No Need for Press Releases: How the Practice of PR has Changed in the Age of Social Media
I don’t think it would be an understatement for me to say that among the field that has been comprehensively transformed with the rise of social media, public relations has been the most affected. In the 20th century, conversations are more limited and scattered and that even if a large group of people shares the same opinions, it can be hard to coalesce all of them together to create a large public, discussion. With social media, by simply employing a common hashtag, disparate conversations around a common topic can be pulled together into one larger discourse.
Corporate communication in effect has been transformed from the earlier, typical one-way monologue from a brand to the public, controlled and conditioned to portray the shinier aspects of a brand into a more, chaotic two-way dialogue involving both the brand and the public. Trying to maintain how your brand is portrayed in the public becomes increasingly difficult as the public now holds a lot of influence in your brand’s public image as well, as it should be. To adapt to this new landscape, a proper rethinking on how brands approach PR is necessary.
Contending with the Vox Populi
We’ve seen this happening with the rise of the Me Too movement, where sexually harassed women banded together in the social media space to showcase the true magnitude of the problem. In the past, a social upheaval of the similar kind would require something as drastic as Martin Luther King’s March on Washington but thanks to social media and a global social media platform, the voice of the disenfranchised is capable of being amplified to a degree that’s never been seen before. This is a good thing but you also have to remember that every mistake you make would be put under a microscope in the world of social media.
When Donald Trump signed the executive order that was immediately characterized as a ‘Muslim ban’, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance called its members to avoid the JFK airport in New York as a sign of protest against Trump’s order. Obviously, this ended up in hordes of arriving passengers stuck at the airport thanks to the lack of taxicabs and seeing an opportunity to profit from this sheer injustice, Uber decided to turn off surge pricing in the area to encourage more riders on the platform. The backlash, unsurprisingly, was swift.
Immediately, #DeleteUber began trending on Twitter, an immediate opportunity which was then seized by Lyft, Uber’s main competitor in the United States, as Lyft put out a statement of making a donation of US$1,000,000 to the American Civil Liberties Union over the next four years to fight Trump’s unconstitutional executive order. That was some catastrophically bad PR from Uber and an especially good one from Lyft happening in just a single day, highlighting just how PR has changed with social media.
The viral and unpredictable nature of social media
Social media is highly unpredictable, you never know what could blow up at any second and the rate at which any trend could blow up is also unpredictable. It could take weeks before a single post could gather enough Steam for it to be trending while in other times, it could simply take hours. With social media, PR has to move quickly, defusing each problems before they could become too large to handle and quick enough to take advantage of an opportunity while it’s still trending.
PR in the age of social media requires you to be both well-prepared and still be able to think quickly on your feet (or more appropriately, fingers). Have a well-defined plan on what to do when, not if, there’s a crisis unfolding around your company. It could be because of an ambiguous statement misconstrued by the public, a purely honest mistake from your part or even a defective product. No matter what the problem is, the solution is to try and get ahead of the problem before it became viral.
As can be seen in the Lyft example above, social media could also be used as an occasion to bolster your public image but you also have to toe the line between being sincere and sincerely opportunistic. For example, look at what happen after the Notre-Dame fire. Within hours, two of France’s richest men began tripping over themselves to see who could put up the biggest amount of donation for the rebuilding process. The strategy backfired as this in turn exposes even more the rising inequality plaguing France that prompted the Yellow Vest protest of last year. It’s not enough to be fast, businesses also have to be smart.
Be aware of the environment and don’t stray far from the facts
The Uber fiasco and what happened to the French billionaires can simply be avoided by being more sensitive to the mood of the public. To score points with the public, you first have to know where the public stands on certain issues. It would also help to know what’s being said about you and see if there’s anything you could say or do to reinforce that image if it’s good or to shed that image if it’s bad. Always remember that the P in PR stands for public so it’s never a bad thing to find out just what’s going on with them if you want to have any success with your PR strategies.
The other thing about handling a PR crisis is to always stick to the facts. If you’re seeing a problem around your company but you don’t know exactly where that problem is coming from, don’t make up an excuse and instead simply apologize and ask them to wait until you can figure out what the actual problem is. In a forum as public and as all-encompassing as social media, it won’t take too long for people to pick apart your statement and point out lies so just don’t. A false, reaffirming statement would only work better in the short run.