Last night, during my weekly #bizforum debate on Twitter, I introduced an issue that’s been brewing for a while: The role of public relations (PR) in the future enterprise. The debate was passionate to say the least. I challenged the “dinosaurs, newspapers, and public relations” argument offered by many but on this night, public sentiment was clearly siding with the eventual demise of the industry.
For those of you not familiar with the #bizforum debate, each week I post a series of statements on a business-related topic to which I ask the community to either agree or disagree and explain why. “It depends” answers are not allowed during the debate. My role, as debate moderator, is to play devil’s advocate and to push people’s understanding on topics beyond the sound bites and “me too” posts that currently permeate social media.
As a result, most thought my defence of public relations as a future leader in business strategy was simply a debate tactic, me playing devil’s advocate again. In fact, for years I’ve considered the PR function the most underutilized role in social media marketing and customer engagement strategy planning.
Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth
The debate’s topic was: Customer Engagement Strategy belongs to PR, Marketing, OR? Before I explain my rationale for supporting the role of PR as a leader in this space, let me start by saying that yes, all departments within the organization must own and be responsible for customer engagement; however, leaders are needed. Good business leaders will tell you that anyone in the organization, especially those with customer-facing functions, is responsible for sales, yet there is always a VP of Sales who leads the company’s efforts, someone who is ultimately responsible.
As social media becomes a bigger and bigger factor in customer engagement strategies for business, non-profits, and governments, the role of “customer engagement” and “customer experience” has become more critical. Each job function within the organization has been staking claim to “owning the customer experience,” from marketing to customer service and from sales to public relations. If fact, new jobs and departments, such as community management, are evolving to tackle this important business function, which, in my opinion, only serves to “spoil the broth.” All must be involved but leadership is needed.
The Case for PR Leadership
About three or four years ago, just when I started using social media monitoring tools to analyze what is now being called “Big Data,” I realized that social media, unchecked, is really just a lot of noise. It’s an increasingly popular platform for consumers, which makes it an incredible opportunity for businesses but only for those brands which can stand out in the sea of noise that’s being created. More specifically, for those who can sort out the key conversations that will drive business results. There are hundreds of social platforms, an unfathomable number of blogs, and a dizzying array of tools that purport to make sense of them all and deliver that filter, yet most businesses are still struggling with social media engagement. Case studies linking the effect of such engagements on business ROI are still few and far between.
Understanding how to make sense of that noise, leverage it, and connect with the right people for the greatest impact – regardless of the business goal – is what good public relations professionals have been doing since day one.
— They’re adept at monitoring public sentiment, predicting where a brand crisis might occur, being the first to recognize a crisis when it does occur, and quickly deploying a team to prevent it from getting worse.
— PR pros are clever wordsmiths who understand the importance of public sentiment and relationship building to sales and brand value. This industry understands the role of identifying and managing key relationships within the community (albeit the media community), and especially those deemed influential.
— Public relations professionals are writers and strategists experienced at producing articles, press releases, or other prose that spark viral word of mouth across the public to support (or detract from) an issue, brand or product.
Does this sound familiar?
Strip out the terms “public relations” and “(traditional) media” and you might as well be describing some or the entire role of a social media marketer or community manager.
Yet, for the most part, businesses are ignoring PR professionals and their experience in favor of experimenting with how marketing, sales, and customer service teams can evolve to handle customer engagement through social media channels.
The Curious Case of the Missing PR Expert
Marketers and industry analysts have always claimed that social media is just traditional media that’s become more accessible to more people, thanks to the Internet and Internet-connected hardware. So why are the former masters of the media so maligned when it comes to social media?
Last night, many of the professionals engaged in the debate shared their views that public relations is dying, just like their beloved newspapers.
These are just a sampling of the “PR is dead” arguments being made. Many shared the sentiment that PR is a push function and that engagement, the hallmark of social media, is not present in its vocabulary. That may be the case for many PR firms, but certainly not for leaders in the space.
PR Is Its Own Worst Enemy
While I believe that PR professionals have already perfected many of the core communication, analytic, and outreach skills required by today’s social media and community managers, the PR industry has done little in the way of PR for itself.
Robert Moore said it quite succinctly:
I’d argue that the PR of today must have social expertise at its core and that it must take the necessary steps with its own industry to ensure that its professionals understand that their skills are uniquely qualified to become strategic leaders. Otherwise, it’s a missed opportunity for the industry and a larger missed opportunity for business.
One example of a PR firm that has taken the reins in driving customer engagement and improving customer experience – both online and offline – is Toronto-based Strategic Objectives. Many in last night’s debate, those who didn’t predict its demise, suggested that PR is just a function of marketing and that it simply pushes out messages created by the marketing team. However, the multi-award winning public relations firm led by Deborah Weinstein and Judy Lewis has become known for creating the messages that marketing shares with the business’ target audience.
Deborah provided the best definition of what I believe PR can and should be during last night’s debate:
Sensei Debates: Dinosaurs, News Papers, and Public Relations
- So, what’s next for the PR industry? Will it die off or live up to its potential as a strategic leader in the customer engagement space?
- Will PR always be a supporting player to marketing? What is required to drive it forward?
- Are businesses (and the PR industry itself) missing out an opportunity to drive their customer engagement and social media marketing forward by not having PR professionals lead it?
Share your thoughts, pro or con, in the comments below.
Feed Your Community, Not Your Ego
Images courtesy of OneQube™ SRM