Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Social Media as the New Standard in Public Relations
By: Chris Stone

The power of communicating a controlled message to the largest possible audience has long been known as an effective organizational tool. The use of public, verbal communications has played a significant role in influencing common beliefs and behavior for centuries.

But as technology became more advanced, the shear quantity of messaging that was possible brought a growing suspicion that organizations were using multimedia to create deception. Time proved this to be correct – a number of public relations initiated by large corporations were exposed to be fraudulent. Perhaps one of the most extreme examples of this was the Union Carbide tragic chemical explosion in India that was initially denied by the company.

As public trust in “official corporate communications” dissolved, a counter culture of those seeking their own truth began to gain momentum.

Enter Web 2.0, the technology that moved the Internet from a “push” medium to a truly interactive medium. Because of this technological breakthrough, pathways opened between individuals and groups of individuals to share opinions well beyond their physical circle of friends.

It took no time at all to see how easily a product could gain momentum when consumers spoke among themselves. Peer-to-peer communications were seen as unbiased and genuine – the polar opposite of traditional public relations. Social media opened the channels for ordinary consumers to report and investigate the truth for themselves without having to rely solely on the official corporate word.

As it became clear consumers were no longer content to be spoon-fed information, many companies responded by initiating real-time discussions on topics their audiences were concerned about, and allowed them to take part. These forums brought together people of like interest, regardless of distance, and allowed companies to have a voice in the discussion.

Eventually, a new breed of interactive information delivered as Web Casts drew together new communities that were willing participants in a given subject. Companies often enhanced the credibility and value of these events by inviting expert guest presenters with special subject knowledge to be moderators.

In many ways, this became public relations at its highest level, now providing the ability to create a dialog that could communicate truly relevant messages to small, influential groups – but in ways where both the consumer and the company could each have a voice.

This mutual opportunity enabled real relationships to form between companies and consumers. The company sponsoring these forums gained a new breed of loyalists who have since demonstrated the potential for a viral impact within their own circles. Consumers gained the opportunity to voice their thoughts and concerns, thereby indirectly influencing company actions.

By strict definition, it is here that the line blurs between public relations and emerging social media. Once a company has inspired others to speak on their behalf because of a meaningful relationship spawned from social interaction, the result often eclipses results that could be achieved by conventional public relations alone.

In our emerging, non-traditional world, social media in all its various forms has created more unity of thought and action than mass communications. What we are to learn from this is to not underestimate the power of one. A well-planned social strategy that offers real value can move a mountain, one rock at a time.