Media, in all its forms – new, old, traditional, print, digital, social, etc. – has evolved to the point where the lines once separating production and consumption, brands and their patrons, outlets and readership, are blurred, if not altogether obliterated. Of this, there is little doubt. But it raises a vast multitude questions that plague many of us who reside in this nebulous field that is Public Relations, Advertising, Marketing, Communication, Customer Service, and Social Media.

Question #1: Under Whose Aegis (of the aforementioned disciplines) Does The Realm Of Social Media Fall?

Marketers would argue…well, Marketing, for obvious reasons. To those outside the industry, and thus unfamiliar with its nuances, this is often the first inclination. Others might try to woo you to the side of Customer Service, winning you over with tales of happy customers who have had their problems solved upon textually screaming “Help! My PC Crashed,” unknowingly calling forth a veritable army of Dell’s finest minds who scour twitter in search of such opportunities. As a Publicist & Digital Strategist, I would have posited only weeks ago, and still might, that Social Media and platforms like Twitter & Facebook, should be run, or at the very least, curated and moderated, under the auspices of the Public Relations Department or Agency. Why PR? Because Public Relations is about defining and promoting a brand through said brand’s message, values, and principals. While traditional media was a one way vehicle, social media, by definition, is an open conversation. Public Relations professionals can, and do, continue to take that message and engage consumers and mass audiences, but now on the level of the individual or micro-community, as this degree of interactivity is presently expected of, though not necessarily delivered by, most brands. The popularity of blogging and platforms like Twitter, built on an ongoing public dialogue, allow publicists and digital strategist to identify, interject, and engage those who would be interested in learning about and associating with the brand’s values and core beliefs. Facilitating this discussion, in my opinion, should fall to those who have been doing so until now…publicists.

Question #2: Who Made The New York Times (or WSJ, CNN…) King?

That is to say, we live in an era characterized by the public’s ability and desire to produce and disseminate their own content, whether via Blogging, Tweeting, Facebook, YouTube, FriendFeed…etc. So, why do brands still rely on traditional media outlets to broadcast their message, insisting that these are the more powerful channels? Obviously, most reputable organizations have, at this point, begun reaching out to bloggers and utilizing social sites. In this light, a Daily News article begs the question “Will it matter who you watch anymore?”

My answer would be a resounding NO. In fact, for people and brands alike, I’d go so far as to pose a corollary that may be even more telling of our times, “Why should I watch them, when they should be watching me!?”

I recently attended GasPedal’s Blogwell Conference in Chelsea Piers, at which I was privy to the social media insights and experiments being conducted by some of today’s most recognized national brands, including, Microsoft, GE, Coke, Nokia, and Johnson & Johnson.

GE struck me as really having taken advantage of some of these sentiments, in the creation of their GEReports website, which acts as a hybrid between blog & media outlet. The site is designed to serve as an additional voice for GE and a portal for niche audiences to find relevant, interesting information – an innovative and seemingly effective way to employ social media and capitalize on the public’s unwavering desire to be heard and have their specific interests catered to. Yes – I ended a sentence in a preposition…deal with it.

After fighting my way through the crowd, I was able to catch GE’s Communications & Social Media Specialist, Megan Parker who kindly informed me that one of the foci of the site, and the primary basis for both content and measuring success, were the comments posted by their readership…and I thought “Brilliant.”

I pondered the connection between these questions and concepts for a while, implicitly understanding a significant relationship existed between them, but unable to articulate it, even to myself. That is, until I came across a series of blog posts rallying the PR industry to step up and embrace the evolving landscape of media. Almost simultaneously, though perhaps not coincidently, I stumbled onto a twitter conversation about “People Relations.”

Ari Herzog directed me to a post by David Mullen in which he coins the term (as far as I understand it) People Relations, resultant of a discussion with Shannon Paul. The post, The “P” in PR Should Stand for “People” is an enlightening one and hits on some very interesting and very true points about today’s society.

As Mr. Mullen eloquently puts it,

Shannon Paul suggested that integrating social media into communications strategies was putting the “P” back in PR, renewing a focus on public instead of media. I agree with Shannon a bit, but wanted to up the ante.

Shouldn’t the “P” stand for People? My wife and I aren’t a public. We’re people. I’m willing to bet you’d say you’re people, too.

Yes, I know that “public” refers to groups of people, but that still feels a bit cold to me. This is more about changing our mindset, for those of us who need it. People expect more personal relationships and one-to-one conversations. People want to share their dreams and fears. People want to be heard. People want connections.”

I say, we take this one step further. These once disparate, yet intimately intertwined and overlapping, arenas of PR, Communication, Customer Service, Advertising, Marketing and Social Media, are now coalescing and ‘People Relations’ is the resulting amalgamation. A new industry is developing, borne of necessity & experimentation; Social Media agencies, in order to actualize their eponymous mission, must become People Relations agencies, and they must draw lessons from their predecessors in order to succeed.

The New York Times & CNN are no longer the kings of content and the importance of blogger relations, so recently the epitome of successful digital marketing, is now losing meaning (though not value), as everyone’s voice becomes equally valid. I don’t need to be an avid or established blogger to tweet a scathing, 140 character, early adopter’s review of some new tech gadget that can result in the same damage as a comprehansive, half page analysis David Pogue might give the same product in the New York Times a month later. As soon as I have an opinion on anything, I have a plethora of media vehicles – textual, graphical, audio/visual, even musical – at my disposal by which to express myself.

One does not need to be a veteran video journalist to capture groundbreaking events on a phone and upload it to YouTube (or snap a shot of a plane in the Hudson River and ‘twitpic’ it before major news outlets are aware of what’s (not) flying. Not to mention the ever growing mass of new media celebrities such as lifecaster, Jill Hanner, comedian/musicians Rhett & Link, and the TMI group, whose show was recently picked up by an NBC outlet, all of whom must have ventured to, at some point, ask themselves, whether implicitly or explicitly, “Why rely on Big Media to broadcast our content when we have the means to do so ourselves?”

People Relations means catering to each and every individual – it means that marketers, publicists, customer relations specialists, and advertisers must understand – The single person is no longer a small fish; individual voices rival, or have the potential to rival, even the largest, most authoritative of the old media outfits. This is why & how brands should employ twitter. Not by barraging innocent followers with an endless stream of promotions and marketing propaganda; nor should they limit themselves to mere customer service. They must learn to treat each and every individual, to the extent that it’s feasible and cost effective, as if they were the editors of the Wall Street Journal, the way tech start-ups have come to treat TechCruch’s Michael Arrington.

The sense of entitlement associated with today’s youth and adolescents will only grow with each new generation. Publishing giants will flail and fall, and eventually fail. And while the rest of us wax nostalgic, this ever-growing legion of young producers will simply proclaim “New York Times? I AM the New York Times.”

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  1. Melfi says:

    Nice post David. I would argue with your point however, that it does matter who or where you get your information from. Take Twitter for example, when MJ passed or with the Hudson crash, the “news” broke on Twitter. There was a flood of information, but half of it was false or only partly true. We still went to the LA Times (for MJ) and the NY Times (for the Hudson crash) for analysis of the situation. That’s something you can’t get in 140 characters.

    “News” and content might be in social media, but we still look to established journalists to interpret it for us.

    • Aerocles says:

      But for how long…with so many NY Times And LA Times & Washington Post & CNN Journalists on twitter…why not just go directly to them for verification of the facts? why need an article when they can tweet a simple true/false, relegating them to fact checkers and post event analysis?

      • Melfi says:

        With the intricate details related to the Bear and Lehman collapses, how could 140 characters or simple true/false tweets do the story justice? BNO News will announce information as best they can when something breaks, but some things are just far too complex to comprehend through social media.

        I agree we could turn to established journalists on Twitter for info, but if they are flooded with @replies, wouldn’t it be easier for them to blog it, and leave the comments section open for discussion keeping all the information organized?

  2. Danny Brown says:

    Some interesting points raised here, David, and ones that could spawn a whole series of conversations. 🙂

    I’d disagree with the notion that PR should handle social media, (or that there should even be a dedicated social media agency). I would agree that marketing shouldn’t bear sole responsibility either, and I say that coming from a marketing/PR background. Everyone should be involved.

    As you say, customer service is at the front line of most everything to do with a brand or company (and something I look at in my next post). They’re the guys that offer the voice of the company, the first point of contact, the savers or destroyer’s of reputations. So I’d offer more power to them from a social media standpoint.

    Yet they shouldn’t be the sole focus either. Involve the whole company; offer each department a voice and presence online; make the company the most visible and open company around (within reason, obviously) and be the human brand that your competitors aren’t (yet).

    I’d also say that traditional media is still a hugely important factor in news sharing. Yes, Twitter is instant but as Melfi says, it’s unreliable. Even with more journos using the service, it’s still too limiting in its current form to offer a substantial outlet for news. Think of it more a teaser piece, and then the journos can use their fact-finding and employer website to flesh out the breaking story with facts.

    There are some great examples of social media breaking news and affecting news; but they’re still pretty small compared to the news that CNN, BBC, Reuters et al breal every single day away from social media. I think until we get to that level of news and influence, social media (and particularly Twitter) still has a way to go.

    Great views, and thanks for a thoughtful piece.

  3. kenwheaton says:

    Like it or not, MSM are still kings and queens of content. Those of us who spend half the day on Twitter and other such sites tend to get a skewed view of the world. Twitter is a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the people actually consuming news. And, as pointed out earlier, it’s often wrong. Further, its users have a more inflated sense of importance than even the MSM — something I thought impossible. Evidence? Twitterers acting like they actually had something to do with events in Iran. (Don’t get me started). And while I’m slapping around my favorite toy, note that Twitter users are actually old compared to other forms of social media, so it’s not exactly like kids are rushing to use it (Having just spent a week with a bunch of kids, most of them thought Twitter was something for old losers who didn’t go out anymore — which sort of described me!)

    In terms of reporting, there are people–including kids growing up these days–who grow up wanting to be journalists, story tellers, reporters. They don’t want to sit on a social network site and answer yes/no questions — and who’s going to pay them to do so. And consumers of news/information want someone resembling an expert to analyze the streams of information out there. Newsweeklies like Time and Newsweek aren’t struggling because people don’t want what they have to offer — it’s because of the weekly print schedule.

    Yes, there’ll be a great shaking out at some point. There are too many print publications, magazines in particular, and the old business model isn’t keeping up like it used to. But newspapers are, surprisingly, still profitable (when run correctly). And MSM-type outlets will be around long after you and I are dead.

    People want an authoritative voice. It’s no coincidence that the more popular bloggers tend to be authoritative and exhibit some sort of expertise.

    In terms of where Social Media falls in a marketing outfit? IDEALLY, it would fall with the CMO or some high-level exec who gets how social media works and can be frank and fun. With all due respect, CONSUMERS don’t want to hear from a publicist or PR professional. You guys have a public perception almost as bad as journalists! Consumers want to feel like they’re talking to the man or woman in charge — not to the person who polishes his words, covers for him when things go bad, gets paid to make him look good.

    That said, if it’s not going to be the CMO or a high-level exec, we shouldn’t think in terms of PR, advertising, media silos but rather find the person in the organization who’s best suited for any particular social media. If that’s the PR person, so be it. If it’s one of the engineers, that’ll work too. Whoever it is, though, should be someone who can actually solve a consumer’s problem when the crap hits the fan, because I imagine that’s what most consumer’s will end up going to a “brand” for: “Why isn’t this working and when will you fix it?!”

    So whoever it is will have to have the customer-relations department on speed dial.

    As far as STRATEGY goes … yeah, I guess that perhaps that should be left to the publicist side of things.

  4. I’m really enjoying the thought process here.

    I’ll nitpick certain parts of it. For instance, I do think mainstream media still matters in a big way – without it, all these bloggers and tweeters would have much less to buzz about (and far less of substance).

    I also don’t think all people matter equally. Some people do have more influence than others. And marketers, PR execs (however you define PR), and others need to prioritize. If a million people are buzzing about something, not every one of them is going to get a response. Separating the wheat from the chaff becomes even more important.

  5. […] Anyway, It’s a great read and something I discussed in a recent post of mine on the topic of People Relations […]

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