I keep reading about brands that have used social media to reach their audience. It’s kind of funny when you think about that. First it’s funny because traditional media is writing about the very media that is killing them. Second, it’s funny how obsessed we are that social media is ‘different’ from old media. There seems to be a belief that social is inherently better. Why is that? Is it because social is seen as more democratic? Is it because social is seen as more real? Or is it because social is just the new way?
Before I go any further let me get one thing off my chest. While there is some traditional media left, the vast majority of media is now social. Most of our media has social aspects to it. We can share it, comment on it, create our own versions of it and directly influence it. Some purists would say that organizations such as the BBC are traditional media businesses. Yet if you look at almost all their online content it has a social element to it. The BBC has made real efforts to embrace social media and social network concepts. I still feel they could go a lot further but they have come a very long way in the last year. Organizations such as the New York Times have also taken bold steps as have publications such as Forbes. Again, there is more they could do but you have to applaud their efforts. We now follow their editors on Twitter, we get their news in real-time, we see comments from other readers.
So does all this mean that social is now the norm? I’d say that many aspects of social are the norm. Publications have realized that the value of content is directly linked to the number of people that share that content. Sharing an old fashioned print story was hard and rarely happened. Sharing a news story via twitter, Facebook, email etc is all too easy. So easy in fact that we are now looking for ways to filter all the content. When social arrived we all loved the idea that we could effectively let our friends filter the content for us. If our friends thought it was worth re-tweeting it was probably worth a read. With thousands of tweets landing on our feeds each day that method is a bust. We now need tools to filter the filter.
So the challenge for the media isn’t to become more social. The smart ones have already done that and are now struggling with how to break through all the clutter. Put another way, social media is starting to deal with the very same challenge most companies have been wrestling with since so much commerce went online. When people started buying products online search optimization took off. Now of course most social content has some optimization built in. But I’d argue that most tweets, blogs and YouTube videos are not that optimized (this blog is a great example). Indeed it would seem that content optimization is still a huge opportunity for the creators of content. Indeed I’d argue it is THE opportunity.
I’m sure some of the social media gurus out there will say I have this all wrong but IMHO there is still more talk than action on search from comms staff. Most comms staff don’t discuss search strategies, they talk about content strategies. They don’t conduct search audits, they conduct messaging audits. This is not surprising. Most of the people in communications have grown up with content as king. We are trained to find ways to craft messages not optimize for real time search engines. I’d argue that our obsession with content is a good thing BUT that we need an equal obsession on search if we are to win in a digital world. Content, however great it may be, has no value if nobody can find it.
PR agencies are all trying to figure out how best to take advantage of the shift to digital. The main point of debate for most agencies is whether they should embed digital skills across the agency or simply create a group of digital gurus. This is a real challenge and hard to get right. Given we all know that in time digital is going to be as commonplace in PR as the press release has been in the last 50 years, it would seem to make sense to take the route of spreading the skills across the agency. The counter argument to that though is that some of the skills needed to excel at digital communications are not ones all PR people can easily learn and are not ones they’ll always need. Some skills are so specialized that to load them on to the skill list of the average PR consultant is simply unrealistic at best and a waste of time at worst. Looked at this way it seems logical that some middle ground is the answer. Yes PR operators need to understand digital but they don’t need to be masters of everything, instead they need to call on experts to help them out. In many ways it’s like asking a crisis comms expert to come in when you need one. Most PR operators know the basics and could make a pretty good job of handling most crises but when a company’s reputation is on the line it seems sensible to bring in an experienced pro.
So what digital skills should a PR PRO have? Here’s my suggested list:
- They need to understand the basic online analytical tools that are available to capture what is being said on Twitter, Facebook, a Ning or Grouply site etc. They also need to be able to interpret the results of these social media measurement tools and connect the dots between this data and other data such as traditional media measurement output.
- They need to know how to manage a community so that it becomes a real community and not just their client posting to a sea of indifferent followers.
- They need to be able to create content that is suited to the various platforms the Internet offers. This is potentially the most difficult area as it requires PR people to move away for pure text-based content to visual images, audio and video as means of influencing people. PR people need to be able to think in terms of the impact an image or a video or a can have on someone’s perception of a brand.
- They need to understand search. This of course means SEO not just how to look something up on Google. It therefore means knowing how to optimize text, images and video so people find them. This is an area that is evolving. Right now all PR people should learn the basics but equally every PR agency should have access to an expert.
If you are just starting out, or have been in the industry for some time, these are skills that are going to be essential in the next few years. There are of course many others but in my view if you have a grasp of these you will be on the right track.