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Social media's going to kill PR? Come on

Watching the periodic eruptions between PR folks and the "community," it's easy to confuse form with substance.

Have the rules for PR changed so radically from the days when the IBM Selectric typewriter was state of the art?

The conventional wisdom says yes, though I'm less convinced.

In fact, many public relations folks are still trying to gauge the import of new tools like Twitter and FriendFeed. But they remain unclear about what it means to their profession and what's the best way to approach this new community. That ambivalence was on display at the Horn Group's downtown San Francisco offices Wednesday evening, where an overflow audience gathered to attend a panel discussion with the over-the-top title, "Is social media killing PR?"

A better title would have been "Is PR killing PR?"

PR lackeys: Now you're in hot water!


As a tool for communications, social media obviously is of keen interest to public relations types. But let's dispense with the nonsense about it being a paradigm changer. Maybe that day will arrive, but to date, the cheerleaders have overstated the results. So it is that many PR professionals have drunk the Kool-Aid to the point where they believe that engaging the community emerging around social media should be their top priority. At the same time, they remain unsure how best to communicate their companies' message in an unfamiliar and often unwieldy new medium.

What's more, they are scared stiff of antagonizing the "influencers." Especially when one or another bloviator from the blogosphere wakes up on the wrong side of the bed and issues a fatwa. But does a relatively small circle of (mostly California-based) bloggers still command the same influence it did a year ago? Ultimately, people listen to trusted voices though, unfortunately, the deepening recession leaves fewer of them all the time.

As I listened to the panelists debate the question, I began to fidget as Forrester Research's Jeremiah Oywang offered a marketing-heavy spiel on the central role social media should occupy in any effective PR strategy. Oywang is earnest about this stuff so I can't come down too hard, and yes, social media has its place. Still, it sounded like so much gobbledygook to me.

Then the predictably prescient Kara Swisher from The Wall Street Journal's All Things Digital cut to the core question which--I believe--outweighs all others: If the message is empty, why bother? There is little point in trying to push a lame product or marketing idea. That's a message some sales and marketing departments don't want to hear. But in the end, doesn't everything come back to value?

That's not a social media idea. It's an old school idea.

Update: You can check out what Sam Whitmore, who moderated last night's panel, had to say about the event.