Earlier this year, I wrote a blog post countering the claims of Robert Scoble, Michael Arrington, Jason Calacanis and others who posited that social media’s rise would precipitate public relations’ fall. A new study now confirms what I suspected all along: Public relations isn’t declining at the hands of social media; it’s gaining, as social media provides opportunities to build relationships in new ways, and as companies seek guidance on effective and credible ways to leverage the new tools.
The 2009 Digital Readiness Report, a study conducted by iPressroom with support from PRSA, found that public relations professionals are firmly in the lead when it comes to managing an organization’s use of social media communications channels.
Public relations leads the deployment of digital communications at 51 percent of organizations, while marketing takes charge 40.5 percent of the time. Specifically, the study found that public relations manages the use of blogging, (49 percent to marketing’s 22 percent), microblogging (52 percent to 22 percent) and social networking (48 percent to 27 percent).
Those areas where public relations tends to follow marketing’s lead is in the use of e-mail marketing and Search Engine Optimization (SEO), though my guess is that our profession is rapidly gaining in the SEO area.
These findings seem to confirm the results of similar research conducted by Don Wright, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA, who is a professor of public relations at Boston University and editor of PRSA’s peer-reviewed PR Journal. By his estimate, approximately 70 percent of all social media programs are being driven by public relations professionals.
There are a number of reasons why organizations are looking to public relations professionals to lead their social media efforts. Social media puts the consumer in control, and public relations professionals are accustomed to operating in an environment that cedes control to others. Too, public relations has always been about engaging with key audiences to establish mutually beneficial relationships. Plus, public relations is a two-way discipline; it disseminates information about an organization and brings back information for analysis and response.
The 2009 Digital Readiness Report also points to the urgent need for public relations practitioners to develop advanced social media skills, as hiring decision makers have awakened to the importance of social media in organizational communications.
Among those survey respondents who are responsible for hiring public relations and marketing employees, more than 80 percent said knowledge of social networks is either important or very important. Other new media communications skills that hiring decision makers found important or very important are blogging, podcasting and RSS (77 percent), micro-blogging (72 percent), search engine optimization (62 percent), email outreach (56 percent), web content management (52 percent) and social bookmarking (51percent).
Astonishingly, 18 percent of hiring decision makers have no interest at all in traditional public relations skills.
The “Digital Age” of public relations from the 1980s through today has been characterized by a need to constantly adjust to advances in technology. And just like the U.S. Marines, our industry has improvised, adapted and overcome. New and social media are but the latest examples.
While periods of monumental change like this are never easy, Paul Gillen, the former technology journalist who is now a writer, speaker and content marketing consultant specializing in technology and new media, says there are only two unpardonable sins in the current environment.
“One is fear. Fear not only stops progress in its tracks, but wastes time and resources in the pointless exercise of chasing the past or hoping that change will just go away. That leads to the bigger unpardonable sin, which is inaction. Tumultuous change creates great opportunity for experimentation. When no one knows the right course of action, there is very little downside to taking chances.”
It seems clear to me that the public relations profession has taken its chances with new and emerging technologies, and that those chances are continuing to pay off in big ways.
Michael G. Cherenson, APR, is PRSA’s 2009 Chair and CEO.