social media

Social media has become a big part of both small and large businesses’ marketing and PR strategy in the last decade.

By Ryan Ayers

It’s not surprising—53% of the global population uses the Internet, and 42% use social media of some type. That kind of potential reach isn’t something companies can afford to pass up. As social media has gained momentum, however, it has changed the role of public relations (PR) significantly.

Companies still need PR, but it holds a different role than it did 20 years ago, before Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Now that marketing has moved more and more online, the lines between public relations and marketing have begun to run together. The definition used to be simple: marketing was concerned with advertising, while PR dealt with the press and the company’s image. Let’s take a look at why that definition is no longer cut and dry—and how social media has had an influence on modern PR.

A Brief History of PR

Modern PR is a fairly recent phenomenon. In 1871, PT Barnum used the mass media to promote his “Greatest Show on Earth.” Following his success, Ivy Lee laid the groundwork for modern PR in the early 1900s, which took off quickly after that. Modern PR was formed to facilitate transparent communication between companies and the customers they serve. The idea would be to inform the press and the public about new company information on a regular basis. This would not only help the public remain informed about a company’s activities, it would facilitate trust and accountability, ultimately shaping and maintaining a company’s image.

The PR Industry Today

Although it might seem like there’s a decreased need for PR now that we have the public and open forum of the Internet to seek information, there’s actually a need for more PR than ever. In one study, 72% of participants believed CEOs are less trustworthy than employees of a company. That kind of distrust is what PR is designed to fight, and we need it now more than ever, with anyone and everyone able to voice their opinions online.

PR’s role is still to maintain a company’s image, but it often needs to do that through social media channels and other digital marketing platforms. PR professionals write press releases, speak to the press/arrange speaking engagements, pitch stories, and build relationships that help to foster a positive corporate image. Although these duties are a type of content creation, they’re very different than those used in social media marketing and other types of digital marketing.

Social Media’s Impact on PR

So how has social media changed the way PR professionals work? Immensely. Social media is a very informal mode of communication, and has become a “voice” of the brand. That can be both good and bad for PR. Tone-deaf content or content that doesn’t resonate with a brand’s audience can be harmful for PR. Evidence of this is especially vivid in the financial industry, where 70% of wealthy investors have changed their relationship with financial firms over something on social media—or even moved their investments. Social media can help a company’s PR strategy—but it can also have a negative impact. There are also ethical concerns with social media in PR, particularly in regulated industries. Using the financial industry as an example again, the IRS has been known to use social media data and phone tracking to find non-compliance among taxpayers.

Fading Lines

The biggest change social media has made to PR is through blurring the lines of marketing, PR, and even customer service. These channels are used to promote products and services, advertise, make company announcements, engage with customers, and address customer comments. This can be positive for PR if companies are responsive and quick to help customers who are feeling disappointed or upset. It also provides the opportunity to turn PR disasters into wins.

What’s Coming Next?

While it’s always hard to predict what’s next in PR and social media, it’s clear that maintaining a positive public image should remain top priority for companies around the globe. The global PR industry, which had begun to lag, started to bounce back in 2016, growing to $15 billion. That growth will spur more jobs and help companies both create and maintain their image—and counteract the inevitable negative PR that spreads across the internet via social media. Creating a positive online image in the Information Age isn’t easy—but modern PR professionals are willing and able to meet the challenge.

Ryan Ayers has consulted a number of Fortune 500 companies within multiple industries including information technology and big data. After earning his MBA in 2010, Ayers also began working with start-up companies and aspiring entrepreneurs, with a keen focus on data collection and analysis. You can find more from Ryan on Twitter at @TheBizTechGuru.

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