From the Journals–Defining ‘Public’, Social Media Influencers, Employee Relations

Periodically I write a blog post about the latest articles and research in public relations journals. Too often, professionals disregard theory and academic research as too abstract to be practical. I find the opposite to be true—theory and practice are far more grounded in reality than isolated experiences, however valuable experience can be. Journal research represents the scientific examination of multiple experiences and/or deep and well-reasoned conceptual thought and can help us explain and predict phenomenon in the public relations field.

Here then is a brief recap of some recent journal articles I found particularly useful (some articles may require subscription or university library access to see full text):

What is a public?

In Looking back and going forward: The concept of the public in public relations theory by Magda Pieczka, in the September 10, 2019 Public Relations Inquiry, the old issue of defining “public” in public relations is addressed and extended. For more than 100 years, intellectuals and public relations professionals have debated the concept of “public” as a group of people. Is it a public or the public? John Dewey and Walter Lippman debated the nature of public and public opinion in the context of journalism and democracy in the 1920s, about the time “public relations” was first being used to describe the field. Pieczka’s article redefines the public in three ways: an audience as a public of shared spaces, a self-organized public of shared attention, and the public as a political and social imaginary. Going beyond defining publics by their relationship to an organization (eg employees, customers, investors, etc.) can expand public relations theory and practice in terms of both strategy and ethics in communicating to build and maintain relationships.

Social Media Influencers

A special issue of The International Journal of Strategic Communication is devoted to social media influencers. Articles look at the key groups within the process of strategic influencer communication: (1) influencer clients, e.g., client organizations and agencies; (2) social media influencers themselves; and (3) audiences. Takeaways include the need to be authentic, strategic, and ethical to avoid crisis and actually achieve objectives that go beyond attention.

Employee Relations

With an increasing number of public relations professionals focused on internal or employee communications, a study of leadership and message styles is helpful. In Relational Communication Messages and Leadership Styles in Supervisor/Employee Relationships (October 2019, International Journal of Business Communication), authors Alan C. Mikkelson, David Sloan, and Colin Hesse show that both for “intimacy” and “dominance” forms of messages are needed whether a leader is task- or relationship-oriented in style. For PR pros in employee communications, this can affect how to counsel managers and the tone of communications written for internal audiences.

A related topic in an article in PR Journal titled Employee Perceptions of CEO Ghost Posting and Voice: Effects on Perceived Authentic Leadership, Organizational Transparency, and Employee-Organization Relationships by Tom Kelleher, Rita Men and Patrick Thelen tackles the issue of PR pros ghost writing posts for CEOs on social media. The authors found that employees expected and tolerated CEO ghost posting, but the voice in those posts was more related to their perceptions of authentic leadership, which inb turn led to better perceptions of organizational transparency, and employee-organization relationship. In other words, employees assume CEOs approve of messages even if they don’t write them. Specifically, when CEO communication on social media was perceived as natural, engaging, personal, conversational, and relationship-oriented, employees tended to perceive the CEO as more authentic, truthful, and genuine and the organization as more transparent. The lesson for PR professionals is that the issue is not whether or not to ghost write, but to work on how you write CEO social posts in an appropriate voice.

Local Media Ad Slide is Concerning

Earlier today I received an email from the Grand Rapids Business Journal selling its digital sponsored content option.

For $1,100 companies and organizations can place their own stories online, have them pushed as sponsored content on social platforms, and remain in a searchable archive. It’s also called “native advertising” or the old-fashioned “advertorial.”

Previously I wrote an online column/blog for GRBJ. Others continue to do so on topics ranging from media to law. It’s a win-win–local professionals establish themselves as thought leaders in their industry and the publication gets free content.

It’s also a sign of the times.

I subscribe to GRBJ, as I do other local media and trade publications, because I still like the experience of reading print. But also I feel a sort of obligation to patronize local media the way I do other local businesses, so they can stay in business.

Reading this week’s print copy of the GRBJ, after getting the pitch for sponsored content, I was struck by the ads more than the editorial. In a 16-page publication there are 12 total ads, with 9 of them being house ads from GRBJ touting its events, its subscription options, and other sister publications such as Grand Rapids Magazine. In this issue there are 1.75 paid ad pages.

This may be why they’re pitching sponsored content. I mean, even Forbes has been doing that in recent years. And a lot of the media planners are going not just to digital, but to bloggers, podcasts, their own content-driven owned media, and social platforms.

I’m hoping this may all be the result of light ad inventory post-holiday, or that the sponsored content push is just reflective of new ownership and not desperation.

As a public relations professional/professor and just a member of the community, I certainly hope it doesn’t portend the end of a vital contributor of community information. Perhaps the incentive for some of us to buy ads is not just reaching audience but saving the channel.

A Humble Proposal to Make Social Media Useful, and Journalism Better

Initially, when it was new, social media was supposed to be a great equalizer. But it hasimages not worked out so well. What was supposed to hasten in an “Arab Spring” in some parts of the world has led instead to regime crackdown on technology. In China the government is using technology to act more like Big Brother to monitor every area of private life rather than to respond to citizen voices.

Here in the U.S., what was supposed to be “media democracy” has instead become more of a media cacophony, with multiple screaming voices and outright misinformation or actual “fake” news.

A recent op-ed in the New York Times asserts that social networks need to address this problem as a system error, and not react in real-time on a case by case basis. The article frets–as you might suspect from the NYT–that journalists should not have to do the job of policing the content on social networks. The social networks have that responsibility, and they are failing at it.

I’m not a tech guru by any stretch, but I have a humble suggestion to address the problem, to fix the “signal to noise” ratio, to return to quality vs quantity of posts, and to realize that on matters of truth and democracy, in our modern era the “marketplace if ideas” has become a third-world bazaar and we might appreciate a row of simple boutiques.

OK, maybe that’s a bad metaphor. But here is my thinking:

Social networks should start a separate channel just for news. This returns us to the old days when “bonafide” journalism was obvious to recognize by publication or network or program. Participants in this channel should be vetted as professional news organization, and this may include new media, but they must prove themselves to be legitimate in coverage of facts and to clearly label opinion where that is the nature of content (as the old op-ed pages in actual print do). They should ensure a non-partisan tone and focus on informing the public of facts, policy proposals, and straightforward information from business, sports, entertainment and other beats also. They could even hire journalists to do this.

Another channel should be set aside for brands. This would be where users could choose to see the content originally associated with pages. If people actually want to have a relationship and stay informed about a company, its products and services, or even its cause-related activity, this is the place for it.

Still another channel could be dedicated to causes. This is where nonprofits could shine, engaging users in fundraising, education, volunteer recruitment, and activism campaigns.

The government would have its own channel called civics. The White House, the state house, city hall, government agencies and office holders at all levels could communicate to constituents directly here.

Finally there would be a channel called, wait for it, social. This is where people could engage with their friends and family in a social nature.

If individuals wanted to share news, brands, causes or civics information, they could. But links back would take users to those channels to view the original content and engage in any discussion.

I don’t know if Facebook wants to try this and roll out the new feature for Christmas. Or, maybe there is an enterprising start-up out there reading this who can enter the market competitively by offering sanity with their social network. I don’t have the time, finances, or tech chops to roll this out myself. But if anyone wants to compensate me for the idea, I’m listening.
I’m also listening to what anyone else has to say about this issue.

Insta Thoughts on Increased Popularity of Instagram

Instagram has reached 400 million monthly users, Adweek reports.

The social site which enables “instant” sharing of photos, as well as video, and of course text, has grown by 100 million users just this year.

It’s easy to get all crazy excited about this, especially if you work in PR and have digital and social media as part of your job responsibilities.  But let me give some “instathoughts” about the news.

  • It’s monthly users.  That means it takes a month to get 400 million people to use Instagram. That means people don’t use it what could be called “regularly” in our hyper mediated world. They could use it daily, weekly, monthly. We don’t have that data in this report. But the use is occasional.
  •  75% of those 400 million reside outside the US. That is fascinating if you work for an NGO or MNC and want to reach a global audience. But if you have a more domestic focus, you are talking about 100 million, or one-third of the U.S. population.
  • Instagram started as and still primarily is a photo sharing site. That means to engage those users–if you still want to, given the above–you need to think and act visually. Does the organization story you have and want to tell have a visual aspect? If yes, go for it. If not, maybe Instagram in spite of its growth is not right for you.
  • It’s a social medium. Just because there are a lot of people on Instagram or any other social site doesn’t mean they are patiently waiting for messaging from businesses and nonprofit organizations. They want to engage with friends and network with individuals mostly, and maybe, if the content is right and not too overtly a marketing message, they’ll pay attention to a brand message. 
  • Sometimes less is more. People are still lured by large numbers, but the growth of Instagram in volume of users may not mean it’s an easy targeting opportunity for brands. Consider networking in person. If you walk into a room of 20 people you may have more meaningful engagement than a room of 200, 2,000, or more. It’s the paradox and tension of digital media and the nature of attention–more people means more chaos. Remember that in social the people are not just an audience, they are the participants and the messages as well. You have to find a way to be relevant, engaging and real. So, work to find niche audiences within Instagram.
All of the above is just some quick critical thinking about this news. There is still rich opportunity on Instagram, but it must be considered realistically and strategically.

Arthur Page–Thoughts on Social Media from a Time Before TV

Several years ago I received a pleasant surprise in the campus mail. It was a copy of the book “Words from a Page in History,” which is a collection of speeches given by public relations pioneer Arthur Page from the 1920s into the 1950s. The book was sent for free to faculty in public relations around the country by the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication at Penn State University. The center is dedicated to research in the area ethics and responsibility in corporate communication and other areas of public communication.

I finally got around to reading it, and is often the case with history, I marveled at how prescient some of his comments were and how much they speak to the field of public relations still today.

But first, a little background. Page was a journalist who became a public relations professional and by 1927 had the title of Vice President of Public Relations at the largest company of the time–AT&T. The “Page Principles” are themes gleaned from his many public speeches and documents and are heralded by professors and practitioners as solid guidelines for PR practiced as ethical counsel to management of organizations. You can learn more about Page via the Arthur W. Page Society, on the Arthur Page “exhibit” at the online PR History Museum, or by reading the excellent biography of Arthur W. Page by Noel L. Griese.

So, as I was reading through Page’s speeches, I got to thinking about the famous Page Principles that summarize the man’s philosophy of public relations practice and how they might apply today to social media. Here’s my quick application of each principle from before the TV era to the social space today:

  1. Tell the truth–always be genuine on social platforms, from your profile to your posts, and what links and other content you share.
  2. Prove it with action–don’t automate and aggregate content. Don’t present an image on social media but fail to live up to it by replying, sharing, and responding to comments. Be sure your offline presence is consistent with your online and social projection. Do what you say and say what you do.
  3. Listen to the customer–don’t blast tweets and updates without first listening to conversations in the social space. And if people respond, reply back in kind, not just with your own agenda but to satisfy the questions and issues of those who reply to your social messages.
  4. Manage for tomorrow–social media is in the moment, but it’s still wise to think long term. Analytics are great, but daily, weekly or monthly numbers of engagement should not be the sole driver or reward of social media management for a brand. Consider how social media is an extension of bigger objectives and a piece of a larger media mix that may not yield results for a year or more.
  5. Conduct public relations as if the whole company depends on it–Consider that all publics may follow social accounts, on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest and others. Do not see social media as merely a marketing megaphone, but an effort consistent with broader organizational goals and open to the views of many. 
  6. Realize that a company’s true character is expressed by its people–many organizations only allow public relations or marketing teams to represent the company on social media. Consider engaging in a “distributed PR” model in which every job function is allowed to tweet and post as part of their job. People engage with multiple publics in many ways. This requires a healthy culture, but in the social space this especially makes sense to allow the organization to be visible in a positive way. As Page said, every employee, active or retired, is involved in public relations.
  7. Remain calm, patient and good humored–this is especially true in social media. Be careful what you say, and don’t resort to anger and incivility. Allow comments, respond to them, engage in other social accounts to represent your organization transparently and honestly.
Clearly Arthur Page never had to handle social media. As I noted, the bulk of his career was completed before TV was ubiquitous in American households. But his principles of PR practice are timeless and a good reminder again to contemporary practitioners. Even the social media and digital communication are new, the concepts of integrity, honesty, ethics in PR practice are timeless and transportable across any medium or platform.