Is Social Media Bad for PR?

by Lee Hopkins on October 11, 2011 · 1 comment

in pr

Guest post by Rachel Carlson

Is social media bad for PR?

IN ONE WORD, no. Social media itself is not bad for PR.

In fact, it’s great for PR.

The public relations personnel of years past would probably have loved to use a tool like social media. Think of some of the “older” tools that PR people use – writing press releases, assembling media relations kits, forming lobby groups, organizing public events, hitting the talk show circuit, staying in contact with print journalists, and contacting the public directly.

Of course, these tools are still in use, but imagine adding to that cannon a digital platform that can be used to send a message to thousands of people within seconds.

You can target your message to specific people, and you can even add videos and images. You can develop relationships with the public without ever having to leave your computer.

So, the possibilities that social media presents for developing and maintaining a positive public image are actually pretty astounding.

However, when you enter the world of promotion though social media, either as an individual or as a company, you’re going to be walking on very thin ice. Let’s examine why:

How Social Media Changes the Game

Let’s start with the number of people who use social media. According to Facebook’s statistics page:

  • There are over 800 million active users
  • Over 50% of these users log on during any given day
  • The average user is connected to 80 groups, community pages, and events

Twitter has over 200 million users. Google+ has over 50 million users and is steadily growing. Other sites like LinkedIn and Foursquare see a ton of traffic as well. Combine this with the fact that people are spending just as much time on the internet as they are watching television (across all ages), and you have what seems to be an ideal platform for PR – an almost unfathomable amount of instant exposure, connectability and reach. But keep in mind that this is a two-way street. If an individual or company suddenly does something negative on one of these sites, that same number of people will have access to it. This is why you have to pay extremely close attention to every word and image on your social media profile. It’s also why companies are hiring more and more social media managers – jobs of this type have increased by 75% on over the last year.

Besides the ease of connecting with a huge audience, social media also involves the constant projection of an image. In the past, PR personnel had at least a little bit of control over the flow of information. Now, any social media user can access a company’s profile at any time – it’s always there. With the explosion of mobile devices, anybody with a clear wireless internet connection and a phone can visit a company’s website, blog, Facebook profile and Twitter page from anywhere, whenever they want.

And speaking of users, let’s not forget the ease with which they can interact with a company. Now, any customer can complain (and hopefully comment as well) about a company in an instant. With social media, PR now involves a full-on discussion with the public.

So, all this exposure can be a fantastic tool. But it also means that, when things go wrong, they go really wrong…

Social Media Horror Stories

One of the best ways to examine how social media can be bad for PR is to look at some real-world blunders that companies have made:

Skittles – In 2009, the famous candy launched a doomed Twitter tactic. The company setup the homepage of their website to roll any tweet that mentioned Skittles. This of course led to users tweeting strings of profanity and adding the word “Skittles” at the end. So, Skittles ended up hosting a bunch of profane and derogatory statements about themselves on their own homepage.

Nestle – What is it with candy companies? Almost exactly one year after the Skittles debacle, Nestle posted this message on Facebook:

To repeat: we welcome your comments, but please don’t post using an altered version of any of our logos as your profile pic – they will be deleted.

Basically, they were trying to stop any readers from posting on their page using an altered Nestle logo. This resulted in a huge backlash consisting of hundreds of comments about freedom of speech and censorship. While it was arguably an overreaction on the part of the customers, it nevertheless led to lost business and comments such as, “Is this how you represent your brand? Professionalism please!” and “Honey you need new PR.” Here’s another excerpt:

nestle on facebook

Ragu – In September of 2011, Ragu used Twitter to contact popular bloggers with posts like this:


There were two problems here. First, Ragu had no previous relationships with the bloggers they tagged. Every single tweet came off as spam. Second, the video to which the tweets linked emphasized the stereotype of “dads being clueless in the kitchen,” which angered many Twitter users.

Habitat – Habitat is a UK home furnishings company that found themselves in the midst of a Twitter scandal in 2009. Basically, they started spamming trending topics in order to advertise a promotion. This involved tagging unrelated things such as AT&T, Kobe Bryant, True Blood, and, perhaps most offensively, a resistance movement in Iran.

Learning From Mistakes

So how can you maintain a positive image for yourself or your company using social media the right way? Well, it basically involves using common sense and being prepared:

  • Study the Service Itself – It’s possible that Skittles just didn’t quite understand what they were getting into. A company needs to be absolutely sure they understand where their messages will go once they’re posted, and the ways in which people can respond. For example, be sure you know how Twitter’s hashtags work before using them.
  • Stay Up to Date – Facebook has a lot of changes planned in the near future. Google+ is still fairly new. Make sure you keep abreast of any changes in these platforms so that you can avoid embarrassing mistakes.
  • Be Professional – This should be a no-brainer. Treat customers and subscribers on social networks just like you would if you were speaking to them in person. Nestle should have known better – don’t push your customers around! Also, you can keep a positive image using some old-fashioned politeness. Say “Thank You” when it’s appropriate – your subscribers will appreciate it.
  • Balance Your Presence – No matter how devoted people are to you or your company, they don’t want to hear about you constantly. Don’t spam people, and try to only post at reasonable intervals.
  • Use Privacy Settings – This is especially important if you’re promoting yourself through social media. Don’t leave compromising photos or overly personal posts up for the world to see.
  • Know Your Cohorts – Besides you, who can access your account? A disgruntled employee can wreak havoc on your PR with a single offensive tweet.
  • Correct Problems Quickly – While social media allows people to see your mistakes instantly, it also allows you to correct them in an efficient manner. Take a cue from Vodafone’s blunder.
  • Hire a Manager – If you want to be absolutely sure that you’re maintaining a positive image on your social media, consider hiring someone to make sure it stays that way.

So, is social media bad for PR? No. But if you make a mistake, yes. Do your research and don’t fall into easily avoidable traps.

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