Back in 1998, I was regularly taking part in discussions on Yahoo! Finance message boards for stocks I was trading online. I was working in the finance department at a hospital system. I'd spent the better part of the past five years using the Web on my newfound high-speed Internet connection at school, a nice upgrade from the dial-up connection I had at home.
While I wouldn't realize it until much later, those boards were the first place that I saw PR have a role in social media.
It was there I was “introduced” to David Politis, founder of Utah-based Politis Communications, who represented audiohighway.com. At the time, I was one of a handful of the more active members of that message board and had a legitimate interest in the company, not just as an investment. Politis and his team were solidly hands-off with posting on the board itself – that whole Reg FD and all – but made themselves available when it came to events, Q&As, etc. Clearly, they recognized that having those conversations would probably turn into dialogues led by those individual investors on the message boards, getting the company's message out there.
Don't get me wrong, it's not as if they turned people into shills with no independent thought. What they did do, however, is lay the groundwork for what a lot of us in the space were doing for almost any company we were working for in 2004 and beyond. I've spoken with David a number of times since then, both personally and professionally, and am excited to see that we're now fighting the same good fight when it comes to today's strategies.
The reason I bring this up is twofold.
First, to assure a lot of you who've been seeing the articles (such as this great one by former BusinessWeek journalist Stephen Baker) discussing the explosion of social media “experts” that there are indeed PR pros out there that have actually thought through how certain social media executions actually fit into your business, and are not just out to take your money, throw some ideas on your desk, and run.
Secondly, whether figuring out a Facebook strategy to engage customers, looking into how to utilize Twitter as a customer service tool, or determining who your key constituents are, it's all about knowing your audience and finding the right way to work with them. Just because you party with influencers or have 10,000 Twitter followers doesn't necessarily make you a good PR consultant, though it might mean you're good at marketing yourself. There's a difference.
Upon moving to the Pacific Northwest this fall, I lost elite status on the popular airline in this region, Alaska Airlines, because of an industry alliance change. On a lark, I threw out a comment on Twitter about it, and within 7 minutes someone from the airline offered to match my status if I could provide a statement from the other airline. That afternoon, after sending it over, I received back the privileges that I'd enjoyed previously. I've since taken four trips in less than two months, all on that airline, have told the story dozens of times, and am now sharing it here. The platform might have changed, but the tactics – and results – are certainly similar, 11 years later.
As what we've called “traditional” media merges with “new” media into one big channel that has arms and legs into broadcast, print, mobile, and so forth, the focus on relationship building becomes even more critical, though those relationships may look and feel different than they did five years ago.
Tom Biro is a VP at Allison & Partners, and is based in Seattle. His column will focus on how digital media affects and shifts PR. He can be reached at email@example.com.