“The public relations lens is starting to erode,” said Peter Lang, Social Media Strategist and CEO of Peter Lang International, “as we need to start looking at things from an overall business standpoint.”
Peter Lang describes himself as a “technology enthusiast.” Bringing international expertise on technology, Lang and his team at Peter Lang International assist in developing personal branding techniques and social media strategy.
I had the privilege of talking with Lang this past week. Over the phone, we discussed the fact that the public relations industry itself has not changed, but the number of those who involve themselves in the field has greatly increased. Lang also offered advice on how to truly benefit from the use of social media in the professional world.
Before we begin, I want to walk you through something that Lang had me do myself to realize how fairly recent social media jargon is. Do this: on a new tab in your browser, go to Google Trends. Once there, simply type in the words “social media” in the search bar and click the “search trends” button. Google Trends shows you how often a particular term is entered, in relation to the total amount of search for that word across various regions of the world.
As you’ll notice, social media is a fairly recent trend. With this rising trend, however, we find that public relations itself hasn’t changed. Rather, more people are participating through the use of blogs, online videos and a multitude of Internet content. Lang noted that “the volume of participation has increased so much that it’s becoming valuable and relevant. It’s nearly close to the entire nation’s population.”
Technological development influences our progression and our participation.
The more “user-friendly” something becomes, the more people will begin to use it. It sounds like a brainless philosophy, but it is growing more evident in the world of public relations.
Take the traditional news release, for example. In years past, according to Lang, the news release was something that was directed from the public relations agent to the media specifically. Now, news releases are available on the Internet and are being written directly to the consumer. They are no longer being sent from one company to another. They are now being written by one company and sent to the world.
There are now places such as Business Wire and PR Web where readers can sift through a multitude of online news releases. “Our means of distribution has drastically changed, with the evolution of social media,” Lang commented.
News releases can now be written and aimed directly at the public, no longer solely at the media conglomerate. We can now write material and distribute it to our audience and have them see what we want.
“For the first time, we can generate brands and we control the public perception of that brand,” according to Lang.
Relevancy is the key to keep you alive in the industry.
Nobody will take you seriously if you don’t stay relevant. Lang compared this idea to the ocean: “The most successful sharks in the ocean can follow their prey and keep up with it.”
It’s not an easy job. Staying relevant is difficult when the social media software itself changes about every nine months. Not many people have the learning capacity and because of that, “they do a lot of things flawed and they fail,” according to Lang.
Overall, Lang advised that if you have a curiosity for something, you will succeed. If you remain curious about your industry and curious about social media, you will find success. You have to be open to change and be willing to adapt.
“The public relations lens is starting to erode. You have to learn just beyond the PR lens,” Lang said. “Once you understand this and you’re not afraid to interact with your environment–you’ll go far.”
Recall, if you will, when Facebook made its website open to everyone–this place of social networking was no longer limited to those with an e-mail address ending in “.edu.”
Today, according to Facebook’s own “Press Room,” the statistics show that the site is now home to over 500 million users who “spend over 700 billion minutes per month on Facebook.”
With that many users and that amount of use, it is a public relations professional’s dream and it is also be a great temptation.
The question is: if you’re able to reach out to so many people in one place, are you going to remain ethical throughout your stay?
I had the pleasure of reading a post out of the Journalistics blog from earlier this year about the use of Facebook for public relations. Here, it’s solidified that Facebook is a great means of developing media relations and getting one’s own personal or organizational brand out to the public.
Also, Facebook has helped public relations professionals in the building of “brand affinity.” Facebook becomes the bridge between the public and your brand, if used correctly. Facebook can also become the burning bridge between the public and your brand, if used improperly.
I’m reminded of the “Nestlé incident” that happened via Facebook in March. After an uproar by environmental activists against Nestle’s use of palm oil in their candy bars, social media sites (YouTube, Facebook and Twitter) were plagued with negative attention against the brand. The company was successful in removing negative videos that were posted on YouTube but couldn’t really cease the “protestor fan base” that had accumulated on Facebook.
The ethical issue here is simply: should social media be used to bash a company and its product? I believe there a difference between stating your negative opinion on a social networking site and waging a full war against a company. There’s a line drawn with public relations professionals and be careful not to cross it.
There are many ways we can utilize Facebook for public relations. Here are a couple that I could think of for professionals to ethically use the social networking site.
Firstly, develop your “friend-to-friend” relationship (or, “business-to-consumer” communication). How you develop your personal (or corporate) profile on the Internet is how the public is going to perceive you. After all– perception is reality. For example, when I finalize a blog post, I usually will post a “status update” on my Facebook, letting my friends know what I’ve recently developed. Simultaneously, I will “tweet” my new blog post to my followers on Twitter. As a result, my friends and followers will see this information and (hopefully) become engaged.
Another way for public relations professionals to ethically engage in Facebook is to develop groups on the website. These groups allow solid discussion about a certain subject. In our case, it could be a new product’s launch). Not only can you lead the discussion for public relations via your “group,” but you can also learn a few things from other businesses and their use of groups.
Overall, the public receives almost too much information from the media. The public has many outlets by which they are reached. As a public relations professional, it’s best to reach them through a medium that you believe the public is more easily accessible. In today’s world that medium is Facebook.
I want to begin with the story of a group of teachers from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in Charlotte, N.C who got in trouble for Facebook. They each had pages on the growing social networking site and each posted a variety of inappropriate comments about their students, their school and their job. Some posted inappropriate pictures of vulgar poses and inebriation. Many parents found this behavior quite unacceptable, and one parents commented that she expected this type of behavior “from teenagers and not teachers.” Teachers have images to uphold, after all, and they shouldn’t tarnish this over the Internet, right? Leaders of the CMS school district took appropriate action and terminated some of their employees. While this story might be two years old, the message remains the same: how public do you want to make yourself regardless of it you have “an image” to uphold?
In her welcoming keynote address at the 2010 SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas, Danah Boyd discussed the idea of “privacy and publicity.” Boyd goes on to define that what is public shouldn’t always be publicized. She talks about differentiating between “PII and PEI:” The former, Personally Identifiable Information, is information that people are more comfortable with sharing, what they want others to know and how they want others to find them online. The latter, Personally Embarrassing Information, is what most people want kept secret–it may get into the hands of someone who would use the information mischievous.
But now, from a public relations standpoint, how are practitioners supposed to handle this idea of public versus privacy? With the developing simplicity of anybody to log on the Internet and post about themselves, the ethics of any PR practitioner is highly challenged as he or she must distinguish between what is necessary and what is excessive information to use.
In Boyd’s address, she says that “people regularly calculate both what they have to lose and what they have to gain when entering public situations.” In essence, people aren’t stupid. They know what they’re getting themselves into.
It’s all in the morals of the practitioner, I believe, as to how “limiting” public information is in developing any campaign, etc. A practitioner could be presented with an array of personal information about somebody, but that information (morally) shouldn’t be used, as it could be permanently harming to that individual and his or her reputation.
To the individuals themselves: be conscious of what you do online. You’re putting your information out into a world that can make you go viral in seconds. Literally. The teachers from Charlotte learned the hard way.
While you might not have bad intentions, be aware that you could, as Boyd puts it: “find [yourselves] in a lot of trouble in ways that [you] weren’t expecting.”