Social Media Public Relations Research Paper


Fifty-six percent of executives say digital engagement with customers is at least a top-ten company priority, according to a study by McKinsey & Company.

The study is one of 10 in the Institute for Public Relations’ “Top 10 Social Media Research Studies for Public Relations Professionals for the Second Half of 2013.”

The compilation was created by IPR Social Science of Social Media Research Center editors Dr. Marcia W. DiStaso of Pennsylvania State University and Dr. Tina McCorkindale of Appalachian State University.

The studies were chosen for their rigor of methodology, sample size, findings, and accessibility. Some of the sources included are Pew Research Center, Altimeter, Cision, and Weber Shandwick. Focusing on the role of social media within organizations, topics range from employee education and the PR-journalism relationship, to CEO sociability, sales, and more.

Aiming to not only identify important research, but to generate conversation in which practitioners can absorb and contribute meaningful knowledge, we are asking friends and followers of IPR to share additional studies they think are valuable to professionals.

This collection of studies is a follow-­up to the Institute’s “Top 10 Social Media Research Articles for the First Half of 2013 for Public Relations Professionals,”which can be found at: http://bit.ly/17cBKwe.

Included Studies:

  • Social Media Update: 42% of Online Adults use Multiple Social Networking Sites, but Facebook Remains the Platform of Choice (Pew Research Center: Aaron Smith, Maeve Duggan)
  • The State of Social Business 2013: The Maturing of Social Media into Social Business (Altimeter: Brian Solis and Charlene Li with Jessica Groopman, Jaimy Szymanski and Christine Tran)
  • From Social to Sale: 8 Questions to Ask your Customers (Vision Critical: Alexandra Samuel, David Sevitt, Lena Lam, and Cheryl Loh)
  • Social Media Education for Employees: Reduce Social Media Risk and Activate Employee Advocacy for Scale—How Leading Companies Prepare Employees for Social Media Success(Altimeter: Charlene Li and Ed Terpening with Christine Tran)
  • The Social CEO: Executives Tell All(Weber Shandwick, KRC Research)
  • 2013 Social@Ogilvy Brand Advocacy Study (Social@Ogilvy)
  • Social Media Risks and Rewards (Grant Thornton LLP, Financial Executives Research Foundation Inc.)
  • PWC’s 6th Annual Digital IQ Survey: The Five Behaviors that Accelerate Value from Digital Investments(PwC)
  • Bullish on Digital: McKinsey Global Survey Results(McKinsey & Company: Brad Brown, Johnson Sikes and Paul Willmott)
  • 2013 Social Journalism Study: How Journalists View and Use Social Media and their Relationship with PR (Cision)

Top Social Media Research Studies for PR (PDF)

1. Introduction

The Public Relations industry has faced dramatic changes in the past few years in terms of new technology and media channels as well as new opportunities for communicating with clients and businesses. The main reason for this is the emergence of social media networking which enabled customers to easily and quickly engage in a two-way communication process with companies. For businesses on the other hand this represents a huge challenge of how to effectively handle the new forms of engagement so that they now realize the increasing importance of public relations as an organisational function. However, social media is still a big challenge for the PR industry itself. That is why this study aimed to research this new development and find comprehensive insights into what exactly happened and how should PR practitioners better approach new media opportunities.

The age of ‘we talk, you listen’ style of company communication is gone; the dialogue with stakeholders is the only way forward, because the emergence of social media has changed the way consumers form opinions and make decisions (Flint, 2009). Therefore, many PR specialists, including Brown, Solis, Scott and others believe that we are now at the peak of a magnificent era for the PR practice. It also means that there are new tools and new techniques needed to meet client’s needs and requirements. Butterick (2011) also mentions that the rise of digital media has transformed our channels of communication and the journalism practice (closely linked to PR), which in turn has had and will continue having an enormous impact on public relations.

As social media changes constantly, there is a continuous need to frequently investigate how social media is altering the PR practice which is the main justification and objective for this research. A first step in this study was examining a vast amount of recent literature sources. This critical review played the role of a basis to develop the following primary research and determine its focus according to the identified gaps in the literature. The report presents a number of existing evidence illustrating how greatly social media has changed and continues to change the PR industry.

Another purpose of the study was to examine the reasons for this phenomenon. To do so the research also aimed to investigate how practitioners themselves use social media and how it has been integrated into the Marketing Mix. As Brown summarizes: “Now we are seeing altogether new ways of doing things and new things that we can do” (2009: 92), therefore the research sought to identify these ‘new ways’ and ‘new things’ of how PROs work, but also to find out if social media has affected the private life of practitioners in terms of e.g. if they now spend more time online ‘working’ in their free time. Furthermore, it was discovered in the literature that measuring and monitoring SM and PR activities has been problematic for practitioners, which is why this issue was another research objective.

Since this is an industry level study (Daymon and Holloway, 2002) the focus of the primary research was on professionals practicing PR in any area in order not to limit the research scope and detect relevant findings about the whole industry hoping to provide new insights into the matter that would be of use for further research, but also for practitioners themselves to improve their knowledge and skills in SM.

However, a major difficulty was achieving a high enough response rate in the survey because unfortunately the so needed support by the CIPR and PRCA was not able to be provided.

To gain an overview of the research Figure 1 presents the chapter disposition of the book and what each one includes, forming a logical structure for an easy read and digestion of the academic findings.

Figure 1: Book Overview

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2. Literature Review

2.1. Public Relations

2.1.1. What is PR?

As a discipline, PR dates back to the beginning of the 20th century and is strongly linked to the growth of the media (print, TV, radio, online) when it begins to influence actions, behaviour and policy (Butterick, 2011).

In 1982 the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA, 2012) adopted the following definition:

Public Relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.

Grunig and Hunt (1984: 8) similarly describe PR as “the management of communications between an organisation and its publics.” The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR, 2012) offers another definition:

Public relations is about reputation - the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you... It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.

PRSA’s definition has a strong implication on the importance of a dialogue, whereas the CIPR puts emphasis on reputation by building and fostering good relationships with various publics. Henslowe (2003) also highlights that PR is about establishing and maintaining a sound two-way communication between an organisation and everyone with whom it has any form of contact.

There are many more definitions of PR. The reason for this is that the industry itself is always changing and adapting to the world and growing power of the media, old and new (Gordon, 2011). However, most of them define it as a discipline that is concerned with the exchange of information (Phillips and Young, 2009) and as a strategic management function that seeks to build relationships with the various publics of an organisation by maintaining a meaningful two-way communication with them. It therefore should be an essential part of the organisational structure that can be truly effective when integrated into the broader business disciplines such as corporate planning, finance, HR etc. (Smith and Zook, 2011).

2.1.2. A New Definition is Needed

The emergence of new technologies and media in the last few decades have evoked a new era for the PR practice, which is why in November 2011 the PRSA launched the so called “Public Relations Defined” collaborative initiative, aiming to ‘modernise’ the existing definition (PRdefinition, 2011). From all candidates that the PRSA evaluated, a new definition was adopted in March 2012:

Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.

PRSA (2012a)

2.1.3. Main Functions and Activities of PROs

According to Butterick (2011) PR’s primary function during the most of the 20th century was the attempt to get coverage in the media for which the main ability was writing news releases that would serve their purpose to be used in the media. However, much has changed since then. Hence, Fawkes (2012) highlights the main responsibilities of PROs today as follows:

Table 1: Main PR Activities

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For the implementation of these practices new technology has offered new ways of communication such as Web 2.0 and social media (Fawkes, 2012). All these functions and the appropriate tools to fulfil them represent the diverse nature of PR.

2.2. The PR Industry

2.2.1. Growing Importance

The PR industry is nowadays an important worldwide multi-billion dollar industry and is regarded as an integral part of both businesses and governments (Corporate Watch, 2003). Just in the UK it is responsible for £6.5 billion turnover, employs 47,800 people, in-house, out-of-house in consultancies or as freelancers, and contributes ca. £3.4 billion to the country’s economic prosperity and £1.1 billion to corporate profits (CEBR, 2005).

The importance of the profession has been remarkably influenced by the demand of the 24 hour media for content (Butterick, 2011). Various studies are expecting the future growth of the industry, especially in online and digital.

Figure 2: Areas of Greatest Growth in the Next Five Years

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Figure 3: European Communication Monitor’s Three Year Growth Expectations

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2.2.2. Still Bad Reputation?

For years the industry’s weakness has been its own reputation. Many think of PR simply as ‘spin’ or ‘propaganda’. According to Davis (2007: 3) ‘spin’ is a synonym of “deceit, trickery or, at best, exaggeration, wishful thinking or fanciful interpretation.” Often journalists and other influencers are unhappy with the “inauthentic, disingenuous, and “spamlike” ways of pitching them” (Solis and Breakenridge, 2009: 6).

Because of this many regard the industry as unethical (Brown, 2009). This, in turn, reflects to the major misunderstandings of the profession and lack of respect for it, which to some extent depend on the fact that there is still no equally recognised PR definition by all PR bodies. Nevertheless, according to Key Note (2007: 1) the industry is becoming more professional and is being considered as “the guardian of both brand and corporate reputation.”

2.2.3. The Internet Evolution

Thanks to the Internet communication is now possible anytime, anywhere, no more just face-to-face. It is instantaneous and the importance of the geographical location is highly reduced (Davis, 2007). The Internet has now become primary information source.

Figure 4: Shocking Internet Statistics

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Historically, PR used to provide the link between the supplier of a product, service etc. and its customer; now, it is the Internet (Phillips and Young, 2009). Press release distribution became easier, and cheaper – via emails (Yaxley, 2012). As The Cluetrain Manifesto (Levine, Locke, Searls and Weinberger, 2011) expresses:

A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies. These markets are conversations.

2.3. Social Media

2.3.1. Defining Web 2.0

Chaffey (2009: 22) defines Web 2.0 as “a collection of web services that facilitate interaction of web users with sites to create user-generated content and encourage behaviours such as community or social network participation, mashups, content rating, use of widgets and tagging.” One of the biggest advantages of Web 2.0 is that it allows UGC and mashups, i.e. the ability to integrate content from different networks, e.g. Facebook can include YouTube videos (Phillips and Young, 2009). Moreover, Web 2.0 facilitates a dialogue, which also generates a much quicker and cheaper customer feedback (Smith and Zook, 2011). Solis and Breakenridge (2009: 2) argue that the Web 2.0, a term coined by Tim O’Reilly, was not only the “rebirth of the Web”, but also a catalyst for the major changes happening to the PR industry.

2.3.2. Defining Social Media

Kaplan and Haenlein (2010: 61) define social media as a “ group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of User Generated Content. ”

Figure 5: Social Media Timeline

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Scott (2011) describes SM as the way everyone can participate by sharing ideas, thoughts and context and so can build relationships online, which is why he compares the term to a ‘cocktail party’. Similarly, according to Wikipedia (2012) SM includes “ web-based and mobile technologies used to turn communication into interactive dialogue” through various forms such as magazines, forums, weblogs, micro-blogging, wikis, podcasts, pictures, video, rating bookmarking.

Figure 6: The Conversation Prism – Variety of Online Communication Channels

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Table 2: Basic Forms of Social Media

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2.3.3. From Monologue to Dialogue

According to Brown (2009) people are engaging in the social web with others like them by not only consuming content, but also sharing ideas, interests and recommendations. Likewise, Solis (2011) also implies:

Social media is the democratization of information, transforming people from content readers into publishers. It is the shift from a broadcast mechanism, one-to-many, to a many-to-many model, rooted in conversations between authors, people, and peers.

The advantage for brands by participating in those dialogues is that engagement builds trust, relationships and loyalty, but on the other hand it also requires a “genuine, dedicated, proactive, and value-driven effort” (Solis, 2007: 5). Even if organisations are not participating in the conversations, they are still happening, with or without them (Solis, 2011). The time of the top-down communication is over; there is no longer just B2B or B2C communication, but B2C2B and C2C (Brown, 2009).

Figure 7: Sending a Message through Traditional and New Media

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Social media and Web 2.0 have altered the entire media landscape by putting the power of influence in the hands of normal people who want to share their feelings, opinions and experiences (Solis and Breakenridge 2009a) and by this new media plays the role of an extension of traditional word-of-mouth communication (Hollensen, 2011; Mangold and Faulds, 2009).

Figure 8: Word-of-Mouth Opportunities with Social Media

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2.3.4. Traditional Media vs. New Media

Newspaper usage is declining – only 19% of Americans, aged between 18 and 34, might look at a daily newspaper (Butterick, 2011). TV is still engaging, but people have a wider choice and have found new, different channels to watch TV at their own time and disposition (Brown, 2009). The same author argues that the Internet is not a medium and is way more complex than traditional media, combining two very important ‘features’ – allowing traditional channels to migrate and reach new audiences as well as providing completely new media platforms where companies and customers can interact. Information now seems to be coming to us rather than us finding it (ibid).

Figure 9: The Online Media

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2.3.5. Social Media Revolution and the ‘Now’ Factor

Social networking has now become the number one content category in worldwide engagement and accounts for 19 percent of all time spent online – this activity has more than tripled in the last few years (ComScore, 2012).

Figure 10: Time Spent Online on Key Internet Categories

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Twitter, for example, is now considered as a “news network” because it has become the distribution platform where news breaks first (Wallblog, 2011). In the same video Gerd Leonhard, a famous futurist and keynote speaker, expresses his opinion that Twitter will become even bigger than CNN because it only takes ca. 40 seconds for news to be tweeted right after it breaks. In the case of Osama bin Laden’s death it only took 26 seconds.

Table 3: Interesting Social Media Facts

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All this data indicates one very important aspect of SM – things happen in real time; news breaks in seconds, not hours or days.

2.3.6. Changing Consumer Behaviour

75% of consumers do not believe traditional advertising, whereas 71% are more likely to buy a product if someone referred to it on social media (Ragan, 2012). What is happening now is a “transfer of control, from the few to the many, from the corporations to the masses” (Brown, 2009: 157). Nevertheless, SM still “feels like the Wild West” for many brands and they are not comfortable participating in an “environment where the consumer talks back” (Brown, 2009: 16, 18).

Solis (2011a) calls this consumer influence ‘collective intelligence’ because:

Businesses are no longer the sole creator of a brand; it is co-created by consumers through shared experience and defined by the results of online searches and conversations.

Today’s consumer is not passive, but active and has multiple roles (Solis, 2011a).

Figure 11: The Roles of Today’s Consumer

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The biggest issue, however, is customer dissatisfaction being made public everywhere because dissatisfaction with a product, service or brand is usually expressed much more strongly than its counterpart (Brown, 2009). Nevertheless, even negative feedback can be ‘positive’ – companies can learn how to improve their products or services very quickly, but only of they listen to what their customers are saying.

2.4. Integrating PR and Social Media in the Marketing Mix

2.4.1. The Traditional Marketing Mix Today

In the Traditional Marketing Mix (Advertising, PR, Sales Promotions, Personal Selling and Direct Marketing) PR was considered until the 1980s as just a support for marketing through media coverage and seen as ‘free advertising’ to encourage sales (Davis, 2007: 13). However, the current shift from one-way towards two-way conversations and the increasing customer demands for constant interactions has given PR a considerable advantage over marketing, advertising etc. (Hutchinson, 2012) because it not only focuses on establishing relationships with the end users, but with all other stakeholders and therefore plays a huge role in reputation management (Butterick, 2011).

2.4.2. New Tools for the Traditional Marketing Mix

Marketers can no longer ‘buy influence’ (Brown, 2009: 85). Smith and Zook (2011: 4; 9) argue that social media is a ‘game changer’ because the customer has become a ‘partner’ who drives the business forward, i.e. has higher levels of involvement. They also argue that in order to actually allow this process, marketers nowadays must integrate both the old ‘outbound marketing’ (advertising, direct mail, telemarketing etc.) and the new ‘inbound marketing’, which enables those conversations between the customer and the organisation to happen via social media.

2.4.3. Integrated Marketing Communications

Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) means “integrating all the promotional tools so that they work together in harmony…with one voice all the time” (Davis, 2007: 135). Here, effectiveness is the main advantage because a message from a single channel has far less credibility than a message from multiple sources (Brown, 2009). In theory, such integration sounds credible; however, in practice it often happens that one of the elements, usually marketing or advertising, achieves the highest budget share, and the rest simply support this one aside (Fawkes, 2012). Nevertheless, new technology and media are now being used across the boundaries of the communications mix, namely for all promotion tools, because SM enables companies to better reach their target audiences well beyond the traditional media outlets (Tench and Yeomans, 2009). Reason for this is that social media replaces mass communication with networked relationships (Gordon, 2011). This necessary consistency of social networking with the use of the traditional IMC as a new paradigm results from the phenomenon that SM is perceived by consumers as more trustworthy than corporate messages transmitted via the traditional mix (Hollensen, 2011). Therefore, Mangold and Faulds (2009) argue that social media is a hybrid element of the promotion mix that combines the traditional IMC characteristics (organisations talking to customers) on the one hand and an extended form of word-of-mouth (customers talking to customers) not controlled by marketers in terms of content and frequency.

Figure 12: The New Marketing Communications Mix

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2.5. Social Media’s Impact on PR

According to Richard Edelman, CEO of the world’s largest independent PR consultancy Edelman, social media has altered “the nature of how we do what we do” (Curiosity, 2012). It is a ‘shift from pitching to participating, from selling a story to telling a story’ (Solis and Breakenridge, 2009a).

Table 4: Impact of Social Media According to PR Practitioners

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2.5.1. How about PR Theory?

Many claim that the emergence of social media has changed both PR theory and practice. New technologies have allowed the practice to better develop a dialogue with its publics, evolving towards Grunig’s two-way symmetric communications model (Theaker, 2012).

Table 5: PR Communications Models

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Figure 13: The New Grunigian View of Modern PR

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2.5.2. Impact? How? Why?

Solis and Breakenridge (2009a) argue that what actually caused the reinvention of PR by social media was UGC. It changed the “dynamics of influence” and put the power in the hands of ordinary people (Solis, 2011). Therefore, PROs must now engage in the conversation through the various new channels and tools. In this sense, Solis and Breakenridge (2009a) furthermore argue that in the world of Web 2.0, content is no longer king, but conversation is.

Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian professor in English literature and a philosopher, once proclaimed: ‘the medium is the message’. Nowadays, the medium has become the message (Brown, 2009) because SM provides PR with additional channels to instantaneously communicate with target publics (Franklin, 2009).

Brown (2009) calls the described new development a ‘communications upheaval’ more significant than the printing press. According to the author companies themselves used to decide on a desired image and PR had to just present it. Now, however, they have lost that control and this image is directly built by the consumers.

Scott (2011) explains, PR used to be almost only about media relations – if you had a good story, you had to pitch it to a reporter; then if he/she liked it, he/she would write about it and so people would find out what is happening with organisations. Today, companies can directly and in real time communicate with buyers and other influencers on multiple social media platforms (ibid). Reaching target audiences has become easier not only locally, but also globally. Furthermore, many journalists do not just wait to receive press releases, but find these on their own on the Social Web.

Figure 14: Most Important Research Methods for Journalists

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On the other hand, in terms of PR UGC can often be considered to have an inbuilt credibility gap (Tench and Yeomans, 2009). There is a lack of control of what is being said online, which is a major concern for PROs and organisations (Gordon, 2011). PR professionals can only partially control UGC by designing and hosting websites, wikis, blogs, Facebook and Twitter presence etc. and trying to engage with consumers to react (Guth and Marsh, 2012). Still, the demand for 24 hour stories and content in the media is a major challenge for the industry (Butterick, 2011).

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