Social media helping PR operate more strategically?

The Chartered Institute of PR’s (CIPR) annual State of the Profession report suggests a potentially interesting development for the sector and the role PR plays within organisations.

In her introduction to the survey of 1,273 of its members, CIPR CEO, Jane Wilson, reports that PR “is moving away from having a primary media relations focus to embracing the opportunity presented to us by social media to participate in two-way conversations with our publics.”

While ‘two-way communications’ is an often misused or misunderstood term its adoption here is potentially significant as it might  indicate a shift from a traditionally media relations-focused tactical function to more strategic organisational as PR has to undertake greater research and planning to deal with the complexity of social media.

OK. So, this is pretty flimsy speculation but there’s another interesting insight in the report which adds some more – albeit speculative – weight to the hypothesis.

The increasing convergence and collaboration of siloed departments necessary to manage the increasingly social environment and support the move towards becoming a ‘social business’ is also affecting PR professionals. In the section titled ‘Converging areas of practice’ the report reveals that “[PR] [d]epartments working increasingly closely together has directly resulted in areas of work converging. Around half of PR professionals say that departments that now work more closely with each other share responsibility for social or digital media management (51%), branding (48%) or internal communications (48%).”

While it doesn’t indicate whether PR teams are taking the lead on driving forward a newly converged organisational strategy, these are interesting findings that may indicate that as organisations become increasing socialised and converged this may well be a catalyst for PR to recognise and capitalise on its long-absent organisational strategic prowess?

PR, it has long been argued, is best conceived as a strategic management function operating at board level to understand wider society and help shape the long-term vision and operation of organisations. In theory PR plays a central role identifying and connecting internal stakeholders with external ones, building long-term relationships with them, interpreting their changing needs and feeding this information up to the board to shape organisational strategy. The reality, alas, has seen PR all too often become relegated to marketing-led communications and reactive issue management.

But is social media forcing a change for the better? As building relationships with online communities and networks through two-way communications becomes increasingly central to an organisation’s success; and social media-empowered consumers and stakeholders are increasingly driving organisational convergence will PR’s ‘boundary-spanning’ role helping join up an organisation’s departments with its external environment help it operate at a higher, more strategic level?

I guess only time will tell. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised as I believe PR has the potential to play a central role in helping organisations adapt to the complexity of social media at a business level – in theory, at least!

As a footnote it should also be noted that two other findings from the report may have a bearing on this. Firstly, the report argues that in terms of its current strategic presence “three in five [respondents] say that they directly brief board members or senior staff, whilst over a third of those in-house with a direct responsibility for PR sit on the board“. However, “fewer than half say that this extends to influencing wider business and organisational strategy.”

And secondly, “by some margin, the area of public relations that is seen as presenting the biggest challenge is social or digital media management. Two-thirds of PR professionals (66%) say that they think it will present a challenge to them as PR professionals, whilst half (53%) say that they think it will present a challenge to their organisation.”

So, there’s still a way to go before PR operates consistently at a strategic, management level, although social media may be well be the catalyst necessary to shift this reality. But, it’s a catalyst that’s also perceived as a major challenge – both to the profession and individual practitioners. Perhaps it’s digital’s disruptive potential will win out and help the PR industry come of age.