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There's a Social Media-Driven Sea Change On the Horizon for PR– Are You Ready?

Don Bates
A new large-scale study points to social media overtaking traditional media as PR’s tool of choice within two years, but the shift will demand that practitioners acquire a new, complex skill set in order to prosper — or even compete.

Richard Carufel’s exclusive interview this week: Don Bates, Senior Advisor, StevensGouldPincus

Don Bates and his colleagues at StevensGouldPincus released a survey on September 21st which found that use of social media at public relations and public affairs firms has jumped 12%-15% in the past year. Currently, the total percentage of work devoted by firms to social media as opposed to traditional media is 30% overall, the survey found — and next year, the percentage will increase to an average of 42%. In a year or two, the percentage will be over 50%. The implications of these data are clearly profound for the industry, but for Bates there is also a red flag being thrown.

Bates, a senior advisor at SGP who also teaches writing and media relations for the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management, said the most important issue of interest to PR/PA firms, according to the survey, is tracking and measuring results and quantifying value. “Use of social media has become critical enough that both firms and clients want to know what they’re getting for their money — what’s moving the needle and what isn’t.” Bates said when the survey was released.

But there’s a lot more to wrapping one’s arms around social media strategy than merely starting a Facebook page or signing up with Twitter, Bates warns. Here, he discusses the PR boom that can accompany this growth in social media use — and also the responsibilities that practitioners are going to have to assume:

At this point, social-media strategy for PR is largely about getting visibility in the space and initiating two-way conversations with audiences. How is that strategy going to change?

PR practitioners — and firms in particular — must get increasingly up to speed to know what the online dynamic is all about and how to use it. They will need new skills because mastering this space is a lot more than just setting up a Facebook account — PR people need to know how to create online advocacy programs that address issues, marketing support initiatives that help to push products, surveys that keep customers and others involved in what their clients do. Most important, they have to understand the of the need to create a strategic plan, not just throw stuff up helter-skelter like it is being done now by many firms.

The smart firms are doing a good job of going beyond the obvious. We’re talking about larger and more profound propositions. In the old days, you could pick your media targets and do your job without worrying too much about downsides. But that’s all changed now, and you basically don’t know what to expect from online audiences— you could get criticism from Europe, say, that you need to respond to even though your goal was publicity for something in the U.S. That criticism could damage that goal. How do you avoid this stuff from happening? Or how do you minimize the potential?

So media relations will be completely transformed?

Some people are interpreting our prediction of the dominance of social media as an outright replacement of traditional media — that won’t necessarily happen, but social media will become the primary focus of PR efforts in the next few years, overtaking traditional media as the dominant focus.

The Internet is a giant space — a collection of resources like Facebook — where you can dump everything. It represents a huge enterprise with all kinds of experiments taking place. For example, traditional media are embracing the new trend of hyper-local media, mostly as a way of looking for new revenue streams but also to find new ways to target and deliver the news online. As a PR practitioner, why not take advantage of all those opportunities now, while they’re hot?

In 10 years, it will all come back around — there won’t be distinctions like “traditional” and “social”: there will just be “media.” Right now, it’s not that way — but some people are having a hard time with the distinctions. One PR person might say, “I hate social media,” because they’re having a hard time incorporating it into his practice. Another one might love it and do a lot online, but this causes someone on the outside to think, “Oh, you’re in social media?” “No, I’m in public relations,” the practitioner says because he or she or the firm in question doesn’t want to be typecast as •limited’ — but it’s easy to see how the roles overlap and that gets confusing.

How is PR handling this shift in priorities so far?

A lot of corporations are backing away from the idea of getting a more aggressive social media presence going and being transparent online because they’re finding they can’t trust employees to blog the right messages, or they can’t prevent outsiders from making an issue out of something they didn’t anticipate or intend and all kinds of unplanned or undesirable attention has to be given to resolving it. You have to prepare your messages a lot more diligently because of this.

The Internet is bringing on the onset of “snackable” writing. Twitter can be quick and dirty and get people to link to you, and the notion of 140 characters linking to a larger story is certainly going to get more popular. But you have to focus on the content and links to the larger story to keep people’s interest. You have to pick and choose more carefully what gets out there and where it gets populated. You can’t stop misuse but you can minimize it.

You also have to craft a personality online so people can know you. Writers who can contextualize everything without the message turning into an overt sales pitch have always interested me. You have to think more strategically to do that — in your thinking, planning and writing, making sure to do all these things in just the right way to make something happen so you or your clients get useful results — get the vote, get the sale or get the coverage.

So PR people need to work smarter to keep up with the new pace?

As quickly as it happens, you still have to think smarter. In the military, soldiers are trained extensively on how to move instinctively, and PR people have to embrace that behavior if they’re not already doing so. I often tell people that I don’t care about how nicely a news release is written — what I care about is that you thought the message through, and the message is relevant to your goals. I tell my students, you can’t just throw out any idea because it seemed like a good idea at the time. You have to throw out the right idea, the best idea, the idea that will do the most for your client or employer.

You also have to get the message out fast — the audience demands it — but it still must be well thought out.

I know you are a big advocate for measurement, and your comments when the survey came out pointed out a strong need for better metrics. Can you elaborate on that?

Another key issue in the survey is the absolute need to measure the results of what you do in social media. The agencies want those data so they know what works, but clients are asking for it, too — as they should be. The research-based piece of client service has traditionally been very weak — “Just get me a lot of ink,” they say — but the guys on the business side are asking more analytical questions like, what are we getting from Twitter, Facebook, Ning, etc.? Are we getting more customers, more respect from suppliers, more votes? The ability to do flash polls with quick-turnaround results and use research to increase the number of hits, etc., becomes qualitatively ever more important, and may help as a byproduct to prove the true efficacy of PR. As time goes on, this will evolve, but research companies should be thinking about and implementing research methods that can be done with faster turnaround and more “snackable” results.

You also referred to the “dark side” of social media in your comments when the survey was released. What did you mean by that?

The social media space is an opportunity and a danger. It’s an opportunity because of all the connections you can make, and a danger because of how your information can be used against you. You must be very diligent about maintaining credibility. Social media is very seductive. You know you can get a lot of pickup, but is the pickup going to be good or get you in trouble?

Social media’s “dark side” has to do with the potential of one of these media to bite you in the ass. Your approach is partly about being strategic, but also making sure you maintain a high ethical standard. Lots of people are doing clever things just to get your email address
or make a sale, so you have to be cognizant of this potential. Your competitors and opponents are also thinking of a hundred ways to turn your messages against you. You can’t stop a lot of what gets done, but if you do everything you can to be ethical in stopping what you can, that will avoid a lot of unnecessary and potentially damaging hassles

Also, be careful — some blogs appear to be very influential, and they make it look that way because they’re very conspicuous and have nice graphics, but there’s nothing there upon closer analysis. So know your social media at least as well as you’ve had to know your traditional media — or better from my point of view.

Certainly this new paradigm will require a different skill set. What should firm managers be focused on when it comes to staffing?

There’s a lot of anxiety about how to train people and get them up to speed while you’re busy doing everything else. What do you train them on, how do you spend that time? There’s a lot to keep up with, and you have to watch what others are doing too. The knowledge, the speed of work, the skills — what does it all mean? At this point, can an account executive — whose salary is based on spending virtually all of the billable time serving clients — take or get the time to learn all that has to be learned to use social media smartly for PR purposes?

There are other business issues tied to this proposition. In my view, if you’re an agency head you have to start spending time and money now to train and establish boundaries. The younger employees say, “I need to know more about social media,” but many firms keep putting it off. You need to put money in your annual budget to assure that these issues get handled. Smart agencies are already doing so. They’re finding ways to train their staff while still maintaining healthy multiples and earnings.

What will those new skill sets consist of?

There are certainly PR people who think they know social media but it’s mostly doing the obvious like setting up Facebook or Twitter accounts. The truly skilled know a lot more. To find out who they are, you have to ask if they have ever created an online campaign, political or otherwise. Do they know how to set up appropriate links? Do they know how to incorporate creative aspects and design? Do they know how to measure online results? Unfortunately, most practitioners can’t say yes to these questions because that’s not what most firms hire for now. The prevailing strategy with respect to social media is to throw stuff out there and hope it sticks, but the skill is to know how it sticks, where it sticks best, and how to make that stickiness a part of everything you do.

All the firms that SGP works with now want connections to smaller firms that want to be acquired and have strong social media experience. In the past, our clients would look for financial skills or specialty skills like IR and those needs are still there — but the social media component is now more valuable because it’s so overarching. To capitalize on the social media trend, you bring someone in who already knows their way around social media and let them apply this strength across all the firm’s functions. If you have these skills already in your firm, you are a hot commodity and should do everything you can to exploit it competitively and in planning future growth and an eventual exit strategy.

And that obviously increases a firm’s value. Are these traits the kinds of “value” that buyers are prioritizing now?

If your firm is on the block or you eventually want to sell, you have to answer a lot of hard questions from buyers who are much more sophisticated now than in the past. If you have done a lot of PR programming in the social media space, develop that dynamic, it means a lot. And while doing it well, make sure it’s profitable. Buyers say, “They’re really good at this, but lets see if there making money at it.” If you are, then they start asking more strategic questions like, “Is this because of a few key employees or is part and parcel of the firm’s way of doing business?” Work at making the distinctions clear.

I work with firms that are very successful and would be wonderful acquisitions, but they have some ambivalence about rushing into a deal right now with the landscape changing so dramatically. Instead, they say, “If I could hang in there a few more years, I can be worth a lot more — or maybe I’ll be the firm doing the acquiring.” That’s all well and good, and makes perfect sense, but it helps for firms to have discussions with M&A consultants to see if they’re really doing as well as they could be or are on the right track with their thinking. Experienced M&A consultants have the benefit of having talked with scores of firms in similar positions.

Should PR abandon traditional media as a priority?

Not at all. In fact, PR practitioners should establish better relationships with traditional media and help them do their job better in what for them is an equally, if not more, challenging social media environment. They’re short staffed. They’re underfunded. They’re looking for workable ideas. They’re transitioning from print just as we are. The more you can lend an appropriate hand, the more valuable you’ll be as part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Look at the New York Times‘s hyper-local editors — how do they edit all those student reporters and assure credibility, accuracy, objectivity? Not easily. PR people need to help them by being as credible, accurate and objective in their communications with these media. This has always been so, but the ante has been raised for all.

Even in a minor conversation with an editor, reporter or producer, you need to be able to address an issue or crisis immediately — when it happens — not later. You need a plan to get things out quickly and respond to inquiries promptly. In the military, for which I’ve done work, they have protocol and procedures in place to address both the upside and the potential down side. If you take the position that the Internet is essentially a big pool in which to float a lot of ideas without regard for the larger consequences, you’ll be sadly disappointed. Yes, social media represent a powerful publicity tool but more critically they are part of the global pipeline that in the next few years will deliver most of what has been largely the province of traditional media until now. The PR profession — and firms in particular — should be at the forefront of taking ethical advantage of what social media offer, training their staff and management to exploit the PR benefits, and making a lot of money in the process.

Contact Don Bates by email at or by phone at 212-779-2800.

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