Who am I? PR, public relations or social media?

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Over the last few months I’ve been involved in a fair amount of navel gazing and talking to colleagues, friends and clients about quite what it is I do. The navel gazing has involved lots of reading around the internet of mainstream media articles, research reports, blog posts and presentations as well as brainstorming sessions and chats with people I trust and respect.

And the conclusion of all this navel gazing? I do pretty much the same today as I did more than 20 years ago when I started my first job as an account executive in the public relations division of an integrated marcoms agency (see integration isn’t even new). I’m still a public relations corporate communications professional, but now with 21+ years experience and new expertise. And I’m happy with that.

What I definitely don’t want to be is an online PR expert, or a social media expert or a digital content expert or anything similar. They are all far too narrow a discipline. It’s impossible to provide a client with sensible PR or corporate communications counsel if all you can legitimately talk about is social media, digital or online PR. It is equally ridiculous to think you can provide a client with intelligent corporate communications or public relations counsel if you can’t do online PR and social media to the same level of ability you can with other channels and/or stakeholder groups.

It’s partially about seniority and experience. To provide good public relations counsel you’ve got to be a generalist. You’ve got to understand the full spectrum of corporate communications and all of the tools and channels at your disposal. How else would know when it is appropriate to do the right thing? For the actual implementation you can call upon a specialist, but even then you’ve got to know a lot about the specialism in order to maximise its potential.

David Philips made a very perceptive comment on my post about ‘Who owns social media?':

Stuart, I think it is time to put ‘the internet’ and ‘social media’ out to grass.
When you send a birthday card or wrap a present you don’t think much about the nature of paper only what is on it. Now its time to treat ‘the internet’ and ‘social media’ in the same way.

He’s absolutely right. We’re so far beyond the time when we should be treating ‘internet’, ‘social media’ and ‘digital’ as something that’s new, different or scary. It’s just part and parcel of what we all should be doing as corporate communications or public relations professionals. But the problem is that’s still not the way too many people in the PR industry perceive it.

Unfortunately it is very often PR people who are to blame for this sad state of affairs. Their fear, uncertainty and doubt about online PR means they treat it separately and refuse to update their skills beyond what they are already comfortable with. In 2011 it’s as ridiculous as a PR person thinking they can stick with just knowing about newspapers and can safely ignore radio and television, as broadcast is far too new fangled and specialist.

But as a corporate communications and public relations consultant the difficulty is that you’ve got to sell yourself to clients. That’s what pays the bills and pays the salaries of the fantastic people that work for me at Wolfstar Consultancy. If clients think they need to retain an online PR agency or hire a social media agency then that’s what we’ve got to sell. That’s how you get your foot in the door. Once we’re appointed and providing real strategic counsel then clients trust you to help them understand that online PR and social media actually permeates everything they do and isn’t a separate discipline at all. But to get to that stage you’ve frequently got to wear your principles lightly in order to sell them what they think they want.

What I’d like to think that I, and Wolfstar Consultancy, can offer is an approach to corporate communications and public relations that is steeped in real communications experience, but that truly understands and has real experience of really integrating social media and the internet into traditional public relations. That’s not just about having used blogs, Facebook and Twitter, read lots of blogs and case studies, or attending a few conferences. It’s about having really done it. Real experience over a substantial number of years of making online PR and social media work as part of an overall corporate communications and public relations strategy. And just as important is also having experienced what doesn’t work.

That’s why I’d want to be recognised as a public relations thought leader and not a social media thought leader.

About Stuart Bruce

International communications consultant and PR trainer specialising in online public affairs, digital corporate communications, online PR and social media; frequent national media commentator and conference speaker.

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  • http://twitter.com/AlexJuddz Alex Judd

    I enjoyed your challenge to the industry to accept social media under the umbrella of public relations as a whole. I think it’s an interesting and worthwhile argument that this integration should happen. You’re also right that in the current climate it seems to be reassuring for a client to hear that digital specialists are dealing in this area. I think this is because, to many, the internet and social media is unchartered and dangerous territory due to the interactivity between users. In time, I imagine this will change and your hope of integration will come to fruition.

  • Chris Norton

    Brilliant post Stuart – I totally agree.

    I am bumping into far too many social media experts these days and I believe we (PR consultants) offer far much more than simply managing a twitter stream or creating content for Facebook. We are strategic PR people and that is how we should act.

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  • http://www.inhousepr.wordpress.com Doug Fenichel

    Thank you for saying very well what I’ve come to believe. The Internet is another medium for us to use to tell our clients’ stories. Just as TV is different from newspapers, there are special things we need to know about using the medium and we have to pay a little more attention to it, but in the end, it’s another way for our clients to engage with their customers. I, too, am proud to be a public relations professional.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Sociologist/100000110205046 Mark Sociologist

    Have been delivering “Internet” content for more than a quarter of a century (via Usenet). Worked with MCI getting something called “the backbone” and MCI One (Internet service) up more than 20 years ago.

    When I started in communications, you needed 10 years on a daily to be considered for a corporate public relations job. It was the norm. Not five internships, a skirt and not over 23.

    In 1999, I started using the term 21st Century marketing tools. No one understood. In 2005, I became the world’s first Marketing Sociologist. When you searched Google then, it was my Linkedin profile. Today it is pages.

    In 2007, was thrown out of offices for pitching – “You need a YouTube and MySpace presence.” Was told, “We need press releases.”

    Suddenly in 2011 EVERYONE is a “social media” expert. Just like those interns who became public relations for the past 20 years, I find the new “social media experts” don’t know what they’re doing.

    Even today, I get questioned – what is a marketing sociologist. How many are still asking what a sanitation engineer is?

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  • http://www.3hatscommunications.com/blog/ davinabrewer

    I like your call for being a generalist, but still possessing the requisite experience and knowledge to work with specialists on the execution, delivery level. ITA that some of us need to get over the ‘shiny new toy’ syndrome, ballyhoo over ‘IN’ tools and get back to realizing it’s all part of a bigger whole. We do need to recognize the broader picture, see how digital and online will help for certain stakeholders but also know not to put all the eggs in that basket, use different, offline strategic tools and tactics build relationships with other key publics. “Integration, Integration” is one of my favorite tunes, FWIW.

  • http://www.cowbrough.co.uk Craig Cowbrough

    sanitation engineer that would be eh….. a plumber

    Doesn’t matter what the medium is clarity of language is the key to promoting understanding

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  • http://www.chrisreed.posterous.com chris_reed

    Wise words, as ever, Mr Bruce. Much as it’s fun to participate in those “who owns social media” debates, I’m looking forward to them going away.

    The channels may be different than when we started out in this business, but the techniques remain the same…

  • http://twitter.com/mj52art Michael Stewart

    Sorry these comments are a little after the fact Stuart, I’m just catching up on some reading.

    I’m with you all the way on this. I’ve been doing digital stuff in marketing for 13 years, my title is Head of Digital but my job is marketer.

    I’d happily do away with my job title, I’m a planner with more experience than most in digital. There is a question about whether the client wants that and takes comfort from someone turning up with Heda of Digital on the card. I’m not syaing that’s right … just life

    Social media – I believe that no-one needs a social media strategy, they need a comms strategy that encompasses social media.

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