Last Friday I went to see a “mock lecture” by Hillary Shulman, a faculty applicant for North Central’s Speech Communication department. She spoke on public relations and the new media, placing particular emphasis on the often rocky relationship between advertisers and users of social networking sites like Facebook and YouTube.
Hillary explained how modern public relations experts and advertising executives have attempted to use these social networks to more effectively reach their increasingly “plugged-in” young audiences, and how their new media Web campaigns can easily yield unexpected results, sometimes backfiring entirely. She then listed several strengths and weaknesses of social media from a public relations perspective:
|Social media is highly versatile, allowing public relations experts greater creative freedom.||Social media easily leads to “inconsistent messaging” as these media continue to change rapidly.|
|By mingling with their consumers on a more personal level, public relations presences on social networks can make themselves appear more credible.||Public relations presences on social networks are intrinsically biased. Consumers can easily recognize this bias and judge the public relations campaign in a negative light.|
|The ability of social networks to draw users from all walks of life allows advertisers to reach niche demographics more easily than in traditional media.||The tremendous diversity of social networking users opens social advertising campaigns up to criticism from demographics never intended to be targeted.|
|Advertising on social sites costs very little compared to advertising in traditional media.||Advertisers can lose control over their content on social sites due to unmoderated consumer participation.|
These characteristics of social networks give rise to what Hillary calls “the double-edged sword of participatory dynamics”. Even as public relations workers continue to discover the benefits that social networks can offer their clients, they are becoming increasingly aware of the damage a poorly-managed social campaign can do to a person, product, or company’s reputation.
Yet the characteristics of social sites which scare advertisers the most are, in my opinion, the very same features which make social sites such a powerful tool for consumers. While traditional advertising is a unidirectional form of communication, social advertising is by definition a public dialog between the advertiser and the consumer. Social networking helps to level the playing field, elevating content consumers to active participants while also bringing content producers down from their lofty, relatively-safe perch. Those in the field of public relations are being forced to rethink traditional notions of how to effectively connect with their target audiences, and it seems likely that their new approaches will be much quicker to respond and react to audience feedback.