How did the PR industry lose the social media battle?

13 October 2011 By Northern Lights

How did the PR industry lose the social media battle? image

I am so frustrated!  Why has our PR industry completely lost out in positioning ourselves as the natural leaders to advise clients on social media?

I reckon it’s because we – and I include ourselves in this – have failed to get technical.   In our case we initially tried to do this through social media technical partnerships which have not delivered.  Hopefully we are getting there now with new partners.

So why the frustration now?  Over the summer I bought a feast of social media and search engine optimisation books to get technical.  One or two are fantastically technical – but most cover more about the approach needed for social media than the detailed hows and whys that will make blogging or tweeting actually work.

The gurus give endless tips as if they are ‘lightbulb’ moments to the reader – when in fact they are simply the basics of communication and the core skill of a good PR practitioner.

It is clear that most of these ‘gurus’ are working with companies and marketing teams who advertise and push messages out – unlike PR people who have always had to be engaging and added value or nothing we do would ever work.

Let’s see what the gurus are giving as their tips and advice – which most PR people will say are stating the obvious.  In PR we have always had to understand the mind-set of people we are communicating with.  Half of PR is about engagement.

  • Shama Hyder Kabani in her book The Zen of social media marketing says, ‘For the longest time, marketing consisted of putting out a message about a business or product that was controlled strictly by the business itself. ……  Social media is full of constant activity controlled by no-one in particular….. The Zen of social media marketing is about understanding the mind-set of people who are using social media and then using it to your advantage.’

In Shama’s book she talks about someone who asked her ‘Why do we use war terminology (campaign, tactics, strategy, target) to refer to social media?’  Shama points out that traditional marketing ‘had to make someone get your message.  You had to convince and convert.’

She also adds ‘Marketing was a one-way street.  Companies talked at the consumers and this was expected because there really was no viable way for customers to talk back….. Traditional marketing is about dominate the market, shout out loud, push the product or service, control, pursue ‘leads’.  Social media marketing is about create a community within the market, listen and then whisper, word of mouth, allow and nurture relationships.’

  • Tina Su of gives her tip for good social media as ‘produce interesting, value-packed and easy-to-understand content or services.
  • Shel Horowitz of gives his tip as ‘don’t sell, sell, sell; just get your message and over time you will be found’.
  • Scott Stratten in Unmarketing asks ‘Why do you buy the things you do?  Trust is one of the main drivers… important point in service-based businesses that many business owners fail to recognise.”
  • Danny Dover in Search Engine Optimization Secrets says in his book that even if you write good content but in an advertising sort of way – the internet will just ignore your copy.  ‘SEOs view the internet with powerful ad blinders.  If something looks like an ad, it often simply gets ignored.’

So what are the skills that PR people have (in abundance)?

–           We are writers and write ‘good content’ that journalists want to use (often without any changes) in their newspapers and magazines

–           Our content has to be independent, unbiased, factual, backed up, helpful and with a ‘so what’ about it – everything that social media and Google love

–           We design events with speakers and content that people want to attend and take part in

–           We engage with customers – get into their heads and understand their mindsets and issues and come up with ideas to address their problems

The PR industry is at the same crossroads as we were 15 years ago when websites began to take off.  At that time few PR professionals had web skills – so the designers led the way in creating (mostly) truly awful sites.  Gradually PR and marketing people started writing the copy and moving into influencing the approach, usability and content of websites – and eventually into managing the process.

Now the PR industry is gaining a foothold as an expert in social media communications – but do we really (as an industry) have the skills to lead on driving numbers and hits?  I don’t think so, not really.

We need help from our professional body to create cutting edge training bespoke to the needs of PR professionals.  And practitioners need to be prepared to go into the backroom of Google and their websites – and be happy to get technical.



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Written by Northern Lights


  • I don’t really agree with the picture that this post paints. IE: all websites in the beginning were terrible and that PR and marketing professionals came riding in on white horses to sort it all out.

    In the early days of the internet most websites were terrible – compared to now. But back then it was a natural progression using the limited technologies that were available. The websites back then were accepted as good websites because there was no benchmark, it’s easy in retrospect to say they were mostly all terrible. The designers, over time, have moved with new trends, technologies and have commited much time and effort into usability studies to determine how to best design and layout websites, creating common practices that most modern websites now follow.

    I do however agree that the content of websites (rather than the design) has improved significantly over the last few years thanks to PR, marketing and copywriting professionals recognising that we need good content, to get visitors and for better SEO.

    You points about PR/marketing professionals learning more about the technical side of SEO is a valid one, but I just don’t think that there should be too much of a crossover. Look at it like this:

    Think of SEO execs/developers as a car mechanic, and PR/marketing professionals as a motorist. The mechanic has maybe grown up around cars, his dad may have worked in a garage. The mechanic has studied the trade either during his education or as part of a course and has amassed a huge knowledge of cars over the years. He works with them every day.

    The motorist pays the mechanic to maintain and fix problems with his car, but wants to understand more about this himself and is trying to learn more about cars. He can’t just read a few books and become as skilled and knowledgeable as the mechanic, it’s just not possible. But he might be able to learn enough to give the car a quick service to save himself some money. He still relies on the mechanic for more technical work and diagnosing faults with the car.

  • HI James
    Thank you for such a thought-provoking comment! I love the analogy of the car mechanics.

    In principle I completely agree with the sense of dividing the roles. The unfortunate thing that we have found (until very recently – fingers crossed!) is that the car mechanic keeps failing to tell the motorist about what he could be doing to get better performance from his car in words that the motorist understands and can say – yes please, I’d like you to do this.

    That is partly because the mechanics are still stuck under the bonnet, not really interested in the car overall and whether it is delivering what the motorist wanted. Partly because customer service, anticipating the customer need and talking the motorist language etc is not really their ‘thing’.

    I’m hoping that we have found a gem of a person who gets business, can talk business language, can be introduced to clients and anticipates needs – and is exceedingly technical. If this works, it will be a great partnership with both of us learning from and helping each other.

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