• Sensei-Banner-Customer-Acquisition6
  • Sensei-Banner-Customer-Development5
  • Sensei-Banner-Customer-Relationship5
  • Sensei-Banner-Influence-Marketing5
  • Sensei-Banner-Influence-Marketing-Book4 (2)

Why Your Social Media Team Should be PR Professionals

PR bannerWell, I guess at this point, we can all agree that social media isn’t a fad.

Don’t laugh; as recently as February of last year, this comment was still being uttered in my presence by some agency and brand executives. Call it digital marketing, social media marketing, social business or whatever the term du jour is, engaging customers, employees, and other stakeholders through digital and social channels – and through multiple devices – has become part of a business’s standard operating procedure. In fact, according the research conducted by Brian Solis and Charlene Li at Altimeter Group, during 2013, 78% of businesses have established a dedicated social media team.

At a minimum, most businesses have assigned or acquired an employee to act as their community manager. Others have hired agencies to manage their social engagement on their behalf or in conjunction with internal personnel. Larger firms – both B2B and B2C – are forming dedicated departments with “social media command centers” that are tasked with everything from monitoring and customer service, to market research, to sales and marketing.

The question: Who, exactly, makes up that team?  Has the marketing team been reassigned? Or is it an amalgamation of various departments?  The Altimiter Group discovered that there are 13 different departments across the average enterprise with at least one person dedicated to social media (skewed heavily towards the marketing department (73%)).  Of course, we all know that social media efforts are rarely coordinated across those departments.

There’s lots of activity but few widely accepted best practices for creating these teams and who should lead them. A few months ago, I made a case for public relations professionals taking a leadership role in the social media marketing team or department. I argued that the communication skills required by social media marketers such as creating brand awareness, identifying influencers, and managing online reputation are the very skills that public relations professionals are taught and hone in their practices every day.

Case Study:  Why your social media team should be PR professionals.

Today I want to share an experience Sensei has had with a client from whom we’ve created and manage a social media engagement and customer acquisition strategy.   Recently, the client contacted our community manager, who we’ve dedicated to this account, with a late night emergency. It seems that one of their stakeholders posted a picture of a compromised product within a Facebook user group.  He posted this picture asking the community if anyone else had experienced similar issues, and if so, to please post pictures or email details so that he could make a case to the business’s executive.

At the time, the picture and online conversation were limited to a small group of people and in one social channel only. If the image and conversation become part of the larger social conversation, our customer acquisition strategy could have be seriously compromised, which could negatively affect our ability to show a return on their investment in us and the program we had created.

Along with the client, our team went into crisis mode:

  1. Was there any truth to the story?  Was it an isolated case?
  2. How widespread was the story? Who had seen it and what was the likelihood it would go viral?
  3. What quality assurance protocols were in place and when was the last time they were vetted? Did the QA process fail in this case?
  4. Has anyone contacted this person? Is there an official statement?

Anyone working with a PR agency would recognize these questions. They’re the questions that PR firms often plan for before such issues occur.

Social Media: A Mob-In-Waiting

Naturally, the client expressed some urgency in having us respond to this person in order to quash the potential negative impact on the brand and future sales. However, the one thing we’ve learned over the years that we’ve been managing such programs is to avoid knee-jerk reactions. Social media has created an environment where our communities are mobs-in-waiting.  It’s a curious phenomenon: masses of people who are typically apathetic or members of the silent majority become vigilant activists online when their friends and colleagues sound the alarm.


Any statement – official or otherwise – from an official representative or employee of a brand, can be misinterpreted and become the focus of the story.  In many cases, a poor response exacerbates the initial problem that most consumers – and media for that matter – would ignore. This is something we could not afford, which is why we train our team members to pre-plan for such occurrences.

Our assignment, similar to that of any social media marketing program, was to create a relationship with customers along the customer lifecycle (from awareness to purchase, and from purchase to advocacy) and, where possible, convert those prospects into customers using various influence marketing tactics.  We were not hired to be their public relations team, which is what this situation required.

Thankfully, Sensei’s community management team includes an experienced, PR-trained group of communication professionals. They knew how to manage the client, how to not over-react in this situation, and how to respond to potentially brand-damaging issues. By quickly engaging the individual who made the negative post, the team was able to convert the brand detractor into a partner of the brand by inviting him in to identify and promote a solution that improved future QA processes. In such cases, the detractor’s tone changes from negativity to positivity.

Essentially, it defuses the wick that could explode a social media powder keg. Further, the detractor can be converted into a brand advocate who may become a powerful ally and influencer in our social media efforts.

Lessons Learned

We learned a long time ago that having PR-trained professionals on our team is critical in the development and management of social media marketing and community building. And when those people are not available, we hire or partner with top PR agencies who understand these principles, such as the multi-award winning firm Strategic Objectives.

A marketing or advertising firm doesn’t typically perform an analysis of potential issues or monitor for such issues. Most are monitoring for opportunities to broadcast the brand’s message or insert the brand voice into the conversation. Often, the goal is to convert sales, increase followers or drive earned media. All are worthy goals; however, within such a volatile environment, preparing for social media flash-mobs that could turn on you – and knowing how to respond quickly and effectively – is often overlooked or simply not a skill set marketers are trained for.

With another such experience in hand, we continue to hold firm in our position that, to be most effective, social media must be a PR-led and coordinated initiative. And our clients seem to be thankful.

Sensei Debates

Are PR-related influencer outreach, brand awareness, and crisis management practices simply supporting activities in the social media mix? Or should they lead the effort?  Your thoughts – pro or con – are always welcomed.

Sam Fiorella
Feed Your Community, Not Your Ego

Influence Marketing Banner 1


Join the Conversation

LinkedMedia 5pts

I disagree with this premise. By the time you mobilize a PR effort to "counter" or respond to an issue via social media channels it's too late. The essential skill that community managers need is recognizing there is an issue and responding back to the individual or brand that's "complaining" in a timely manner with some follow through when/if need be.  Sure, if your a big enterprise client (brand) then you will probably mobilize a PR effort behind a negative issue "voiced" on social media. But for the average SMB/SME - responding back on social media with the right messaging is the only skill needed.

samfiorella moderator 5pts

@LinkedMedia  I think we might be saying the same thing? The point is to not have to "mobilize a PR effort to counter or respond to an issue." My experience has been that social media teams led by (not exclusively comprised of PR people but led by) are able to: 

a) manage the conversation before issues arise and so that issues are less likely to arise

b) respond, in the correct fashion, to issues that arise in real time because of their unique crisis management and communication training and experience

This is not something that is exclusive to enterprise organizations. For example, while Sensei works for enterprise clients, we're a small business and this works for us. 

Similarly, many enterprise clients still only allow budget for small (1-2 people) social media teams. As a result, we've chosen to employ people with Degrees in Communications and Public Relations to manage those accounts. Their experience and training has allowed us to deliver superior service with fewer people. 

DaveMurr 5pts

Hello! I disagree. A social media team should not be made out of PR professionals... alone. 

You share valid points on how social media teams are built incorrectly and with misguided objectives. PR professionals alone won't save a bad social team.  

I make these statements based on experience with the teams I built at the firms I've worked at, and with my current employer. 

The best social media teams require talented communicators and content creators. The key word here is communication.

This encompasses both social and PR. Which leads me to this next statement - the best social media teams are closely integrated with PR professionals both within and outside the organization (agency).

Sometimes social leads communication. Sometimes it supports. Both PR and Social make the Yin-Yang of the social web. 

Integration between these two channels is a must for any brand or organization that wants to be successful in this space.

samfiorella moderator 5pts

@DaveMurr  I think we agree here. I'm not suggesting that social media teams should be only PR professionals but led by those with PR training. If I've not made that clear, my bad.

Our belief is that social media is a cross-functional department and must liaise with//include all departments in a coordinated effort. One strategic plan is required for the entire organization: Customer Service, Marketing, Sales, etc. 

Here, I'm sharing our experience that when we decided to appoint those with PR training and education to LEAD that team/effort, develop the communication strategy, and oversea the team, our results - and client satisfaction - increased dramatically.

AmyMccTobin 5pts

Don't kill me for this, but I read about your post over on Spin Sucks just now and had to come over. I've been thinking about this very thing as we build out our Community Management team at ArCompany.  Here's what I wrote over there:

Hmmmm... I've been thinking about this because there are SO many obvious PR mistakes made by 'Community' and 'Social Media' managers. Those Comm Mgrs are the ones on the front line, everyday. They are your company voice, and they are usually the ones to pull the trigger quickly in an exchange....

They need to have PR skills.  They need to understand customer service. They need to be able to take a deep breath and think. And they need to have patience.   I don't think they have to BE PR pros - they don't need to understand the entire width and breadth of what a PR pro does for a living, but they need to understand the foundation of PR in customer service.

All of this makes me think that what a company needs to do is understand what the profile of a Comm Mgr looks like, and hire THAT type of person for the job.

samfiorella moderator 5pts

@AmyMccTobin  I agree that community management requires a knowledge of the entire business. I've often said that community managers must speak the "language of the business" and be as adept at accounting/operations as they are at sales/marketing.  How else would they be able too properly liaise between the audience and all departments within the organization? 

That being said, no one is being trained for such a role. We need to start someplace. Social media management is a department, a coordinated effort - it's more than just one person. So we have to start with one base level of experience and train from there.

Given the mob mentality of social media (http://www.senseimarketing.com/be-wary-of-social-medias-mob-mentality/), I still believe that the best person/skill set to lead that charge is those with proper RP training/accreditation.  

Danny Brown
Danny Brown 5pts

Disagree. Two words - Justine Sacco.

Like any business tactic, social media teams should be made up of multiple stakeholders from the verticals needed. PR is a key one, due to the crisis comms that can arise (again, Justine Sacco), but it's just one of many. There are a ton of examples where PR has failed to grasp the nuances of social media and all it entails (much like there have been examples of marketers, advertisers, etc).

By all means, include PR, but don't limit to PR, and don't necessarily have them lead, either.

samfiorella moderator 5pts

@Danny Brown  That's a fair point mate; however, not sure that one person can make the case for the opposite. We can make the same case for the Red Cross's marketing guys (not PR) tweeting how they were "getting slizzard" with 4-bottle packs of Dogfish Head's Midas beer.  Within any group there are whack jobs, poorly trained staff, and some that are just bad people. 

The point is that with so many departments getting involved in social media, there needs to be better leadership AND coordination. All staff need media training today. PR firms give this to business executives and celebrities before they face the media and they need to step up and train all employees with a social media account - personal or business related - with the same knowledge and management. I'd argue that it's even more important to train (and manage) staff in media-relations when in social media than for executives in front of traditional media; the potential brand damage could me much worse as we've seen countless times lately. 

Can marketers or marketing departments do this well? Of course. However, properly trained PR pros - in my experience - have the best existing training for creating,  monitoring, and swaying buzz, media relations, crisis management, blogger outreach, etc. 

Danny Brown
Danny Brown 5pts

@samfiorella The statement "properly trained" stands out and is key. The issue is, too many aren't (and this is true of all verticals). Which leads to having to douse more flames created by a poorly trained social media team (whatever the make-up of it is).

For me, the team is made up of who needs to be in it for a given situation, as opposed to "we must have this vertical represented at all times". Based on experiences within certain industries, PR and legal are often the two verticals that limit social media activity, versus making it work. Just look at this piece about the federal government here in Canada, and the ridiculous process just to get a tweet out.

dbvickery 5pts

@Danny Brown @samfiorella  I'm in favor of the "properly trained" and "made up of who needs to be in it for a given situation". And there should definitely be a cross-functional escalation process to determine who is the best person(s) to represent the brand in crisis mode. And even those responses may be carefully vetted by that small escalation team that would include someone with a PR background.

Latest blog post: Exporting Data from Webi


  1. […] Why Your Social Media Team Should be PR Professionals. Lots of online activity but few widely accepted best practices for leading and coordinating social media.  […]

  2. […] to all these people via social media is becoming more and more relevant. In a recent blog post, “Why Your Social Media Team Should be PR Professionals”by Sam Fiorella, Fiorella discusses how social media has become much more than just a fad in the PR […]

  3. […] Sam Fiorella, the co-founder of Sensei Marketing, wrote a blog post called “Why Your Social Media Team Should Be PR Professionals.” As a PR and marketing professional, I wanted to see what he had to say. I found myself […]

Show Buttons
Share On Facebook
Share On Twitter
Share On Google Plus
Share On Linkdin
Share On Stumbleupon
Hide Buttons