Social media is easier than PR

FutureComms14 Last week I spoke at the FutureComms14 conference and one of my remarks during the panel discussion on the ‘Anatomy of the Modern Communicator’ sparked quite a bit of feedback, both online and in subsequent offline discussions. While talking about recruiting I said that I’d always prefer to recruit a PR person as it was easier to teach a PR person social media than it was to teach a social media person PR.

It had some people nodding in vociferous agreement and others shaking their heads and tweeting in dismay.

I stand by the remark and find it remarkable that anyone would dispute it. Public relations is a very broad discipline with a wealth of specialisms and a large body of academic knowledge to draw upon. You can’t quickly, fully teach public relations strategy and theory on the job. It easier however to train people in the individual skills and tactics that are part of the public relations toolkit. Indeed what’s in that toolkit is constantly changing and updating, but the fundamental principles of reputation management, engagement, dialogue and relationship management remain. The danger of recruiting a social media expert is that you get someone who is brilliant at using Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, but doesn’t know how to use Facebook, Twitter or Instagram for real strategic public relations.

Of course it is far more complex than that and if I’m recruiting a specialist role such as measurement, analytics and evaluation then I might look at a social media specialist. But, I’d also want someone who was able to evaluate other aspects of public relations so an amazing ability with social media analytics wouldn’t be enough when the alternative was someone with broader PR evaluation skills and the ability to learn social media measurement. Likewise if I was recruiting a media relations manager as part of my PR team I might consider a former journalist, who I probably wouldn’t consider for a broader PR role. But once recruited I’d still want them to undertake formal continuous professional development and study for professional PR qualifications such as the CIPR diploma. How else could they understand how their role and specialism fitted into the bigger picture?

I wonder if the outrage would have been the same if we’d been talking about law? There are some brilliant lawyers who specialise in social media law, but first and foremost they are lawyers. It’s exactly the same with public relations. If you want to specialise in social media, then first and foremost you must be a public relations professional. Exactly the same would apply if we were talking about marketing.

This observation is also based on training hundreds of PR, marketing, digital, social media and communications people in more than 30 different countries.

It’s also important to remember I was speaking at a conference on the future of the communications profession that was attended mainly by PR, communications and marketing people. I therefore wasn’t talking about the wider ramifications of what is becoming known as social business. Indeed, I’ve argued before that there are still very few social business experts as what we currently have are people from a wide range of different professions including PR, marketing, advertising, law, customer service, human resources, finance etc who understand and have experience and expertise in social. Working together they can begin to re-imagine businesses and organisations as more social entities without the rigid silo structures that currently exist.

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://www.stuartbruce.biz/ Stuart Bruce

    I’m responding to a tweet from Bradley Wilson (@newsandviews4u) in the comments, as impossible to explain in 140 characters.

    “@CIPR_UK @stuartbruce:disqus With algorithm changes, engagement, customer service, brand voice and online PR -social media certainly isn’t easier.”
    Online PR – if you’re making a distinction between ‘online’ PR and physical world PR then you’re probably doing it wrong as you don’t look after reputation or just have relationships in one place. And surely by definition ‘online PR’ is public relations and not just social media.
    Brand voice – jargon. If there is such a thing as brand voice then it’s more likely to be public relations than social media, for the same reason I give above you don’t just have a voice online and certainly not just on social media.
    Customer service – social media is part of customer service and is therefore best done by customer service people who ‘get’ social media, not by social media or PR people, although both can certainly advise and support customer service to ensure we have joined up thinking.
    Engagement – is fundamentally a key part of what public relations actually is. How you can possibly look after relationships if your don’t engage?
    Algorithm changes – one of many technical things that all PR people need to be aware of so they can get expert help when needed. Just the same as lawyers, mareketeers etc need to be aware and get help when needed.

  • http://www.futurecomms.co.uk/ Paul Sutton

    Hi Stuart. I said earlier in the week that I’d leave a comment after my tweet, so sorry this is late. Clients always come first ;)

    As I briefly stated in my tweet, I disagree with you on this one.

    I DO agree that PR is a broader discipline than social media, at least in the sense that you refer to social media in this article. I also agree that you can’t fully teach PR strategy on the job.

    But I think you’re seriously underestimating what it takes to be a good social communications consultant. And furthermore, I think this is a major issue within PR agencies as a whole. Good social media people are undervalued; there’s an attitude that ‘anyone can do it’.

    They can’t.

    It’s true that anyone can learn to use social media. But to be good at SOCIAL COMMUNICATIONS you need a very specific mindset. And it has nothing to do with PR and marketing and customer service and strategy and crisis comms and reputation management. True social communications is a real skill, and is very distinct from other forms of communication in terms of understanding and tone.

    I’ve tried teaching many PR consultants social communications (as opposed to social media) in the last five years, and very few of them have really had the mindset for it (which I fully admit, I struggle to describe). I don’t believe this mindset can really be taught; I believe it’s something you have or you don’t have.

    To state that social media is easier than PR fundamentally misses this point and is, in my view, quite blinkered. It perpetuates the myth that ‘anyone can do social media’ and puts me in mind of the Dunning-Kruger Effect which I outlined in relation to this topic here: http://futurecomms.co.uk/2014/04/23/so-youre-a-social-media-junkie-are-you/. It does good social communications people (and I do mean ‘good’, not the majority) a disservice, and that needs to change right through the PR industry.

    That’s why your statement got the reaction it did on the day and since.

  • http://www.stuartbruce.biz/ Stuart Bruce

    Sorry Paul, I thought I’d replied to this, but only just realised I didn’t.
    I agree with you that “to be good at social communications you need a very specific mindset”, but that on its own is never going to be enough. And it’s interesting that you say ‘mindset’ rather than experience or expertise. Even if you get someone with the right mindset you still need to train/teach them both public relations and social communications.
    As PR is a broader discipline than social media, and therefore has a far bigger body of knowledge you need to learn, it is still going to be easier to teach the person with the right mindset social media than it is PR.
    I think the real challenge is to find ‘good’ people for PR or social media. There are many who are competent and capable, some who aren’t, but far fewer who are good. The field of those who therefore also have the right ‘mindset’ is even smaller.

  • Philip Crabtree

    Stuart, I won’t fully agree or disagree with you, because there are some other nuances not addressed. As I tell my team, social media should never be the main effort of your communication or promotion strategy.

    Social media is a tool–or, as the name suggests, a medium–for communicating. Just as a sports team has many players playing different positions and coming together to work as a team to win, the same is true of PR, and social media practitioners should consider themselves as a valuable member of the PR team but not the key player around which a team is constructed.

    You are absolutely right in your assessment that it is important to not only use the tool (social media) but also how to leverage it. As a rugby player, I understand kicking the ball in a match can be beneficial. On the other hand, if I only employ kicking the ball down the pitch as my strategy for winning the game, I will be sorely disappointed at the end of the match having not scored any tries despite my stellar kicking skills. The same is true of social media, and it has been proven to not significantly influence target audiences to action in and by itself.

    Bottom line: Don’t abandon tried and true communications skills in deference to the latest toys and shiny objects. Nothing beats written and verbal communication skills as a core skill set.