The public relations discipline is changing. Social media and the complexity of our lives are conspiring to alter the job and its relevance to business. If PR evolves based upon these pressures, it will become one of the most important contributors to the health and growth of business. If we do not step up, PR may become a tactical trade applied as an embellishment to the complex marketing programs of tomorrow. Our path will largely be determined by how we tackle two big phenomena: social media and complexity.
Let's just say that I havce an expansive view of the role of the communications professional. Last year, I outlined additional responsibilities and skills that challenge the traditional PR role. While the literal term "public relations" is even more relevant in this expanded view, the professional term may be irrevocably tarnished by images of media relations flacks - real or imagined. So, despite the chance for aliteration, we need to define the role of the "communications pro." In a December opinion piece for PR Week, I made the case for communications experts taking the lead on defining the brand and the strategy for engaging "publics" amidst an all-discipline, 360 approach. That means - in some cases - that with advertising creatives, digital marketers, store marketers and others around the planning table, it may be the communications experts who need to lead the strategy. This year, we have seen the rise of importance of communications (vs. marketing) in big global campaigns for brands.
To rise to that challenge, communications professionals need to master new skills (and poilish up old ones) to lead in this new environment.
The True Impact of Social Media on the Profession
Social media is pushing marketing and communications to work together more than ever before. Each discipline has something distinct to offer. Both need to grow to meet each other halfway and produce the biggest impact for brands hungry to transform the way they talk with customers. Social media demands new skills and old skills combined in new ways. The way we earn people’s attention and advocacy relates in some ways to the way we earned traditional media coverage but remains separate and full of nuance. We admit that in the volumes of new blogger outreach guidelines and internal social media policies we all create. Would these really exist if there weren’t a material difference?
Digital and social media puts consumers much more squarely in the driver’s seat of their own lives. We find content via the great aggregator – Google – when and where we need it. We are not waiting for the front page of the newspaper to flop open on our laps to tell us which way the wind blows. Nor are we waiting for the gardening show to come on at 7pm on HGTV to get our fill of our passion for orchids. The fact that 80% of us start our Internet session on Google makes clear that reputation and even business today has a lot more to do with what shows up in those first 10 blue links than most mass media.
Social media is not some new channel. At the end of the day, the true significance of social media for us as communications experts is all about word of mouth. Peers, friends, ‘strangers with expertise’ sharing about their favorite hotel, what they hate about their car, whether their medication is helping them. What we say to each other is most often far more trustworthy and impactful than any other form of marketing or communications. If reputations are reflected in search results than they are defined in the millions of conversations and word of mouth mentions across the social Web. How to productively engage with this universe of millions of potential influencers is the new challenge, and we had better get busy.
We Need to Master Complexity
The list of how social media affects us goes on. As for complexity, that translates into severe limits on our attention compared to the abundance of marketing messages popping up in every elevator, smartphone or even bathroom we, as consumers, use throughout our day. That means more and more complex marketing and communications programs (marcom) to try and connect with customers. That means a return to trying to understand people better (dare I say psychology and just plain listening?) and what is important to them vs. just trying to surprise them at the bus stop, in the mall or when they are trying to have a conversation with friends. Interruptive marketing will no longer cut it as a core strategy. We have to stop worrying about whether “engagement” sounds like a buzz word and just start practicing it. Public relations is ideally suited to earn people’s attention and advocacy. But the answer to scale likely sits in many of the other marketing disciplines. The communications pro of the future needs to know this. She needs to know how marketing and communications works. She needs to be a master of collaboration with digital marketing experts, CRM gurus, advertising creatives and more. She needs to live comfortably in complexity.
The Communications pro of the future must be a master of three important disciplines: Radical Listening, Social Influence, and Perpetual Beta. Within each are new practical skills that will define the true PR master – the next generation ‘”trusted advisor.” Of course there is one final, critical ingredient: judgment. More on that later.
Next up: Radical Listening...