Why social media matters for PR and marketing (hint – it’s all about the brand)

I spoke to a group of financial services communications professionals yesterday. It was a small, private event, with an impressively unique agenda. It isn’t every day that I present directly after Ari Fleischer and the Secret Service.

Given the current economic environment, and, specifically, the financial crisis that this crowd is steeped in daily, I wanted to make sure whatever I said passed the “Why does this matter to me?” test. Here is my take on that issue.

When companies are under incredible duress, the first priority rightly becomes fixing the fundamental problems with their business. Experimenting with social media isn’t the top of their agendas. Social media doesn’t replace simply doing business well. I agree with this approach.

In light of the huge issues these companies face, does that mean social media doesn’t matter at all? No. And here’s why: the brand. Nothing gets the attention of communications and marketing people more than talking about brand reputation or brand management. So how does social media influence the brand?

Take a look at this chart from an IBM study done earlier this year:

Note where the traditional levers used by PR and marketing are in the hierarchy of what really shapes people’s perception of a brand. Near the bottom. What’s at the top? People’s interactions with employees of a company. The opinions of analysts and third parties. The personal opinions of family and friends.

So why does social media matter? Because it’s the way we in communications can move up the value ladder illustrated in that chart. We can start to participate in the conversations that really shape people’s perception of a brand much more effectively than our traditional vehicles.

Public relations… constantly evolving, never changing

My colleague, George Faulkner, asked me last week if I’d accompany him to Poughkeepsie to speak with a group of communications students at Marist College about our work in leading the social media communications at IBM. Despite the keen feeling of being old, speaking with communications students was refreshing. When I asked the students about why they chose public relations as a major, their answers revealed a fair amount of uncertainty as to what the field is really about. That’s not all bad, in my opinion. I’ll try to explain why by sharing my personal history with the profession.

I’ll spare most of the details, but in short, I was about to start my sophomore year at BYU and had selected chemical engineering as my major. After a year of struggling with the major, I realized that this current path had only two outcomes: 1) at best, I’d trudge through school and be a mediocre engineer; or 2) at worse, I’d end up accidentally blowing up a chemical plant. Since neither outcome seemed palatable I started to look elsewhere.

I had heard of public relations from a friend and based solely on the name, changed my major. My rationale was simple: I liked people. And I liked having relationships with people. So public relations seemed perfect. I had no idea what the profession was. Just like the Marist students. And, frankly, the decision has turned out to be a good one for me in the end.

Now, this all has a point. I realized as we spoke to the Marist Students that my understanding of the profession has changed significantly from my first impressions while in college. And while the field evolves over time, at it’s heart, it’s always been the same: understanding what makes people tick and finding ways to influence and impact behavior. It was never only about pitching the media. Or even about media relations at all. It’s about understanding how to create a brand and reputation.

With the advent of social media, half of the PR professionals I know express consternation that the profession is changing, while the other half celebrate that the world has changed and none of the old rules apply. Both camps are wrong. Fundamentally the objectives and designs of the profession remain the same. Now we just have more opportunities and methods to engage with people. Hopefully that gives some level of comfort for those anxious about the changes in public relations, while tempering the exuberance of some who would hope to never talk to a reporter again.

In short, the profession is evolving. Social media, done right, simply enhances our ability to do what the intent of the profession has always been: understanding how people tick, and helping to influence people’s behavior.