Why PR Agencies Fail at Social Media

Here’s the big reason: They treat social media like media relations.

PR agencies excel at selling client stories to media outlets.  This practice has been one of the cornerstones of PR for decades and clients often measure the worth of their agencies by the number of media “hits” they generate.

Enter social media.

Mr. Blogger, please, please, write about my best of breed client!

Mr. Blogger, please, please, write about my best of breed client!

With this media-focused mentality ingrained, PR agencies started to treat social media as another tool to capture media attention.  So they use Twitter to follow reporters and editors – and as another channel to pitch client stories to them.  They try to “friend” journalists on Facebook so they can pitch them there as well.  They approach blogs from the perspective of a blog as another media outlet and the blogger as just another journalist to write about their clients.

And that’s the disconnect.  PR agencies are stuck to the idea of this third-party validation.

What they fail to recognize is that social media is a way to bypass media relations.  Social media is, indeed, another channel – but a channel for clients to talk directly to important constituent groups – like customers, partners and investors – without a media filter.

This media relations mentality, of course, leads to uproar among bloggers and social media types – and the oft shouted refrain: “PR people just don’t get social media.”  Combine this to other factors – such as PR agency economics – and the problems really begin.

But if PR agencies would approach social media without worrying about media relations – the true value and power of social media emerges.

Twitter, for example, isn’t a pitching tool (although it can be – but that’s not where the real value lies).  It’s a platform where brands can listen to ongoing conversations about their products and services.  It’s a place where brands can engage directly in these conversations.  PR agencies need to understand how the conversation works on Twitter and be the knowledgeable guides for their clients on when and how to participate.

The same goes for Facebook.  Here’s a platform where brands can set-up pages and actually have thousands of people (“fans”) opted in to learn more about their products and services.  So engage!  Listen to what these fans want and give it to them in a compelling and interesting ways.  PR agencies need to learn how to help their clients create this kind of content – from written articles to videos and podcasts.

And blogging isn’t just about pitching bloggers.  It’s about brands creating their own blogs – discovering their own voice.  Using the blog to talk directly to customers and to other bloggers.

By using social media channels correctly and creating compelling content for constituents and, as David Meerman Scott noted in his excellent book “New Rules for Marketing & PR”, the media will take notice – and write about you.  Because the media – like your customers – are looking for interesting content, new approaches, and ideas.

Jennifer Leggio, ZDNet columnist and social media expert, will soon be releasing the second half of her survey about PR agencies and social media – and apparently the news is grim.  Without a doubt Jennifer (with her survey partner Nicole Jordan) will drop some bombs about why there continues to be a disconnect between agencies and clients about social media.

But many of the problems would go away if PR agencies stopped viewing social media as a branch of media relations.

UPDATE: Here is the link to the second part of Jennifer Leggio’s survey.

10 Responses to “Why PR Agencies Fail at Social Media”

  1. George,
    They are not ignoring it, they are desperately covering it up. You can probably count on part of one hand the number of agencies that are PR only.
    They are all jumping on the ‘Social Media Tricycle’,Blog, Facebook and Twitter.

    Since they are actively promoting themselves with these, they are presenting themselves as the one true way for ‘brand management’, which is an oxymoron of the first water at this point in time. Just Google ‘brand x sucks’ for a fast lesson in brand management. Although a good pitch does result in some short term billable’s.

    PR agencies are not in the people business, they are in the reporter business. You can’t use a shotgun for shooting PR targets anymore, you have to use a target pistol, and frankly most PR agencies were crappy shots before and their aim isn’t getting any better.

  2. I couldn’t disagree more. Bad PR practitioners are in the media-pitching business. Good PR practitioners are in the engagement business. There is much more to PR than media relations. As a PR person you should know this.

    Social media provides an opportunity to engage your clients’ audiences and receive a real-time snapshot of how your clients are viewed. It’s not just pitching bloggers and befriending them on Twitter and Facebook. It’s about embracing all audiences, including online media, customers, employees and other stakeholders. Social media PR is fishing where the fish are, not throwing a line out in the middle of a pond.

    Think of political microtargeting. Social Media allows companies and brands to microtarget small (and often influential) groups. There is no better way to learn of the success or failure of your strategies or tactics than by connecting to real people.

    Media relations is only a tactic of public relations. PR firms that can’t get beyond this are the failed firms that spam journalists by the thousands. It is these firms that think social media is another media relations tactic, and they will never understand the power of engaging the public.

  3. Great piece, I see where you’re coming from, however… PR is about PUBLIC RELATIONS, not just media relations.

    As a newbie PR but with some background and a strong interest in content creation and branding I agree with all you say about how you should engage with social media – but strongly disagree with your view of PR agencies. I realise your thoughts express a general overview of the industry, and I don’t doubt there are agencies out there who’ve got it this horribly wrong, but we’re not all like that.

    There’s a lot to learn about social media, there are unspoken rules to obey and pitfalls to avoid at every turn. Nobody wants to be a ‘troll’ or become a ‘social media spammer’ because nobody intends to upset people, these are mistakes that people make, and we all learn from them. It’s certainly a new way of thinking but PR agencies are just as capable of figuring it out and I believe the skills experienced PRs already possess put them significantly ahead of the agency pack when it comes to effectively working with social media.

    Media relations is a small part of public relations. What we aim to do in the long term for most of our clients is increase sales (I specialise in automotive so this is especially important), as should be the aim of any form of ‘marketing’ tool used by our clients. Improving & building brand perception, increasing site traffic, achieving media coverage etc are all, in my view, steps towards improving the public perception of the client company. But ultimately all of the agencies on a project are working to increase sales and give the clients a tangible return on their investment, as increased revenue.

    PR agencies are perfectly positioned to begin interaction with social media, they just need to learn how to use and select from the tools available. The skills experienced PRs have, mean they should already know how to interact and have a ‘conversation’ with the public, not just send out a one way message, they should know how to select the elements of the story that will appeal to any specific target audience, and they should know how to create or tailor a message to make it interesting to the reader/listener/viewer/gamer.

    As an agency, we are certainly working with our clients to get involved with forums, bloggers, networking sites and a range of social media tools to ENGAGE with the public directly. We don’t want to push a message on them, we want to listen to what they have to say, good and bad. We want to know what they think about every element of our brand, from products through to customer service. We want to work with them to understand their issues with, or love of, any aspect of the company so that we can help our clients to improve their service. Ultimately I hope that this will help to improve public belief in the brands I work on and create brand champions within communities, who in themselves are essential tools for achieving further reach.

    Of course we’ll continue to work with the journalists too, mostly in the ways we did before, but now also possibly including the odd tweet or Facebook message. To continue the metaphor above, social media hasn’t taken away the shotgun or the pistol – it’s given us a whole new range of shiny weapons we can use to hit the target, some just need a little more practise on the range!

  4. Hi Patrick and Suzanne:
    Thanks for your comments. I’ve been a senior executive at several PR agencies (and I’m a former journalist who has worked with PR people) and fully understand the entire scope of valuable services PR agencies provide. I haven’t – nor have I ever – argued against the value of PR. I believe it is a crucial component of any corporate marketing and communications plan. It’s also how I make my living.

    My observation here is that PR agencies keep screwing up on social media because many PR people treat it as a part of media relations. I’m not arguing that PR = media relations.

    However, if you don’t believe that media relations has been one of the most important aspects of PR agencies for the last two decades, I think you are mistaken.

  5. I do not deny in any way that media relations is an incredibly important part of PR. I completely agree that it has been and I certainly believe, still is, one of the most important aspects of what we do.

    But I also believe that there are new ways of communicating to new groups of people opening up to us all of the time, most of which haven’t existed for the last twenty years. I think our remit has shifted, not changed entirely and that those who don’t embrace the new tools on offer will be left behind by the agencies that find ways to work with them most effectively and optimise their influence.

  6. I made a similar point on BeyondBanner.com recently. While some are saying that media relations is just a small part of PR, I think that misses the point if this post -which I agree with. That too many PR people approach social media as a tool to reach media. Unless your social community is for media, saying that you will target media through your social media channels is a false premise. Your social channels are about the individuals you want to engage in a two-way conversation. If media find that dialogue relevant, great. But, they should not be the target for anything you post or discuss in your community. And, when you take media out of the equation, you’ll find that your content opportunities open up.

    And, I wouldn’t say that these aren’t PR channels. I’d broaden the definition to say that these aren’t advertising or marketing channels, either. As marketers, we’re used to dealing in mass mediums and in campaign mode. These channels are about reaching the individual in aggregate consistently. Every piece of content or discussion you have leveraged your social capital. Make it count.

  7. Hi Brad:
    Well put. And thanks for the link to your blog. I see you work at Fleishman-Hillard. Say hello to Jason Glashow, the general manager of F-H in Boston, for me. Great guy and great PR consultant.

  8. I have to go back and again say that social media is engagement and so is public relations. PR engages its audiences, media and otherwise, while advertising and marketing broadcast messages, slogans and logos (for the most part).

    Jennifer Leggio’s Social PR Survey was cited in the original post. She found that PR agencies use social media to build brands and awareness. She says PR agencies get it and she quotes respondents as saying:

    “Don’t market through all social networks at once, pick and choose those becoming a new communications channel to potential customers”

    “Build the customer relationship by communicating directly with them — sharing news, answering questions, clarifying inaccuracies”

    “Tie Social Media Tactics Back to the Broader Strategy – Always consider how a digital or social media tactic supports the broader client strategy and provides value. Social media tactics without a purpose are pointless”

    The problem cited is the disconnect between agencies and clients, which is mostly true for PR. After all, clients want to see results on the bottom line (sales).

    Which brings me to the point from my earlier comment – social media is about engagement. PR folks who spam mainstream media and the same PR folks who spam bloggers and don’t understand social media. I know of many PR agencies that require employees to spam for a living. It’s wrong.

    On the other hand, many PR agencies do understand social media. They use it to engage their clients’ audiences and ultimately see fantastic results. And they don’t measure by newspaper hits, television hits or blog hits. They measure by engagement and conversion.

    HITS – How Idiots Track Success (Jason Baer)

  9. Hi Patrick:
    Thanks for clarifying. I believe we’re in violent agreement.


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