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With all the hype surrounding social media, you’d think traditional media is dead, social media is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and we’re on the cusp of a communication revolution that will dramatically change public relations as we know it.
Relax. It isn’t, yes and no, and not necessarily.
There’s no arguing Internet use and participation in social media has had a significant impact on our media consumption habits and the way we develop relationships.
In January 2009, the Pew Internet & American Life Project reported that the share of adult Internet users with a profile on an online social networking site has quadrupled since 2005 - a jump from 8% in 2005 to 35% in December 2008. If you look at statistics from the Newspaper Association of America, newspaper circulation has dropped 18% between 1998 and 2008. And love it or hate it, Twitter is growing by leaps and bounds, even among teens.
For all the hype, there are communication basics that will not - and should not - change. There are five questions you need to make sure you’re asking as you address client or organizational needs:
Think about it. None of these are new questions that have mushroomed in our industry since social media took over the world. Strategic communication activities are those that support the accomplishment of specific organizational goals in a measurable way. That means you have to know your audience, which means listening to them, and good communicators have been doing that for years, it wasn’t invented by social media.
It means knowing your organization’s business objectives, and figuring out how you’ll implement a mix of communication tactics to support and achieve those business objectives. And if you don’t set a benchmark, you’ll have no way of knowing whether or not you did in fact achieve them, or whether your communications were completely off the mark. That means focusing on outcomes, not just outputs, as the Institute for Public Relations has been writing, talking and teaching about for years.
Don’t get me wrong. Digital platforms have made us more efficient, extended our reach and given us a plethora of new tools to add to the communicator’s toolkit. If there’s one thing that social media has taught - or reminded - professional communicators of, it’s the importance of engaging with your audience. So rather than decide willy-nilly what social media tools you’re going to incorporate into your outreach, spend a little time learning about, and how to use, them.
There are tremendous resources available online; if you’re feeling really clueless, head over to Mashable or ReadWriteWeb and do a search for the topics you’re interested in. If you’re still part of the “I don’t get Twitter” brigade, get over it. I did. And don’t forget to investigate social networks like LinkedIn and Flickr; depending on the needs of your audience and where they like to engage, they could add tremendous value to your outreach.
The Pledge to End Hunger, a campaign for Share Our Strength, Tyson Foods and Hum conceived and led by Scott Henderson of MediaSauce, is a great case study in doing digital communication right. It had clear goals: raising awareness of childhood hunger in the US, giving people the tools to take action to do so, and organizing outreach efforts around the SXSW ’09 Interactive Festival - an event the target audience would be highly aware of and follow closely. So the team focused on active “Twitterati” and bloggers as the primary audience, along with SXSWi attendees and followers, but they didn’t disregard their corporate and non-profit e-mail databases.
With a standalone site as the online hub, the campaign integrated several social media “outposts” including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube into its outreach, making it easy for people to “give, volunteer or share,” the last being the most important, since every time someone “shared” the campaign, it extended their reach that much further. There was fun stuff too; an avatar that folks could use on Twitter or Facebook, a Twitter hashtag to track conversations and online badges that could be used on blogs to show support. There were extremely measurable objectives: number of pledge signees, donations to Share Our Strength, unique site visitors, and members of the Facebook cause.
Over the course of the campaign, there were more than 4,600 signatures to the Pledge, more than 19,000 site visitors and about 2,600 people who joined the Facebook Cause. Approximately $28,000 was donated to Share Our Strength with 95% from first-time visitors.
Success? I think so. Not just because Scott and his team used social media platforms well, but because they targeted their audience and set measurable objectives, integrated a range of tactics into their outreach, and focused on getting specific outcomes. (You can read more from Scott on campaign lessons on his blog here as well as over at Beth Kanter’s blog.) In other words, they made sure that their outreach incorporated the principles of good communication.
It’s easy to get lost in the "shiny new toy" aspect of social media. After all, it is fun. But at the end of the day, let’s not forget that good communication is about using a range of tactics to support and achieve business objectives - and social media is a part of that mix. Anything else, and we’re in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Shonali Burke is the award-winning Principal of Shonali Burke Consulting, Washington, D.C.