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In: Social Media

Social media provides a revolutionary set of tools for people and organizations to influence each other in a way that was not encountered before its emergence. These positions public relations as the communication discipline best suited to lead social media's application, enabling it to destroy the old paradigms of command-and-control communication to the fullest possible.

The web-like, and web-driven, capabilities of social media also encapsulate the fundamental, driving methodology that underpins the application of best practice public relations, that of two-way symmetrical communication.

Command and control PR – a tautology?

Command-and-control communication is based on a one-way, essentially asymmetrical process that sees organizations' release 'information to their stakeholders in an' outwards'-oriented manner … and that is it.

If it is deemed newsworthy enough, maybe the media 'translate' the information on its way to reaching an organization's ultimate target audiences. And some organizations may employ mechanisms such as stakeholder forums or roadshows and / or attend expos / events that limited numbers of people can physically participate in.

Apart from face-to-face communication, there once was not really an opportunity for people to interact with each other, engage in conversations and drive their own communication about this information. They did not get to, apart from in relatively small groups, 'own' the information and / or resulting discussion.

Activist PR

Well, has not that been revolutionized! There are now citizens armies of 'activists' (ie you, me, our mums, anyone who is on the web) armed with the weapons to broadcast their knowledge, ignorance, prejudices and issues globally with a pretty low degree of difficulty.

Now, all organizations are under pressure to give up command-and-control and join in the new paradigm. This is a model that involves control of communication and reputation becoming shared between an organization and its stakeholders.

The upside of this organizations is that, potentially, they become more embedded in their stakeholders' lives, their reputations are enhanced and organization / product / service loyalty is built up. The downside is that they are, more than ever before, putting themselves out there in the 'stakeholder environment' and simply can not control information / conversations and, since, reputation and brand loyalty, as they once did (or thought they did, anyway) .

Social media = best practice public relations

The modern reality is that if organizations do not listen to and participate in these social media-driven conversations then they are:
– leaving themselves open to reputation / brand / stakeholder relationship damage
– missing opportunities to develop / enhance products / services and / or enhance reputation and / or brand loyalty.

Additionally, social media is an excellent early warning, issues management system that identifies stakeholders' needs, wants and issues and can help organizations get in front of a reputational firestorm if it happens to be going down.

The increasing power of social media / Web 2.0 is an almost poetically beautiful encapsulation of two-way symmetrical communication, a notice devised and extended by James Grunig and his numerous academic collections and peers.

Two-way symmetrical communication defines public relations as a socially beneficial business discipline (no, that's not an oxymoron), partly because it defines one of public relations professionals' key roles as being boundary spanners. This is when PR professionals identify issues and information that will prompt an organization to evolve as well as prompting organizational stakeholders to change – whether these changes be related to knowledge, perceptions or behavior.

Social media reinforces the primacy and potency of public relations and its two-way symmetrical communication notice in the following ways:
– It is contracted of truly dialogic communication mechanisms
– It is democratic – no one entity (organization or stakeholder) has any more power or 'share of voice' than the other (ie In the eyes of God all Twitter accounts are made equal)
– It facilitates communication, interaction and reputational information being driven as much by stakeholders as by organizations
– It has immunity global reach and is 'plugged in' to a range of senior stakeholders, including politicians, media and NGOs.

PR looks at the big organizational / societal picture

Public relations professionals are the best qualified to oversee the social media mechanisms an organization uses to communicate with its stakeholders. This is essentially because public relations puts a higher priority on the whole organization-stakeholder relationship than marketing or advertising does. The latter, after all, is one tactical manifestation of marketing and is not cognisant of the larger issues at play.

Certainly, however, many instances where markets should drive the communication to promote products or services, but even that should fit into an organization's overarching principles (and this includes the cultural and moral principles that organizations have developed with their stakeholders, as well as whatever 'communication principles' exist).

One area where marketing can provide valuable insights into 'managing' (although being involved with, and influencing, are better ways of describing the dialectic) social media is through its superior expertise in leveraging databases. Social media 'players' are more fluid and organic than a reliably static database, but there are additional synergies that come from managing large numbers of stakeholders that can be communicated to directly.

The best public relations practitioners are the ones that see the larger societal picture, society being the context in which organizations exist and what gives organizations permission to exist. Without holders support and / or custom, it is highly unlicensed organizations will operate to their optimum ambitions and capacities.

At the very least, social media holds up a fractured, multi-faced and many-peopled – but very clear, reality-capturing mirror – to an organization.

Forget the market research, forget the preconceptions / gut-feel: social media captures the world today (well, that part of the world which has access to it) as it really is – its thoughts, its experiences, its behavior and its intentions.

Right now, it is imperative that PR takes the opportunity the emergence of social media is presenting to prompt organizations to respect the needs, wants and issues of their stakeholders in order to survive, and prosper, in our new, technologically-fortified and conversation- empowered world.