PR: The Engine Behind Social Media How SMM: Is Driven By Public Relations Campaigns

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As companies dive headlong into the world of social media, like cliff divers who don’t wait for the tide to come in, I’d like them all to stop for a moment before they hit their heads on the rocks.

In cliff diving, there are no silver medalists. There are those who win and those who go to the emergency room. The same is true when using social media as a marketing tool. People either are embraced by the social network community because of their contributions, or they are shunned for being too commercial and pushy. There’s not a whole lot in between.

As a user of social networks myself, I have discovered that there is far more to social media than tweeting and liking. It’s not about how many times you update your status or tweet your company’s Web site. It’s about the quality of those communications and adding value to the community. That’s why I believe that a good PR campaign is the engine that can really drive social media marketing.

To understand all the moving parts, let’s remember that these networks were not set up so you could use them to market your company. They were set up as social tools, so friends and family could keep in touch with everyone in their network with a single message. Of course, this means the communication lines are used for every kind of message, from the ridiculous to the sublime. Some tweet about their morning commute, their dog soiling their slippers or their birthday plans, while others send links to breaking news or ways to help during crises, like the Japan earthquake. Keep in mind their goal isn’t to sell, it’s simply to stay in touch and be helpful.

When using social networks for a commercial purpose, like promoting a company, product or service, you have to recognize that you’re twisting the original purpose of the network to suit your business needs. If you’re too overt about it, other users may feel you are hijacking the network as a sales tool and they can be very not nice about how they express their displeasure.

The key is to seize upon the tone touched upon earlier, being helpful. Obviously, tweeting about what you had for breakfast—while perfectly compatible with social media—doesn’t do much for your business. Your other option is to use your social-network outreach to just be helpful. And, when you use your company’s expertise to provide tips and advice to social network users, that actually brings you a step closer to being in the sweet spot. However, you can’t always link them to your Web site or company blog, because the social network audience is savvy. They’ll know your advice is just a Trojan horse to get them to your corporate Web site. So, how do you thread the needle of being helpful, but not promotional?

That’s where the value of a PR campaign comes in, especially when it comes to print media coverage where your spokesperson’s advice and expertise may appear in columns and articles published in news outlets. Keep in mind, just about every article that appears in print is repurposed online by the news outlet’s Web site and there are dozens and dozens of outlets that are Internet-based. Writing bylined articles for a publication or being quoted as an expert in a news story establishes your spokesperson’s position as an opinion leader in your field and lends great credibility to your company’s products or services. It builds a bond of trust between you and your social media followers, and that’s a prize you cannot buy with any amount of money.

Of course, the obvious question I always get is, “Well, when do I promote my company?” That’s my point, you already are. The fallacy in that question is that many marketers believe they have to be constantly pushing the company line in the media, in order to attract potential clients and customers, and that is patently not so. The key is to show your expertise in a venue that holds the quality of third-party verification. When a news outlet quotes you, they are essentially endorsing you because they believe you are smart enough to give advice to their readers. Once you’ve established trust, they see your company name and most consumers are smart enough to take that information to the Internet, where most everyone begins their research that leads to key business decisions.

Most importantly, the news story generated from your advice gives you the most common tool used in social media, the newslink. Millions of tweets and status updates are written every day that link to an article in the news. When you can send links to news articles, even if they are about your company, it is not seen as being contrary to the culture of social media. It is seen as being a thoughtful and active participant in the social network community. Finally, it enables you to give the good media your campaign generates, a life after the placement initially hits. It allows you to take the article that you know will help establish you or your spokesperson as an expert in your industry and then put it directly in front of the eyeballs of the people you most want to read it.

That’s how PR helps you thread the needle of social networking.

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