justified or is the PR team looking for a raison d’etre to fill the void presented by a fast-disappearing print media?

Coincidentally, research group Forrester last month revealed its findings of a survey into how companies are structuring internally to deal with social media. It recommends a cross-functional team of marketing, PR, customer service and product departments – anything with a ‘customer touchpoint’. This is an interesting concept – with so many different interests to pursue could a cross-section like this work to good effect?

I’d really welcome some thoughts from PR people here as we’re in danger of experiencing our own ‘digital divide’ within our industry. There are the ‘old schoolers’ on one side, which provide the important traditional counsel and press relations but have little grasp of ‘the new marketing’, as Seth Godin calls it. On the other side you have the people that understand new media, many of whom may not have earned their spurs in the PR trade so can understand how to make a viral or how to build a social network, but may not understand brands or how to convince them to make the migration. This is because senior PR people are often the only ones that their clients – often old schoolers themselves – listen to. How will they respond to a young exec being wheeled out to tell them, with all their decades of marketing experience behind them, about how they should be marketing their company?

It’s a dilemma and that’s why I think you need a solid mix of the two – traditional PR and digital – to have a genuine impact. I’ve been there and I know that within PR agencies there are often only a few people that ‘get’ new and social media. Some may claim to have all their staff on Twitter, but what’s the good of that if they only log on once a week to promote a client press release (often to the same follow crowd) and then disappear again?

Can PR truly make a claim to own social media? I’m not sure it can in isolation. Digital agencies present a real threat as firms increasingly look to the Web for answers, but PR still has a massive contribution to make over brand management and information creation and distribution. I concur with Forrester’s assessment of the cross-functional internal system for social media and agree with its conclusion:

“The biggest challenge brands often have to overcome isn’t technology but managing cultural change within the enterprise. With an ever-increasing number of brands engaging in social media marketing in recent years, companies need to not only be properly budgeted but also well organised.”

What do you think?


  1. The simple fact is that limited to anything with a customer touchpoint misses the whole point.

    Trying to seperate customers from the corporate consituency misses the point of social media and all the rest of modern IP interactions.

    Dominoes had much more than 'customers' to interact with when 'social media' showed its wayward employees....

    The Obama campaign reached out to far more constituents than voters....

    ... and so on.

  2. hence the value of the PR team to respond to such events. I guess with social media, as with PR, you have 'pre-emptive' social media (outreach) and 'responsive' social media (customer relationship management, for want of a better description).

  3. I don’t think it’s a question of who owns it. It’s about organisations and businesses being aware of social media, what’s happening online, what’s being said about the brand and using the appropriate channels in the best way.

    Social media can be used to manage reputation, dispel myths, announce news and position company spokespeople as industry experts and opinion leaders by contributing to industry debates – all of which traditionally fall under PR. But it can also be used to answer customer queries and push sales promotions – responsibilities of the marketing and customer service departments.

    So it’s up to these teams to work together and maximise the opportunities that social media presents to communicate with and manage relationships with those people interested in what your organisation has to say.

    In terms of PR skills – teams (whether in-house or agency) need a blend of what you term ‘old-school’ traditional and new media PR skills.

    PR managers, who are ultimately responsible for managing the reputation of organisations, have to have a good grasp of both online and offline media to advise clients / senior decision makers of the best way to manage messages to and communications with influential audiences.

    You can’t really have one without the other anymore – online and offline go hand in hand. They cross-fertilise and feed off each other. But it’s a tall order to ask any one person in the team to be an expert in both areas. So any PR team – whether in-house or agency, needs to have breadth of skills amongst the team, or seek external advice, to ensure they are managing, responding to and using both online, social and traditional media to the greatest effect.