NEWS ANALYSIS: Linking up to the ultimate network

Social networking sites are being used by a growing number of PROs to stay in touch with clients, journalists or prospective staff. Hannah Marriott takes a look at some of the best sites and why they are so popular.

Once seen as the domain of quirky ­exhibitionists or video-sharing teen­agers, social networking sites have hit the mainstream with a bang.

Some sites, such as LinkedIn, are clearly earmarked as tools for professional networking. Others, including MySpace and Facebook, tend to blur the boundaries between personal and professional by putting old school flames, partying buddies, clients and journalists in the same virtual ‘space’.

MySpace is still the best known social networking site. Its emphasis on music and youth culture, with brightly decorated profiles and at times risqué content, can sit awkwardly beside corporate copy, but some PR agencies believe it is a good place to have a presence.

Face founding partner Andrew Needham has built a profile for his agency on MySpace. He says: ‘You can ‘skin’ your page so that it is clearly a corporate site, with branding, which makes your motivation for being there clear.’

Social groups
But many in the PR community cite Facebook as the best place for PROs to network, as its structure makes it more amenable to the business world.

Unlike some sites, Facebook’s raison d’etre is for users to stay in touch with people they know, or have known in the past. So – where it is common on MySpace for members to use nicknames or first names only – Facebook users tend to have their full names on display, so profiles are easily located.

Much of the networking takes place through ‘groups’ set up by users. They range from the silly (such as ‘I hate Katie from The Apprentice’) to the professional. PR-related groups include the PR and Communications Network, which has 742 members, the 265-strong public affairs network PubAffairs, and Weber Shandwick’s staff network, which has 364 members.


Hooper (l): ‘clients like seeing who we are’ / Needham (r): agency profile on MySpace

Alex Pearmain and Alain Desmier – the duo behind the PR and Communications Network – are both graduate trainees at Fishburn Hedges who started using Facebook at university. Their group is primarily aimed at young PROs working in London. ‘It gives you an opportunity to ­socialise with graduates and to talk to those who face similar issues and problems,’ says Pearmain. The group has attracted a lot of interest from students wanting to get into PR.

Another PRO who uses Facebook, for both personal and professional purposes, is Frank PR founder Andrew Bloch. ‘It allows you to show your personality and develop relationships with the media and with clients in a different, more relaxed state of mind,’ says Bloch.

‘It’s not intrusive – you don’t have to reply until you are ready to, but it’s more personal than email,’ he adds. Bloch also finds the site is a ‘good way to bond with clients – it says a lot about you if you are open and transparent’.

One Frank client – Charlie Sowden, marketing and PR manager at fashion brand Oliver Sweeney – says Facebook adds a personal touch to her professional relationships. ‘There are pictures of me with my son on Facebook – it is nice that the agency now has a reason to talk to me about him,’ she says.

Molly Hooper – director of Weber Shandwick’s lifestyle boutique, Slam – agrees that Facebook helps forge bonds with clients. ‘Most of our clients like seeing what we are like – our profile pages give them a 360-degree feeling of who we are as people,’ she says.

However, users would be advised to exercise some common sense. Facebook’s default setting sends out a ‘news feed’ that alerts users’ friends when they add new friends or post a picture.

Facebook also encourages users to regularly update their ‘status’ – telling friends how they are feeling at that time.

Comments can cause blushes if your Facebook friends are colleagues or clients. One Frank staffer joked he was ‘avoiding my boss so I don’t have to work’ – which was sent to his boss. ‘Not a sensible thing to write,’ says Bloch.

To avoid such pitfalls, Facebook ­users should be mindful of the information they put online. ‘There’s nothing on my page that I wouldn’t want clients and journalists to see,’ says Hooper.

Potential business users should familiarise themselves with the site’s privacy settings that allow only certain people access to parts of their profile.

For PROs, an important consideration is whether approaching a journalist or client via such a site is inappropriate. Times Online executive editor Parminder Bahra says: ‘Some may find it a strange at first, but there will probably be a point where this kind of communication becomes an everyday thing.’

Tips for using Facebook...

01. Wait until you have a clear idea of the kind of people you will be making friends with before you fully form your profile, upload photos or make personal remarks.

02. Get to know the site and its privacy settings early on, ensuring you are happy with the access that certain groups of people have to features such as pictures.

03. Use the site’s tools to control the information sent to your friends through the news feed. You may not want clients and journalists to be informed every time you make a comment or change your relationship status, for example.

 

Watch Frank PR’s Andrew Bloch talk about online networks in this week's podcast
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