After working non stop over the Easter holidays, I have received my mark back from the 2012 March CIPR Diploma Critical Reasoning Test and am so pleased to have gained a Distinction! One question I was given a merit and the other a distinction, so I’ve decided to post my answer to this one.
Question 4: Argue whether or not the advent of social media can assist public relations to act as a force for good in modern society.
Feedback: There is an excellent critical analysis of the different definitions of social media, drawing on a range of sources to provide contrasting perspectives. The inclusion of the ‘conversation prism’ model and subsequent discussion is also very good. This answer demonstrates an outstanding grasp of the relevant PR theories and these are discussed clearly in relation to social media. For example, the critical analysis of Shannon and Weaver’s linear communications model and Grunig’s Excellence Theory is of a very high standard. There is an excellent analysis of how social media has altered PR’s control of messages and there is a high level of critical analysis of the need for ethics and transparent conduct in online conversations.
Areas to improve: Although this answer is arguing the case for how social media can assist PR to act as a force for good it would be useful to reflect more on the challenges social media presents PR practitioners, including an analysis of how practitioners might overcome these.
The landscape in which public relations operates has changed radically over recent years. PR practitioners have actively tried to embrace the ever advancing technology which has created endless new communication opportunities to build relationships with audiences on an unprecedented scale (Kaplan and Haenlein: 2010). Many academics are in agreement that the face of public relations (PR) will never be the same, having become more open and collaborative, which has largely been driven by changes to the way that people access their information and the increasing amount of people with access to the Internet across the world. As of 31 December 2011, it is estimated that there are 2,267,233,742 users of the Internet all over the globe (Internet World Stats, 2012) resulting in public relations practitioners now having to think not only strategically, but globally about an organisations communication messages (Grunig, 2009). The fast pace of communication on social media has helped shape a culture of 24/7 news provided by not only journalists, but ‘citizen journalists’ who use the advancements in technology to record and share breaking news with the rest of the world. This is a world where governments have been brought down by their publics, aided by the strength of communication in social media.
In essence, the focus of communication has shifted to having conversations directly with the consumer and building trust through relationships as a result of the discourse between an organisation and these individuals. Simon Clift, ex-CMO of Unilever highlights this progression explaining that “brands are now becoming conversation factors where academics, celebrities, experts and key opinion formers discuss functional, emotional, and more interestingly, social concerns” (Ad Age, 2009).
This paper will present the argument that the arrival and consequent integration of social media into modern society can assist public relations to act as a force for good, supported by positive cases and an appreciation of instances where PR in social media has resulted in negative situations. Consideration will be taken to critically analyse the impact that social media has had upon public relations practitioners, the challenges that it presents to the dominant paradigm of PR and traditional communication theory and the implication of ethics, transparency and operating globally has on the conduct of organisations engaging in social media.
Firstly, a similar problem is faced by academics defining social media as there is when defining public relations; the large variety of definitions with differing approaches makes it difficult to tie social media to a singular meaning. Kaplan and Haenlein (2009, pp60) explain that social media “is 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”. Dykeman (2009 cited in Wright & Hinson 2009) elaborates on this by adding that as a result of this created content, practitioners have the unique ability to gain real-time feedback on PR campaigns, enabling effective evaluation. Grunig (2009, pp14) agrees with the idea of analysing the feedback and cites that “the digital media are ideal for environmental scanning research, and there are many tools for scanning cyberspace for problems, publics and issues”. Academics, Kaplan and Haenlein (2009) and Grunig (2009) fail to discuss the changing nature of relationships within their definitions, favouring to focus upon a practical definition of the application of social media. Traditional definitions of public relations also tend not to acknowledge conversing with publics and Solis (2011, pp3) determines that social media are redressing these definitions by “putting the public back into public relations”. One could argue that both of these elements; practical applications and relationships are equally important in establishing a definition for social media.
An interesting perspective that focuses on relationships is put forward by Decrock (2010), who highlights that “social media is the human connection between media”. This view reflects the transition of communication to conversation due to social media, but the author also acknowledges that Decrock (2010) is not academically recognised, Fig.1 The Conversation Prismhowever he is the founder of Nocus, a successful Belgium based Communications Agency and therefore has proven experience of using social media in a PR setting. It is also interesting to note that the very medium of social media is allowing industry experts such as Decrock to publish their work. Solis (2008) builds upon Decrock’s (2010) contribution and presents Figure 1. ‘The Conversation Prism’, a visual presentation of the dynamics of conversations that take place on social media. Solis explains that it gives PR practitioners the “opportunity to proactively survey the landscape to pinpoint relevant dialogue, prioritise participation strategies, and create an engagement hierarchy and org. chart”. Social media has ultimately altered the emphasis of public relations from communication to conversations, whereby these conversations have the power to enable PR to act as a force for good.
The arrival of social media has resulted in some academics challenging the traditional paradigms that PR has historically been built upon, where Wright and Hinson (2009, pp4) argue that social media is affecting “traditional models and theories”. The validity of Shannon and Weaver’s traditional model of communications is therefore questioned. The linear structure of the theory does not support the disintermediation of the media and the advent of ‘citizen journalism’, where the consequences of this are that any person can play the role of a communicator transmitting their messages. The model places social media as another channel for communication and fails to recognise the extent to which dialogue takes place between an organisation and it’s publics.
Grunig’s (1992) widely accepted “Excellence Theory” is a model for good communication based upon two-way, symmetrical dialogue with an audience. Grunig (2009, pp3) believes the way that PR practitioners use social media to communicate with publics has validated his original position, stating that “from a theoretical perspective … I do not believe digital media change the public relations theory needed to guide practice”.
Some academics including Phillips and Young (2009, pp247) claim that social media has shifted the focus to placing more attention on the conversations that surround an organisation “that emerge from Internet mediated social networks”. Rather than disproving “Excellence Theory”, Phillips and Young have provided an alternative view on the theoretical context of social media and it could suggest that it is not the theory that has changed, but the way public relations practitioners are now seeking to communicate with their audiences. Successful social media is about two-way communication with a view to engaging publics. What this implies, in terms of public relations, is that participation and response from an audience is central to successful social media, which in turn enables feedback to flow freely back and forth between an organisation. Breckinridge and Solis (2009, pp2) support this through emphasising that “monologue has turned to dialogue bringing a new era of Public Relations”. One could argue that in the age of social media, to conduct ‘excellent’ PR an organisation cannot simply just send out information via social media, employing the ‘Press Agentry’ model, instead they must engage in conversation with active publics to build relationships.
Neither Grunig (2009) or Phillips and Young (2009) make an appreciation that social media conversations, although two-way in their nature, are open for the public to view, participate and respond. Therein lies a problem of lack of control over what is said about an organisation; regardless of whether it is positive or negative. The control of information has dramatically changed, where previously communication was between PR practitioners and journalists. The conversation has opened up to “users, clients, opponents and competitors to communicate freely with each other, with the potential to create a discourse that is significantly beyond the control of the subject (Phillips and Young, 2009, pp7). Breckenridge and Solis (2009 ppxxvii) also add that “in many cases, these voices are as influential as many of the most widely renowned journalists and industry experts”. There is, therefore, a great need for PR’s to become ethical and transparent in their communications, as the impact of not doing so could greatly affect the reputation of their organisation, having the potential for people, many of these organic influencers, to converse about the company’s failings.
For example, in 2011, global PR firm Bell Pottinger was highly criticised for their extensive manipulation of Wikipedia entries on behalf of their clients. Even though their practice was not illegal, Bell Pottinger received much negative publicity regarding their actions. Many, including Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, cited it as ironic that “the company committed the cardinal sin of a PR and lobbying company of having their own bad behaviour bring bad headlines to their clients, [and] did so in a fashion that brought no corresponding benefits” (Pegg and Wright, 2011). One could suggest that social media has enabled public relations to act as a force for good through necessitating PR to behave in an ethical manner, as the repercussions for behaving in any other way could potentially result in cases similar to Bell Pottinger. Through adopting a transparent, “force for good” approach to communication an organisation has the potential to effectively harness the trust of their stakeholders, which Bill Green, CEO of Accenture believes “speeds up the metabolism of collaboration and increases loyalty” (Tapscott, 2012).
Wakefield and Sklair (2011) of The Institute of Philanthropy argue that “whilst some organisations are using online tools to become more transparent, many others are also realising the power of social media to fight corruption and push for transparency from institutions that are not so forthcoming”. This can be seen in the recent example of ‘Kony 2012’, which sought to turn the world’s attention to the Ugandan warlord, wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. The campaign swept across the world, originating from a 30 minute video made by Jason Russell, USA, which gathered unbelievable amounts of support from individuals on social media who shared the content. The extent of ‘Kony 2012’ was evident even two days into the campaign, where it had attracted over 32 million views on YouTube and the Twitter hashtag #stopkony trended worldwide with influential celebrities such as Rhianna and Justin Bieber tweeting about it (Hoban, 2012). This great example of the power of social media clearly demonstrates and conforms to Grunig’s (2009) view on public relations theory relating specifically to social media. Grunig debated that for social media to be ‘excellent’, it must be two-way and symmetrical. ‘Kony 2012’ arguably employs the ‘two-way symmetric’ model and has had significant success in achieving the campaigns overall aim of making Kony famous. Through providing clear call-to-actions, the campaign has engaged with its audience and even better still, inspired them to spread the message.
Social media can assist public relations to act as a force for good, not only on a local basis, but also on a global scale. Engaging on social media means an organisation has the ability to reach people all over the world instantly with their messages. Grunig (2009′, pp3) believes that “digital media have made most public relations global and force organisations to think globally about their public relations practice”. An example of the global impact social media can have was illustrated in the wake of the Haiti Earthquake in 2010, where American journalist Ann Curry tweeted “@usairforce find a way to let Doctors without Borders planes land in Haiti”, after seeing a tweet from the organisation that one of their planes could not get clearance to land to provide much needed humanitarian aid. Within an hour of Curry tweeting (and many followers also tweeting the US Airforce), the plane was allowed to land in the Haitian airfield. In this instance, social media took a critical role in this taking place and one could suggest that without social media it would not have been possible for this conversation between the public and an US Airforce to take place, especially within such a short space of time. This example also highlights Wakefield and Sklair’s (2011, pp6) statement that the “barrier to mass communication is no longer technological, or even financial”, with public relations able to communicate to the public and the public freely able to respond. It must be taken into consideration that it was not just social media that made this particular example happen, but the people who tweeted and responded to the situation. However, that being said, social media has provided the platform for it to occur.
In conclusion, social media has changed the way PR communicates, allowing the existence of two-way dialogue with strategic publics. The technological advancements have created a global environment where these publics and stakeholders are able to hold conversations about brands and companies, which take place regardless of whether PR practitioners actively engage in social media.
The public relations dominant paradigm has been challenged by the advent of this technological phenomenon, however social medias success is largely attributed to the ability of audiences to engage in the conversation, highlighting that two-way, symmetrical dialogue is central to ‘excellent’ social media public relations. Rather than the foundations of PR theory needing to be rewritten, it is how PR is practiced that needs to be addressed.
Through using social media as a platform to communicate, it can assist public relations to act as a force for good as it has the power to harness greater transparency in an organisations communications. The repercussions of not acting in an ethical manner could potentially result in the loss of trust on a global scale as seen by the Bell Pottinger example.
Social media can also assist PR for good, as it has facilitated the democratisation of the media, giving a voice to people and organisations that were previously unheard as the barriers of mass communication are broken down. As more people are able to communicate their message through this medium, professional communicators are required to break through the clutter and noise of messages to ensure they are reached.
It must be taken into consideration that there is a significant need for further research into the area of social media. The pace of change is so radical that an article of particular significance has the potential to become obsolete soon after the publish date.
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