Social Media “SWOTed”: A Public Relations perspective

Public Relations

Piyush Sharma, a PR Professional pens down his take on PR, highlighting the change in trends of Public Relations after the incorporation of Social Media.

The digital revolution through the last decade has completely changed the landscape in public relations (PR).  In the past, PR Managers worked their entire life in a press department towards mass media outreach such as press, radio, and television. Conventional PR operated in a way where they had no tool to enable them to target the correct demographic and audience. Consequently, PR activities for a brand were restricted to develop generic publicity-related materials, and advertisement campaigns that worked along very predictable, classical line to appeal to the Indian psyche. Burning the midnight oil in Excel spreadsheets, copy-paste messages on Gmail, Yahoo, etc. and calling the media-lists with 500 contacts or less were the modus operandi of the PR professionals of the yesteryears.

Over the past decade, the entire structure of public relations has been revamped with the advent of digital media. The unprecedented emergence of social media giants such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram has completely changed the way modern humans communicate.  With blogs, wikis, social networking sites, photo sharing sites, instant messaging, video sharing platforms, etc.’ the field of PR saw an unparalleled opportunity. The basic principle on which PR works is helping build a brand identity and reputation by proper placement of publicity materials, such as a magazine with the correct readership.

With social media, the PR professionals got access to large scale user data, that makes zeroing in on potential stakeholders a breeze. When Public Relations and Social Media are blended together, it creates a synergy rather than a simple additive effect.

However, social media is very much of a double-edged source because of the same reasons it is useful- it’s network and outreach. Probably an assessment of the role of social media where public relations are concerned can be best done in the framework of a SWOT analysis. SWOT is an acronym for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. While Strengths and Weaknesses are Internal to a body, the latter two are external aspects that can influence the objective of the body.

The strength of social media as a public relations tool is intuitive. Social Media provides endless creative windows to send out a message about a product or a service. A company can identify which user groups, fora, and communities are best to target. They can then build a solid strategic campaign, that will sway public opinion in their favor.

In recent times, the PR campaign undertaken by the motorcycle brand JAWA is a great example of this. Even before the motorcycle was relaunched, the PR team capitalized and built on the nostalgia that surrounded the cultish following of the bike. Using Instagram as their outlet of choice, they released older pictures, infographics with appropriate sepia color schemes, which retold the story of the JAWA motorcycle before it went out of production, yet never revealed how the relaunched bike would look like.

For almost five and a half months the publicity materials trickled in through their Instagram handle. Fifteen days before the launch, they provided a picture of the classic JAWA motor, which immediately sent a collective shiver of excitement through enthusiasts, who could see the best elements of the older JAWA motor preserved, with added upgrades. JAWA also identified their competitor, by virtue of their selection of hashtags and groups, targeting primarily enthusiasts who favored retro bikes such as Royal Enfield and not the sporty Honda or Yamaha bikes. They successfully built up a campaign to pique consumer interest and followed up with gala launches across the country, which drew masses to their flagship stores in huge number.

This story is a perfect example of how a PR campaign built on the strengths of social media. The expenditure for these activities prior to the launch, is minimal, compared to the traditional modes of advertising multiple times across many print or electronic media outlets.

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The weakness of using social media as a PR tool can be thought of as a weak PR strategy or an incompetent PR staff. Take the example of the massive PR gaffe in part of the South City Mall at Kolkata. The mall draws a stable and upper-middle class footfall since its inception. Last year, while a mother who asked for a feeding room to breastfeed her seven months young daughter, mall’s staff not only denied the breastfeeding space, rather insisted that she breastfeeds her daughter in the public toilet.

As a consumer, the lady narrated her ordeal on South City Mall’s Facebook Page stating, “There is no place to breastfeed on the top of it your staff asked me to feed in the toilet…disgusting place. Such a big useless mall.” She got an even nastier reply from the social media team of South City Mall asking her to respect people’s privacy and to do the household chores at home. This immediately led to a public outcry and thousands of people supported the mother and asking for a boycott of the Mall and its stores.

This media crisis was eventually handled by the PR team who later released an unconditional apology to the lady and ensured action against their employee who made the misogynist and gender insensitive comments. However, the company’s apology was deemed insufficient by a lot of social media users and South City Mall’s Agency had to disable the comments.

As for opportunities, they are literally endless. As the JAWA campaign showed, an effective PR campaign need not involve big money, but smart strategies. Resources like Facebook Marketplace, the opportunities to create business accounts, the integration of Facebook and Instagram seamlessly, all allow unprecedented avenues for small business owners to create their own brands and design effective campaigns, at a fraction of the budget they’d need, if they had to go the conventional routes of advertising or campaigning. E-commerce itself has gotten fresh blood injected as all major vendors from Amazon to the Indian Flipkart interface with consumers through all their social media channels, and use them routinely for PR campaigns. With LinkedIn professional networking has evolved into a separate industry, where an individual can create his own professional identity with massive outreach, look for job opportunities, author articles of interest or simply, network with colleagues in his or her field, and beyond.

Again, threats from social media are numerous. As PR involves subtle strategies to sway public opinion, companies have to be always weary about negative PR, which might as well be strategically generated by a competitor.

A prime example of this is the Facebook scandal. In November 2018, the New York Times published an investigative article against multiple dark practices on part of the social networking giant, where it also claimed that a PR firm of dubious reputation, known as the Definers, was hired by Facebook to malign Apple and Google, after the latter had criticized Facebook at the wake of the Cambridge Analytica campaign. Scores of articles started appearing blasting Google and Apple for inappropriate business practices, in a media outlet which was an affiliate partner of Definers. One week later, the outgoing chief of communications Elliot Schrage became the fall guy when he admitted to hiring the PR firm to go on the offensive against Apple and Google but denied that he had asked them to generate fake news. So, Apple and Google had a negative PR attack on them, from a competitor who was just trying to deflect attention from its own wrongdoing and resulting negative media attention.

In this fast-paced digital world, a good PR professional should understand that the reputation lies in becoming a customer-centric company which is available 24×7.

A Customer-centric company is first and foremost a good listener. At every moment and through every channel it connects its customers, employees, stakeholders and their products on various social media channels. An effective way for communication to flow freely is to create communities alongside respecting one’s identity, privacy, and money. Any negative publicity can now be flashed through Facebook or Twitter which can very quickly magnify into a PR crisis. Social media is also a handy platform for customers to report their grievances and complaints to resolve them more quickly and effectively. Brands also can reach out to a wider customer base with new updated products and services. The 24X7 presence of social media enables brands to deliver good news at any point in time, as well as serves as a curse when any crummy post can also travel at the speed of light affecting the brand image of any company.

In summary, to understand the SWOT profile of social media as a PR tool, one needs to realize what social media essentially is. It is ever connected, always on, highly opinionated and always on the move. Precisely this is the reason for everything discussed above. Social media is both a boon and a curse insofar as PR & communications are concerned. On one hand, it ensures easy access to an unprecedented scale of consumers for the promotion and marketing of brands and services. On the other hand, the consumer base also wields enormous power over the image and identity of a brand, wherein negative reviews and media about a product can soon magnify to a major PR crisis within a matter of hours. Good PR strategies, therefore, need to keep both these in mind. While exploiting the outreach of social media can be the backbone of a PR strategy, form and content of the publicity of the materials put out should be a matter of careful deliberations, with plans of damage control present apriori, should a crisis arise.

Ultimately, PR is a field of studying mass behavior and group psychology, and social media is best visualized as an enormously powerful enabling tool. Whether it becomes Aladdin’s Genii or Frankenstein’s monster squarely depends on who wields it, and how.

PR and communications manager by profession, lawyer by training, Piyush Sharma is an Account Manager at 2wenty7 Inc.