On a weekly basis now, I find myself presenting on the topic of social media to rooms of developers, content creators and business owners. Almost inevitably, the discussion descends into an 'us versus them' debate that has me defending the role of PR in a social media setting.
Given the battles PR has fought over the past decade against advertisers, brand or management consultants - all apparently the death knell for our industry - this is nothing new. Now, hot on the tail of the citizen journalist is our latest threat - the citizen marketer. Online communities continue to drive the theory that 'we' is smarter than 'me'. But I am as unconvinced now as I have been in the past that the PR industry is on its knees. Social media allow us the opportunity to listen and learn more than ever before. PR is by its nature a nimble, responsive and collaborative tool that adapts to cultural changes and makes them work for business.
Hype surrounding the brave new digital world, and the temptation to succumb to virtual empire building, can overwhelm or blind businesses. The various online blunders perpetrated in the past 12 months will continue to be the 'how not to do it' case studies of the future. However, like any explorer or early adopter, we simply need to remember what we do best, assess the risks and tread carefully. Yes, there is untold bounty to be captured, but preparation and a healthy respect for the unknown must steer our course. We do not see ourselves in opposition to the natives of this new territory - the citizen marketers - but in the early stages of a partnership that will benefit the community. Public relations practitioners face shipwreck if they aim for the digital shores having left their vital PR tools of cultural and commercial navigation behind.
As one of the first PR companies to specialise in the internet, Midnight Communications has grown up with online media as a key component of any campaign. However, the days of online PR being the equivalent of sticking up a virtual poster, infiltrating gaming user forums or posting your company brochure online are long gone. Today's business success depends on understanding not just how to harness the technology creatively and strategically, but also how the culture of communications and media consumption is changing society and relationships between commercial organisations and the public.
So, where does this leave the humble PRO? As usual, we are caught between the opposing forces of clients demanding innovation and our own intuition about what is right for them.
Although they have opened up new communications vistas, social media are not a panacea. We have all witnessed how an ill-judged toe in the water can go wrong. With almost comical predictability, and at a time when it should be using tried and trusted methods to build grassroots support, WalMart's ham-fisted blog infiltrations have simply proved that a loathed brand is a loathed brand, whether it is presented on or offline.
The lessons here are clear: be smart and chart the territory you are entering. Online activity needs a detailed strategy and watertight management. Consider each project in its own right and apply a holistic approach to identifying the mix of 'new' and 'old' approaches that will secure the best results. More importantly, be prepared to think differently and challenge clients not only about communications but also about how their business model stands up in a web 2.0 world.
And keep control: for every WalMart clanger, there is an HSBC/Facebook success story. One of the key characteristics of the web 2.0 culture is speed and reach. If the right people on the right blogs, online magazines and forums pick up your story, it has the potential to spread like wildfire. But if it is misconstrued, you can quickly have a crisis on your hands. Attracting the wrong kind of interest - cue Northern Rock - can bring reputations to their knees.
At the end of the day, no matter how many communications options there are, we are still people interacting with other people. I think of it as 'human 2.0'. Remembering with whom you are talking, what they want and how they want it should be the key motivator. And don't forget the reliable and trusted relationships with people with whom you have always enjoyed working.
So, while the web is a potent tool, never forget the power of good old-fashioned interaction. A 30-minute face-to-face meeting or a piece of solid offline media relations can exist alongside - and complement - an email thread lasting a week or a well-crafted blog. You can't be quickly deleted when sitting across the table, either.