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Ask the Expert: Q&A with Shonali Burke, part one on social media and PR



Award-winning communications consultant Shonali Burke, ABC, principal of Shonali Burke Consulting and adjunct faculty member at Johns Hopkins University, delivered a webinar on designing a social media-optimized PR program. This presentation was part of an ongoing six-part series sponsored by Marketwire and HubSpot titled “How to Supercharge Your PR Program.”

In her presentation, Shonali, a well-known PR measurement guru and active blogger based in Washington, D.C., talked about how social media allows PR practitioners to build a community, giving them the ability to expand their messages and connect with people like never before. Several points she stressed are the importance of aligning PR objectives with business objectives, integrating all facets of a PR strategy or campaign, measuring the ongoing success of the campaign and tying all tactics to a central destination, or hub. 

To explore these concepts in greater detail, we asked Shonali a few specific follow-up questions. In Part One, below, she delves into social media and public relations.

How does social media change the practice of public relations?

Before social media emerged as a powerful communication mechanism, PR was primarily a one-way form of communication. Most people perceived PR (and many still do) as mostly publicity. Information was pushed out to media and PR people depended on the media to get their stories and news to publishers. Social media gives customers the ability to talk directly with organizations. This can be great or terrible. I think it’s great because companies benefit by learning how to make a product or service better. Traditional PR has been good for telling stories well. Social media adds the ability to share them with different channels and to build audiences, customers and communities – to build a community structure. Sometimes social media falls under PR, marketing or a different area of an organization because of the functional area’s ability to talk directly with consumers and interact with people they hope will grow their community. This aspect is very exciting – your community can make or break you.

How do you decide which social media tactics to use for a PR campaign?

Whether you’re putting together a PR strategy (long term) or campaign (short term), you have to look at business objectives and tie your PR strategy to them. At the end of the day, you’re working for a company with business goals. Look at your company’s strategic plans and objectives. Talk to executives leading the business units for your organization to find out what their objectives are. 

Once you know what those objectives are, start working backward. Find the people you need to reach. Learn where the conversation is taking place among the social media communities that you want to inspire to take action and to change behavior. You need to do your research and then decide which social platforms to incorporate that will help you reach your objectives.  

A lot of organizations see chatter going on in the social world. The quick reaction is to make sure people hear what your business is saying. It’s unrealistic to assume that because “Company X” is using this platform very well that “Company Y” should too. You have to focus on business objectives and what is going to help you achieve them, and then base your tactical decisions on that.

What advice would you offer to someone who is thinking about incorporating social media into his or her traditional PR practices?

Align your PR/communication objectives with your organization’s business objectives (I’m not leaving out non-profits since they have business objectives as well).   

Realize that:

  • Twitter and Facebook take a lot of time. Companies sometimes think they can get away without engaging with their stakeholders and customers. For example, Apple and its products are so powerful. Its executives don’t tweet; instead, their communities do the work for them. The vast majority of companies don’t fall into this category.
  • Social media is not “free” – the platforms may be free to access, but you have to pay for people’s time to tweet, blog and post to Facebook.
  • You need internal buy-in at the decision-making level. The best way to grow business and meet business objectives is to tell stories through social media. Organizations have many stories worth telling that are not being told. People on the outside – they just see a company’s façade, a corporate behemoth. In order to humanize your brand, you need to have people relate to you. Act like a human and connect with people. Build bridges internally. Employees are your best brand evangelists. Educate them on best practices, empower them to tell your stories and trust them.
  • Social media is conversational by nature. Regardless of the platform, you talk to people and they talk to you. If organizations think they can incorporate social media and be successful without understanding the conversational aspect of it, they will fail. To be successful at this, you have to first listen to what your audiences are talking about – especially if you are new to social media.
  • You need to measure. Begin with your business objective and your own communication objective and track as you go along so you can measure your progress. One of my main pet peeves with PR is that it has operated too long by focusing on outputs. That is not what businesses care about – it’s about growing business, making money, saving money… and what you did to support the business objectives. You can be humble to begin with but you must have something concrete to measure. Otherwise, how to do you know how successful you’ve been?For example, if I go on a diet, I determine that I want to lose 20 pounds in six months and then figure out how I’m going to do it. I track my weight, exercise and monitor my food intake. If I gain two pounds after losing six, I’ll know what got me off track and make the necessary modifications. Monitoring and measuring is the same with a successful PR program.

Stay tuned for Part Two in which Shonali discusses integrated communications and the “hub and spoke” approach.

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