PR’s Use of Digital Media

PR Stages in Digital Media

As I was researching PR and digital media, I came across a report that explores the top ten digital challenges facing communications
, looks at the impact on each of the key communications
disciplines, investigates the use and uptake of social media tools, and
identifies the role and key responsibilities of heads of digital communications.

It says that PR professionals are still having a hard time getting their arms around measurement. This is probably due to the fact that like their counterparts in media, they're by and large digital immigrants.

Chief communicators and PR professionals on the corporate side also tend to be much more conservative than their marketing colleagues. That's because press releases and media activities are generally watched more closely by senior managers and legal teams.

The May 2010 report was compiled after face to face interviews with 40 senior communicators involved in digital media, in addition to authors and academics. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the four stages of social media readiness.

The "Crawling" Stage

(generally corporate entities owning multiple businesses and B2B organizations)

  • creating and hosting the company Web site, including an online press page
  • securing the worldwide usage of the company name online
  • locking down online security issues across the organization
  • ensuring adequate ownership of relevant URLs
  • managing the internal blog

Although this sounds like a very good first stage, often PR professionals are outpaced in digital media by their marketing colleagues who go straight to external blogs and outposts, without building the internal communications infrastructure necessary to support the organization as it sprawls in digital media.

In my experience, organizations that achieve a higher level of integration follow all bullets, even at this stage.

The "Toddling" Stage

  • undertaking a company-wide digital audit to determine current online activity base
  • introducing social media guidelines for employees
  • implementing an internal online/social media communications strategy
  • introducing an internal company blog
  • monitoring (but not reacting to) blogs

The audit is a great idea, and I wonder if it should include the online presences of key employees. I have not seen the issue discussed on too many places, if you're a manager or an officer of the organization, even when your blog or digital assets are personal, there is a different/higher level of accountability as to what you say and disclose.

Many social media guidelines are called policies and become essentially a list of "to don'ts".

The "Walking" Stage

  • implementing an external online/social media communications strategy
  • implementing social media guidelines for external usage
  • ensuring a company presence on Twitter and Facebook
  • placing corporate videos on YouTube
  • introducing digital and social media activities into communications job descriptions
  • introducing an external blog
  • training all communications staff in social media
  • appointing specialist social media managers
  • monitoring online; tracking commentary and identifying advocates and detractors
  • getting actively involved in discussions on blogs, forums, and Twitter
  • working their way through the strategic implications of user-generated content for their business
  • creating an internal version of Wikipedia

It would be very good if at this stage communicators had accomplished so much. I see the last three bullets more as an aspirational goal than a reality in most organizations. I'd be curious to see evidence of this enlightened approach across the board.

What is missing from this list is a horizontal approach — that is coordination with marketing, customer service, product development, HR, operations, etc. A much better proposition to start from crawling.

The "Running" Stage

(very few respondents)

  • actively producing bespoke content designed to take advantage of new channels (e.g., written content for blogs, video content for YouTube, etc.) The most successful campaigns are using a multiplicity of channels to link to and promote good content
  • appointing senior digital communications director
  • engaging in a significant way in online dialogue
  • dealing with the company-wide structural implications; for many businesses social media will impact on PR, corporate communications, promotions, customer relations, HR, customer service, product research and innovation, marketing, etc. Most of these operate in silos. The very structure of a business could be an obstacle to their social media strategy

Let's be bold and declare that without senior management buy-in, silos will continue to be a major issue and prevent the company from achieving greater results with social media. Content is another very hard issue to resolve. Communicators are used to writing in the voice of the company from the company's point of view.

Shifting to the customer point of view continues to be a challenge. We'll talk more about that tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I'd love to learn about your reactions to this classification. I see some things missing from each phase.

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0 responses to “PR’s Use of Digital Media”

  1. Great post – as ever – although I would put the education and understanding bit in ‘crawling’ due to the fact that even carrying out the elements in the very first stage, opens the need for an understanding on how all media channels are now socially interactive – hence, of course, the fact that all media is social, despite our artificial taxonomies.
    The Fallacy of Old World PR is one that belies the (now instant) time, speed and amplification dimensions that exist today (see here: ) and I suspect that the guidance and support of PR companies will continue to mould the old world way of thinking and doing into a guardianship role in the conversations in today’s and tomorrow’s media.

  2. I agree with Johnathan about the education belonging in the crawling stage. Additionally, I’d say that the audit belongs there, too.
    Regarding your last point re: silos – I ABSOLUTELY agree. Senior management needs to buy in before these new tools can fully benefit the organizations using them. The content issue is a huge one and I’m looking forward to your perspective on that – it really IS hard for many organizations to break out of the “corporate-speak” and speak to their stakeholders and community members as humans. That shift won’t happen overnight!
    Community Manager | Radian6

  3. Valeria, interesting post. I suspect most orgs are at several stages concurrently. The research component is critical for sure but One really interesting idea caught my eye. Assessing employees who may be way ahead on social media, have significant online presence and experience, and who could bring leadership to a big org in its crawling and toddling stages. Get them training others for example. Thanks again for this post.

  4. It’s because none of these people are truly a part of digital culture, content or the economy. A majority are just shills and have no concept how to leverage the improvisational and organic nature of the web. Also most lack even the most basic programming or SEO skills, thus unable to do anything creative. (Most) traditional PR firms need to be fired if you still have one.

  5. @Jonathan – I love your case study as well. Indeed things are very fluid. Good communicators understand the value of timing for words and messages. Alas, often they don’t have enough clout in an organization to help it take action when it needs to (see at Chrysler where communications as stuck under HR). Which of course, doesn’t mean you always cave in, only when you have caused the problem, etc.
    @Katie – if my take on content is helpful to you, I have written quite extensively about it on this site. In fact, every Tuesday I post about content specifically. Tomorrow I have a good case study going up that will illustrate part of the new dynamics. Indeed, change is hard to do. Thank you for visiting.
    @Jeff – I do wonder how aware of the order in which things need to happen to be more effective people are at this stage. It is very early days and processes are created based upon successes, as we go along so to speak. Two thoughts about assessing employees: 1) many employees who have established social presences may not want to get on the big corp’s radar about them, esp. if the organization is quite conservative and they are not “aligned” in tone and content; 2) internal politics often prevent a grassroots movement because someone else wants to own leadership… Company culture an tone set from the top matter in this case.
    @Adam – why don’t you really tell us what you think? This may seem crazy to you. I have been unimpressed more often by brand/advertising agencies than by PR teams. Maybe because I worked with a really good team who collaborated with me around social and brought to bear their experience with other clients and situations to help when we needed examples, etc. Generalizations are hard to make, as you concede with your “most”.

  6. Really interesting post, Valeria, and thanks for sharing the report.
    There is (somewhat surprisingly, for me, but let me know) much education left to do. Statistics about the number of users online usually only use US information, but the Global Web Index ( shows us how much learning there is globally to be done. Personally I think it infers how much we can expect them to change, as well.
    It seems as though some companies would fall in a couple of the different categories rather than just one, to me.. For example, I could see a company “engaging in a significant way in online dialogue” (running) while not yet having introduced an internal company blog (toddling). What do you think?

  7. This is really good post Valeria. Echoing what others commentators have said, business intelligence around digital/social media is still very immature for most big corps.
    In some instances, I have heard first hand of large corps actively dissuading public blogs in favour of closed intranet blogs for fear of bad PR.
    As always, its the smaller pioneers who have the agility to grasp the key stages you’ve outlined in your post and effectively implement them.

  8. Certainly an interesting report. I found one particular section especially relevant for big companies.
    We’ve got the centralized strategy team setting the rules – and in this group – they get what needs to be done. Then you’ve got the business unit managers who’re deciding how to spend their limited budgets – tending to be >40, and not digitally savvy. At the bottom, you’ve got the digital natives <30 who’re keen to put the company strategy into perspective – but their management don’t see social media as something they should be spending extra budget on.
    So whilst a big company may have an excellent strategy, and a few highlights where some groups are executing well; many are not doing so well.

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