Social media returns PR to its roots

Having recently participated in the US Council on Competitiveness' Innovation Summit and looking forward to chairing the fall PRSA International Conference, whose theme this year is "Innovation, Collaboration, Influence," innovation is top of mind for me.

Having recently participated in the US Council on Competitiveness' Innovation Summit and looking forward to chairing the fall PRSA International Conference, whose theme this year is "Innovation, Collaboration, Influence," innovation is top of mind for me.

Thirty years in tech PR have also afforded me fantastic opportunities to work with world-class innovators such as Tim Berners-Lee, Ray Ozzie, Nicholas Negroponte, Steve Jobs, and Steve Case, to name a few.

I've always been a huge proponent of innovation within PR. In the '90s, I advocated and invested in the application of technology to PR in order to improve global account management. I'm passionate about continuous improvement, finding new ways to engage with the media, and delivering better-quality thinking and results to clients. I believe PR has to innovate in order to remain relevant to corporate marketers and CEOs.
The media's transformation from traditional print and broadcast to online channels, as well as social media's rise, offers PR a new set of opportunities to innovate. And we must move quickly or advertising will hijack the opportunity, just as it did a decade ago when the Internet first took off.

I see two areas ripe for innovation - constituency engagement and measurement. Not surprising, as those two areas constitute the crux of what PR pros do on a daily basis.

Social media, which is the democratization of publishing, is turning constituency management inside- out. Gone are the days when corporations could spend weeks obsessively crafting press releases and controlling their dissemination to the public. The blogosphere, e-communities, and social networks see right through the marketing-speak, tap into their own sources, and instantly publish their unsanitized views to a global audience.

Many of us have complained for years about press releases. And yet, with a chance to be liberated from banality, more than a few of us suffer from stage fright. Relax. Social media is about straight-talking and engagement. It's actually what PR was supposed to be - influence through content and dialogue.

Of course, with something new - like social media - errors get made. Whole Foods CEO John Mackey recently found that out. But we'll learn from our collective mistakes. They shouldn't stop us from continuing to innovate. There are some rules of social-media engagement emerging - transparency, authenticity, sincerity, and plain-speaking are important guidelines.

Social media also provides new opportunities for innovation in measurement. Column inches and ad equivalencies were always silly ways to measure PR value. With social media, we can now measure levels of engagement. How many visitors went to a Web site because of a PR campaign? How many listened to/downloaded a podcast or took part in a webcast? How many bloggers responded to our outreach? What did they have to say?

The Web is inherently measurable. PR should figure out ways to capitalize on that. The tools are currently primitive, but will improve over time.

I'm bullish about PR's future. Social media takes us back to our roots as relationship builders and communicators. I urge everyone to take the social-media plunge and think about new ways to strengthen constituency relations and measurement. Let's not allow Madison Avenue to hijack Web 2.0 with subservient chickens. Social media is about self-expression and sharing information and opinions. Isn't that the essence of PR?

Larry Weber is chairman of W2 Group and author of Marketing to the Social Web: How Digital Customer Communities Build Your Business.

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