Why Public Relations and Social Media are Intertwined

By: tw Timothy Webb

Just because social media is the new normal doesn’t mean we should throw out tried and true marketing efforts such as public relations. It’s just as necessary today to have professionals in the public relations business as well as social media experts developing and handling your brand.

Since the beginning of marketing, public relations has offered companies the opportunity to get in front of their consumers with a variety of tactics including public events, press releases, networking, and market research. The goal of good public relations is to keep the name of a company, product or celebrity in front of the public in a positive light. And isn’t that what social media really is? Gaining a positive image amongst a company’s followers or online communities is tantamount to success in today’s marketplace.

Good PR can cast an overall view of how a company or brand is perceived and may color the opinions of followers who express opinions about them. Consider the crisis that erupted for Volkswagen, a German car manufacturer, after it was discovered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that more than 1.2 million vehicles were equipped with software that could falsely improve the performance of diesel engines on emissions tests. One day after an article in “The Guardian” revealed that the carmaker acknowledged this “cheating”, social media blew up.

Damage Control

In a “Harvard Business Review” article, Vanitha Swaminithan analyzed over 100,000 Tweets and discovered that in the wake of the news of the Volkswagen scandal, that the vast percentage of Tweets were negative using words like “cheat”, “news”, and “crisis”. Immediately after a negative public relations event the volume of negative tweeting was at a maximum followed by brief spurts in the days to follow.

What we learned is that initially, as the news is released about the “cheating” the social media conversation is extremely negative.

As the company makes efforts to repair its’ public relations image with such apologies and recall efforts, the negativity abates.

“If a company can successfully recover from a public relations crisis, then social media follows suit with a more positive conversation.”

According to Swaminithan, “the biggest takeaway (of the study) is that managers should immediately focus on recovery strategies following an incident, and aim to neutralize the negative sentiment surrounding the brand”. This helps to shift the conversation away from the crisis and lead to recovery. Sometimes, if a crisis is handled effectively, the outcome can be so well received that the brand enjoys more positive notoriety than if no crisis occurred at all. Public relations and social media are like office workers who gossip at the water cooler. Often influencing each other’s views and options.

In 2011, The Red Cross experienced a rogue Tweet from one of its’ own media employees who inadvertently Tweeted on the company account, instead of her own personal account. Social Media Director, Wendy Harmon, Tweeted “Ryan found two more 4 bottle packs of Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch Beer….when we drink we do it right #gettingslizzerd”. This Tweet was up for almost an hour before it was discovered and taken down. The Red Cross’ Social Media Director quickly followed up with a humorous Tweet and admitted to the mistake.

Not to leave this public relations opportunity on the table, the beer company, Dogfish Head used the hashtag #gettingslizzard and encouraged its’ followers to donate to The Red Cross. This Tweeting caused a bit of buzz amongst bloggers, and the Twitterverse which helped ease the embarrassment of The Red Cross.

Ultimately, the crisis was averted and while the original Tweet wasn’t professional it did not leave any blemish on The Red Cross’ reputation. This is a case of where social media and public relations are so intertwined that it is difficult to tell which is which. Did the social media affect the public relations or the other way around?

Social media can be used to douse a public relations forest fire. Taco Bell’s parent company Yum! Brands was sued over a complaint that the company’s seasoned beef contained only 35% beef and was accused of false advertising. Taco Bell responded by sharing with the public its’ percentages (88% beef and 12% secret recipe) as well as the list of ingredients within the secret recipe.

To combat the negative perception about their brand, Taco Bell quickly launched a “Tell-All” PR campaign to get the word out about its’ secret recipe. They focused online with Facebook, and YouTube channels, etc. as well as with some traditional media to try to redirect the conversation. The result was that Taco Bell’s customers responded on the social media channels supporting the brand. Less than four months later, the suit was dropped and Taco Bell squashed a public relations wildfire.

So, what can we learn from all this?

What we know is that public relations can be used to influence the influencers of social media. And, that the social media conversation can change the opinion of a brand amongst the public. The two are so intertwined that it is important to have professionals working both angles together to create a positive brand conversation. Some of the things that the two share in common are that unlike paid advertising, they are about earned trust.

According to “The Princeton Review” public relations is an image shaper. Its’ job is to generate positive publicity and enhance their (a brands’) reputation…”. Perhaps social media is a part of the communications engine of public relations. It’s sort of a “chicken and the egg” scenario. Add the social media component to the press releases, speech writing, and special events of public relations and there is a winning strategy.


Article Name
Why Public Relations and Social Media are Intertwined
This article covers why public relations should not be considered irrelevant just because social media is such a dominant force.

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