Professional development and training blog of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)
June 27, 2011

Social Media as Starting Point, Not Focal Point

Oh, the wondrous things we have! We can access so many new electronic tools, gadgets and mobile applications to make our media relations efforts more productive. However, can email ever replace a face-to-face conversation? Can a Facebook page convey the interplay of emotions at a live news conference? How can 140 characters explain the complexity of health care policy or do it without the cynicism that too often creeps into pithy, short bites?

In order to engage reporters, we should not give up our YouTube channels, LinkedIn accounts or Flickr photos. They all are part of the arsenal that media relations professionals use to help tell clients’ stories. However, I do think it is time to refocus ― social media is a means to the end, and not the end goal itself.

A report released this month by the Federal Communications Commission points out that the abundance of social media platforms for communications does not necessarily mean an abundance of journalism. Likewise, having a reporter’s Twitter handle does not necessarily translate into a relationship. It could be the beginning of communication, but it’s not a rapport. The growing and exciting variety of social media tools provide us with a starting point for catching a reporter’s attention. These tools also can help us understand reporters’ wants, needs and preferences. They help us construct engaging presentations that tell the stories we want to share. The PRSA Health Academy recently held its annual meeting in Washington, D.C., and there were several stellar presentations on the best uses of social media.

But social media can’t replace the human factor.

The public relations community has a role in helping reporters understand the local impact of national issues, infuse greater depth and understanding into their stories, as well as accomplish their assignments while struggling with shrinking resources. By working with reporters and editors, we can help create a better-informed citizenry, which in turn can have a positive social impact.

Personal relationships are built on trust and transparency, and that’s the same when working with the media. How can you create trust and transparency without personal interaction? I propose it’s time to look beyond the creativity and gee-wiz factor of social media, and instead place these tools where they belong in the public relations tool box.

Firstly and foremostly, let’s honor human beings and human relationships by taking the time to personally engage the reporters and editors who can help us. Let’s not forget to develop real relationships, not just avatars of what they might be.

Nancy Hughes, APR, is the assistant vice president of communications and marketing at the National Health Council. Prior to joining, Hughes served as vice president of communications and information services at the American Academy of Physician Assistants for 15 years. Hughes began her career as a radio and television reporter in Colorado covering politics and local government. She transitioned to the other side of the microphone to work as the deputy press secretary for Colorado Governor Dick Lamm. Hughes has also served as press secretary for Colorado Congressman David Skaggs, vice president of communications for the Denver Chamber of Commerce, and public affairs manager for MCI-West Division.

  • Raleigh Gerber

    Nancy, it’s 2011, time to get with the program. Social media is the way to build interpersonal relationships. After 20 years of ‘smiling and dialing’ as a public relations consultant I migrated my whole business to social media. Why? Have you looked at Cision or MediaHub lately? Most journalists indicate that their preferred method of co tact is email, and that they no longer wish to receive phone calls. And some of these editors receive hundreds of emails a day that they must sift through to find a nugget of relevant news. So how are we supposed to personally engage with them?

    More than 67 percent of users head to the Internet not to read news articles, but to engage on social media platforms. It is here that we have an opportunity to create a positive social impact and reach a larger audience with our message.

    As a former news reporter, I understand your longing for some good old fashioned journalism. However, have you tried to schedule a media tour lately? Not only are the costs prohibitive, most journalists won’t even take the time to sit down for dinner, even if you’re buying. Or perhaps your client spends a bundle on a news conference, only to have five reporters show up.

    In this era of online communications, perhaps it’s time to make social media the starting point. You’d be surprised how many journalists I nave relationships with on Twitter and Facebook.

  • Jennifer Heinly

    Nancy, thank you for this article to remind us that the basis of good media relations always start with doing our research so we (and our clients) are excellent news sources for reporters, and that social media tools, such as twitter, can’t replace best practice PR skills.

  • Ryo Yamaguchi

    Thank you Nancy, this is a really important reminder. With the freshness of social media and all of its potential, too much strategy falls short, stopping at the basics of account setup, managing feeds, where to do this and that, etc. I see very little talk of how to integrate traditional communications strategies with these tools, so it feels as though these strategies are being supplanted, rather than bolstered, and that, to me, is sort of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  • Astrid Sheil

    Nancy, thank you for vocalizing what I have been thinking and feeling for awhile. Thank you for putting a little humanity and sanity back into the discussion.