PR (Marc) and Social Media (Leslie) locked in battle – Is it social or is it PR?

My good friend and long time colleague (at two different companies), Leslie Nuccio, and I have a reoccurring conversation about whether PR is social or social is PR: Leslie knows social media, and I know PR. Over the years this conversation has evolved as we began to recognize how social media has disrupted the traditional PR process in the following areas: communication consistency, target audience, channel reach and source credibility. By examining these disruptions, our discussions have shifted from “who owns it?” to “how can PR and social media work together to make the best decisions as an integrated team?”

4 Social Media Disruptions of PR

Six years ago, when Leslie and I started our first social media program, we were having regular conversations about whether she should lead a program through social media or if I should lead through PR. When a moment of crisis communications arose or we were launching a new product, we’d spar about the best course of action and ownership. At that point, social media was so new that we weren’t sophisticated enough to recognize that there is a quick way to determine who’s driving the bus. By looking at the 4 disruptions, we could have easily defined the roles of each discipline. The one thing we always agreed on, though, is that working together is easier than arguing about ownership.

1. Communication Consistency Disruption:

    • In PR we often speak of developing a messaging platform or strategy. Our goal is to maintain a consistent message about our program. We even go so far as to measure message pull through as proof of ROI: that’s the level of importance we place on consistent messaging. To get there we often take on a monologue (i.e. broadcast) strategy to get our message out.
    • In social communication it’s all about creating a conversation. To have a conversation we cannot simply broadcast a message and plan to control it at every step. The very nature of social media is contrary to monologue communication: the primary goal of social is to create dialogue in communications.
    • Communication consistency disruption in the real world. As you are launching a new marketing campaign, dealing with a crisis, etc., it’s important for PR and social to connect and look at what type of communication consistency is needed. This will be a case-by-case decision. PR folks, listen to your social media peers! If you want people to talk about your campaign on social, you’ll need to get comfortable with allowing a conversation or dialogue to take a natural course, and it most likely won’t stick to your exact messaging points. Social media folks, listen to your PR team! They are communications experts and know the pitfalls of diverging from a messaging strategy. Sometimes PR will insist that they do not want a conversation, and that can be for good reason: for example, a moment of PR crisis communications.

2. Target Audience Disruption:

  • In PR we generally aim to get our message to an individual. The path to that individual is reasonably targeted. We know the customer we want to reach, we figure out what media will get the message to that reader, and we find the proper journalist at that publication who would be interested in our story. PR pros tend to target with precision.
  • In social media we target communities with our messages. We look at our social media channels and the influencers that will find our message interesting and ultimately pass that message on to their friends. In social we look at a broad audience as our ultimate goal, taking something of a shotgun approach.
  • Target audience disruption in the real world: There is no hard rule as to whether targeting individuals or a community is the best approach.  Every single campaign will have a different answer, and many times the answer will be that you should aim towards both. By taking an integrated approach to marketing, PR and social can work together to determine which approach makes sense.

3. Channel Reach Disruption:

  • In PR our channel is very direct, but reach is limited. It may sound as though I am being negative here, as the word “limited” can feel confining and counter productive to your cause. But think about that for a minute: there are times when you want a certain audience because it makes perfect sense. For example, imagine you are the maker of a fantastic new dentist drill that is cheaper and better quality than anything else on the market. Your best bet for PR to reach dentists will be a trade publication with a very small circulation.
  • In social channels we tap into a network and its reach is unlimited. Channel reach is where social media shines and traditional media struggles. Social can go viral and reach millions of people in a short amount of time. Virality potential is a tremendous asset for marketing, unless you need a more direct or limited audience. Using the same example, social may not be the best bet for launching your new dentist drill. The day a dentist drill goes viral, it may be time for me to think about a new career (I am not a fan of the dentist).
  • Target audience disruption in the real world: When is comes to channel reach there’s little argument that social has the potential to reach the biggest audiences the fastest. However, there is seldom a time where you need to choose PR or social at the expense of the other, and both have their merits.

4. Source Credibility Disruption:

  • In PR we look to journalists to write objective stories about our products or companies, resulting in earned media. Traditionally we’ve looked at these wins as 3rd party validation of whatever we’re pitching. The simple truth is that people trust journalists (mostly); if they write about something it must be true and objective, right? OK, this is debatable, but you get the idea…
  • In social we accept a certain amount of subjectivity since our distribution source is owned media. By owning the social media channels where we distribute our messages we have a subjective point of view, and that alone can result in your audience questioning your credibility on a certain subject.  This is what makes word-of-mouth marketing – the holy grail of social media dialogue marketing – so powerful: if your audience shares your content for you, they add credibility.
  • Target audience disruption in the real world: Social media audiences accept a certain level of subjectivity in the same way they do with advertising. On the flip side people seem to trust traditional media regardless of whether they are actually objectively reporting on a story. Again, both have their merits and in many cases there is no reason to choose one path over the other – it’s just important to understand how each audience views earned media vs. owned media.


The social media disruption of PR tells us we need an integrated approach to social media & PR.

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Few marketers enjoy working in a silo, and most everyone likes working on a successful team. The secret to success is the integration of efforts, not discussions about ownership. The most successful marketing teams work together and use their individual disciplines to produce holistic results. PR and social are key players in this equation. Often PR is tasked with messaging and social media is tasked with distribution and engagement, but that dynamic is evolving. A clear understanding of the fundamental differences between social media and PR will lead teams to the discussions that encourage integration and teamwork.

As for Leslie and myself, we still disagree now and then, but we have become a strong team. One day they’ll write a book about us and then make it into a blockbuster film. I think they should call it “Marc and Leslie: the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid of PR and Social Media.” Leslie disagrees and thinks it should be called “Leslie and Marc: the Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy of Social Media and PR.” I’m not sure who will win this argument, most likely the fictitious movie studio my delusional mind believes will actually make this film.