Speed, transparency, and the long tail

Tomorrow I’ll be talking about PR and social media to another communications class at the University of Washington. This time, it’s an undergraduate class. I’m going to hit many of the points I did in my earlier presentation to students already in the business world, but this time I’m going to attempt to give more context.

So much has changed in the PR world in the past 10 years, it’s hard to know where to begin!

The model of PR in which corporate communicators developed carefully reviewed press releases and distributed them to known contacts in print and broadcast media by mail or fax, is over. Five minutes after a company announces a new product, it’s been Twitter and blogged about. (Example — Amazon released Kindle software for the iPhone last night, and that rocketed to a top spot on Twitter in about two hours. Interestingly, it was being discussed on Twitter even before it had registered on Google News searches.)

Any hope PR folks once had of controlling public perception of the announcement — via their carefully chosen words, or via the sedate reviewing of a friendly news reporter — is a quaint delusion. People are raving and ranting about it on blogs — or pointedly ignoring it — within 24 hours. And good luck to the PR person who tries to spin or puff a product. Her or she risks being reviled right along with the product itself.

Clearly, old-school PR doesn’t work in the current online environment. As anyone who follows Twitter has seen, a new school of PR is emerging to meet the new challenges. It can be successful, if it’s mindful of three characteristics of the social media world:

Speed. If PR wants to be part of the discussion, it needs to get out there, fast. A good PR operation, representing an organization that genuinely has something to contribute to the conversation, can make a splash. That may mean twittering about the city’s inept response to the snowstorm at 4 a.m. (Does your PR person work at 4 a.m.? Let’s hope so.)

Transparency. Successful PR folks have to come to grips with the transparency created by online social media. Many companies tried to hop on the social media bandwagon by making community commenting, or video contests, a part of their marketing campaigns. Often they forgot that they could no longer control the distribution of the resulting comments or videos. In 2006, General Motors’ attempt to harness “viral marketing” for their Chevy Tahoe SUV inspired hundreds of people critical of SUVs to create and then post anti-Tahoe videos. To its credit, General Motors remained cool and the flap eventually died down.

The Long Tail. The days when nearly everyone read the newspaper and families gathered around the TV after dinner to watch the network news are long, long over. Instead, household members are more likely to be getting information individually, from a variety of sources (such as watching a NetFlix video, playing World of Warcraft, reading their favorite blogs, or talking to friends on Facebook). To be successful, PR campaigns will need to focus on these narrower audiences, often with savvier members.

The professor of the class asked me to emphasize the continuing need for strong writing skills in PR. That will be no problem. Sure, you see sloppy writing all over the web. But you don’t see it on highly ranked blogs. If PR people want to draw traffic to their blogs and followers to their Tweets, clear, polished writing is a must.

One response to “Speed, transparency, and the long tail

  1. Pingback: A few notes on social media « Writer Way·

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