Don’t Let the Dog Groomer Cut Your Hair … or the Social Media Expert Run Your PR

Several conversations held with industry pals yesterday had me thinking a lot about public relations and the entire social media craze that is – in some minds – threatening the PR industry. I’ve been asked a lot of questions in recent interviews such as:

“What is social media?”

“Who should own the social media responsibility in business?”

“Should all companies use social media?”

“If I have social media, do I even need PR anymore?”

“Can’t my social media expert just do the blogger outreach?”

Those types of questions have sparked plenty of debates that led to bigger conversations, during which I discovered time and time again that the entire definition and concept of public relations is being confused with the term – and perception – of social media.

Ask yourself, would you:

- Let your vet perform surgery on you?

- Hire a house painter to create a family portrait?

- Have the school lunch cook cater your next big party?

- Ask your kid’s hockey coach to teach gymnastics?

- Ask the dog groomer to give you your next haircut?

While each of these experts have similar traits, they are not the same! So why would you hand the communications and PR strategy for your business to a social media evangelist/expert/guru/champion?

Get over the Whole “Social Media Expert” Moniker
What does that mean, anyway?

First of all, the term “social media expert” means nothing. It means nothing because it’s overused, mostly unproven and you’ll get a different definition from everyone that you ask.

It also means nothing because most “social media experts” are a dime a dozen, largely unproven and akin to back alley plastic surgeons – they’ll promise you a pretty face at a cheap price but in the end, you’ll wish you had paid for the real professional.

Many businesses are either glassy-eyed to the term “social media,” or panicking about how to get in on the trend. They are overwhelmed with terms, pitches and news reports about how social media will make or break your business. They see thousands of Twitter follower numbers on someone’s bio and turn to these self-defined social media experts for help. But they’re not doing their homework to determine who the experts really are – and  it’s going to get ugly when these experts make bigger PR and marketing promises that they don’t truly understand – let alone have any proven results to share.

Still thinking you need an expert? Heed Dan Schwabel’s advice as you proceed:
To be labeled as an expert you need PROVEN results, with an associated endorsement to back it up.

But Isn’t Social Media the New PR?
PR is Not Social Media; Rather, Social Media is a Part of (any good) PR Strategy

I cringe every time I hear social media experts pitching their PR expertise because they “know all the bloggers,” or because they “have 25,000 followers on Twitter.” Social media has spawned an entirely new wave of “experts” who may be great at writing a blog, brush shoulders often with the Mike Arrington and Robert Scoble’s of the world or have a multi-thousand follower list on Twitter. But these talents most certainly do not equate to an understanding of the intricate and long-term strategies for branding and messaging.

PR isn’t blogger relations. It isn’t just media relations. It involves much more than simple promotion or publicity. Let us not forget what PR stands for – it’s “public relations.” The “public” part includes building positive relationships with a variety of constituents – customer, prospects, partners, media, bloggers, analysts, competitors, employees, VCs and so on. And as I’ve said before, a one-size-fits-all approach to communicating with these audiences simply isn’t effective.

Popularity or activity in social media communities – how to grow a Twitter following, how to share information faster, how to create and post videos, and more – does not equate to an expert understanding of how to build a lifelong brand, what creates brand loyalty, or how to create an integrated communications strategy for building relationships with both internal and external audiences. A strategy that should support – and positively impact – the long-term corporate goals of a business.

Yes, social media is changing the face of PR, marketing and advertising. Absolutely, social media should be a part of these important business efforts. The key phrase here is “a part of these efforts.” Social media is just one of the elements of “managing the flow of information between an organization and its publics.”

What’s the Difference?
A strategy vs. a tactic

There are a lot of great people out there doing very exciting things with social media. I have respect for a lot of the social media consultants or agencies that I’ve met. But the ones I most respect are sticking to what they’re good at and not laying claim to the entire PR industry. Those who are touting themselves as new PR experts don’t seem to understand the whole of PR in the first place.

As just one part of a larger communications and PR strategy, social media efforts are very often focused on the near term. Planning questions are typically “What do you want to do for this particular effort?” “Who are you trying to sell this product to?” and “How can we drive traffic for this particular time period?” The focus is often on creating shorter-term campaigns to drive temporary buzz, traffic or conversations.

(Good) PR is focused on a variety of tactics that tie into a larger and longer-term strategy. As I mentioned, social media is very often part of it (or should be – that’s an entirely other topic, currently being researched by many such as Jennifer Leggio). (Good) PR professionals also ask questions that help them understand the whole of your business, and how to support it with PR, such as:

-    What are your biggest sales challenges?
-    How do you develop brand champions?
-    What vertical markets do you play in?
-    How do you win?
-    What keeps you up at night?
-    What does your product roadmap look like?
-    Describe your business. Now describe it in 12 months.

Such questions help the PR team create an overarching plan that encompasses many elements – social media, events, speaking, awards, customer programs, media and more.

What to do – PR or Social Media?
Both. Do PR; make social media one of the elements.

Smart companies will recognize that social media isn’t a PR campaign. It’s one part of a much larger communications strategy. PR and marketing experts – with proven results – should still lead your branding efforts. Social media experts may be a part of that team. Designers and content experts may be a part of that team. But the communications and branding experts should be in the driver’s seat.

Some companies will hire both a social media agency/consultant and a PR firm. Personally, I think an integrated firm – like the handful of evolved “PR 2.0” firms – is the best choice. Or, for those companies who cannot hire outside expertise, be sure that your communications director is adept at both traditional and new digital communications strategies.

At the very least, be sure that you have an individual assigned to managing all the agencies to ensure cohesive messaging and communication. What good are all those Tweets if the messages don’t align with your brand or drive long-term value?

8 thoughts on “Don’t Let the Dog Groomer Cut Your Hair … or the Social Media Expert Run Your PR

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  3. Christine –

    I’ve been struggling with similar phenomenon in marketing: everyone is touting themselves as social media experts and they forget the larger, fundamental questions: what is the business objective and who are you trying to reach — essentially the same questions you’ve captured above.

  4. You’re not just right here, you’re EXACTLY right. I’ve noticed many social media “experts” recommending the same recipe to companies, regardless of what their business is. Twitter is the Blog of 5 years ago when EVERYONE felt they had to have a blog on their site. Today if you don’t have a twitter account, you’re not cool. I believe it’s about balance but at the end of the day it’s ALWAYS about the product. Great post.

  5. Christine,

    Nice post, and I definitely agree there’s a big “tactics vs. strategy” problem out there with respect to social media and its role in the overall marketing/PR mix. Social media is and/or will be hugely important for many firms, yet may remain a relatively small and complementary tactic for others. I’m looking at this primarily from a B2B and technology marketing perspective, and I appreciate the balanced viewpoint you’re helping to drive here.

  6. Anne – I think social media is officially the shiny new toy. Add on top of that a recession – and you get a plethora of “social media marketing experts” employed by businesses who are scared to miss the boat. We’re headed for a big “social media crash” as companies realize a cool video did nothing to improve their bottom line. (And I’m all for videos – but again, built around the business objective, not just for the sake of being on YouTube!) Thank you for reading!

    Al – wow, I don’t know if I’ve ever been “exactly right” but I appreciate the compliment. I agree Twitter is the new blog – and we all know so many blogs sitting in cyberspace adding no value at all because it had no purpose to begin with. Know your goals and keep them in mind before executing any marketing or social media campaign. Thanks for reading and also for featuring me on your One Shot Show last week.

    Hi David! Great to see a former client reading – thank you. Social media is great – but like anything, there’s also a lot of bad out there. And, it’s more effective for some companies than others. Companies just need to look beyond the hype and remember to ask questions focused on ROI when considering a social media campaign of any kind. Sometimes saying “no” is the right answer – if a social media expert “yes’s” you to death I say steer clear – there’s no strategy in that.

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  8. Christine,

    Nice post, and I definitely agree there's a big “tactics vs. strategy” problem out there with respect to social media and its role in the overall marketing/PR mix. Social media is and/or will be hugely important for many firms, yet may remain a relatively small and complementary tactic for others. I'm looking at this primarily from a B2B and technology marketing perspective, and I appreciate the balanced viewpoint you're helping to drive here.

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