Evolve CommunicationsArticles by: Daniel

Posts By: Daniel

Social Media & Public Relations Theories

Anyone who has spent some time studying the underlying theories of public relations has heard of Dr. James Grunig and his contributions to the practice. Long before the term “social media” was coined, Dr. Grunig advocated a methodology of public relations that puts communicating with “publics” first, above the tactics of  media relations. Until the rise of social media, the practice of public relations was too often characterized as media relations, and anyone who has worked in the field knows that it’s a common misperception that PR = media relations.

In this paper from 2009 (hat tip to The Measurement Standard), Grunig argues that social media has the potential to make the practice of PR a more “global, strategic, two-way and interactive, symmetrical or dialogical, and socially responsible,” while still calling social media a “fad.” Yes, all in the same breath.

Specifically, Grunig has offered two major contributions to public relations practice which inform social media strategy and execution. The first is his Four Models of Public Relations, which describes four different approaches to the practice. They are:

  • Press Agency/Publicity: Uses persuasion and manipulation to influence audiences to behave as the organization desires.
  • Public Information Model: Uses press releases and other one-way communication techniques to distribute organizational information. The Public Relations practitioner is often referred to as the in-house journalist.
  • Two-way Asymmetrical Model: Uses persuasion and manipulation to influence audiences to behave as the organization desires. Does not use research to find out how stakeholders feel about the organization.
  • Two-way Symmetrical Model: Uses communication to negotiate with the public, resolve conflict and promote mutual understanding and respect between the organization and its stakeholders.

It’s this last bullet point that most resembles what people working in social media attempt to do every day. All the social media catch phrases you’ve heard before (“Join the conversation,” “Engage your audience,” “Participate,” etc.) all refer to the two-way symmetrical model. People who work in social media often like to think this stuff is new. And to many marketers who have spent careers broadcasting messages, it IS new. But to people who have been practicing public relations, engaging publics (not audiences) in conversation has been a common approach for quite some time now. Despite the common misconception that PR is simply media relations.

The second theory that has been a big influence on social media practice is Grunig’s Situational Theory of Publics. At its core, this theory postulates that people organize and communicate about issues more frequently based on their awareness of the issue, its level of impact on their lives and their perceived ability to do something about it. The theory is more detailed than that (you can read a more detailed overview of the theory here), but this is its basic premise.

Using this theory, we can segment groups based on their interests, their concerns, their level of awareness and their activities, instead of the traditional marketing demographics like gender, age, income, etc. And that’s where the power of social media comes in: people use social media to organize themselves along these lines. A smart marketer knows how to find this information and will use it to inform their communications strategy, identify publics (and not audiences), and prioritize spokes of their communications strategy.

That last point is essential to the success of any communications initiative. In today’s always-on world, communications professionals need to be able to maximize their resources so that programs work efficiently as well as effectively. After all, if you’re marketing a B2B company that sells to technology officers, are you going to be communicating with, say, film makers on Twitter? Hopefully not. But you may find tech blogs, Listorious lists and other tools useful for identifying potential customers.

Old Marketing Budgets vs. New Marketing Budgets

First let’s get one thing straight: I strongly dislike the terms “old marketing” and “new marketing.” While I agree with most analyses of the massive shifts in consumer behavior that we’re experiencing, there are many characteristics of marketing that has stayed somewhat the same.

True, we have many more tools at our disposal. And true, audiences are so fragmented today (more on that later). But many of the underlying theories of branding, marketing and PR still hold their weight today (in fact, I’ll argue in a later post that social media best practices is rooted in some theories that were explained by Dr. James Grunig, noted public relations theorist and my former professor).

Today, though, I want to focus on budgets, especially in comparison to how budgets were treated in the “golden age of advertising.”

You’ve heard it a million times, I’m sure: clients want you to prove ROI. On everything. As a result, budget is what drives today’s marketing campaigns.

You can’t help but watch a show like Mad Men and not get the impression that huge companies liked to toss around money like candy. There were such a limited number of channels, highly captive audiences, that it was probably a bit like throwing darts blindfolded–at the broad side of a barn. What it came down to was positioning. Get the positioning wrong, and you’ve sunk your client’s product.

Today, there are an infinite number of channels, and an audience (which itself is becoming an outmoded word) that’s as both fragmented and fickle. It’s still all about positioning. But it’s also about finding the right channels and maximizing those channels. And making sure the channels talk to each other. And making sure those channels are two-way conversations. Indeed, it’s not the size of the budget anymore. It’s the effective use of it.

It’s not all social media!

It’s true, social media is the marketing darling of the moment. But let’s remember four facts:

  • By nature, the web has always been social.
  • Online marketing has been around as long as the internet has been public.
  • There is always more than one solution to a problem.
  • When all you have is a hammer (social media), everything is a nail (social media programming).

Social Media HammerIt’s essential to remember that what clients want is to win. But in a game whose rules are only limited by the imagination, it can be difficult to define what winning is. And with social media taking the spotlight, it might be easy to see how that is the solution to a marketing problem.

Yes, it’s also true that social media is changing how we interact with each other, and how businesses interact with its stakeholders (be they customers, stock holders, vendors, etc.). That doesn’t mean every marketing challenge has a social solution. Instead, social media may be a single tactic in an array of tactics meant to work together.

And, lastly, it’s quite common for businesses to believe they need to be on Facebook and Twitter in order to do social media. Smart consultants would argue that’s putting the cart before the horse. Remember, blogs can be social, too (remember when they were the hottest thing several years back?). Videos are clearly social vehicles. Bookmarking, like blogs, have been eclipsed by social networks, they are still social, and when combined with blogging can be powerful traffic drivers.

The key, of course, is to understand how these tools and tactics work together, and to apply that knowledge creatively. That will ultimately net the biggest benefit to the client.