Calling it social doesn't make it so

21 October 2007

Some 18 months ago, Tom Foremski called for the death of the traditional press release. Not long after, PRs such as Todd Defren and Brian Solis thought the response should be what they called the social-media news release. Then people started arguing the toss about how social a press release can be. They are still talking about it.

Various people have come up with their own interpretations only to have Defren and Solis swing by to declare that it's a "good effort" but not a social-media news release. For them, unless it has support for comments and trackbacks, it ain't social. Like it matters.

The problem is, in the last 18 months, no-one has really taken a good look at how people use press releases of any sort. If they did that, they might stand a chance of producing something that works. Instead, they've been wiffling on about "conversation", "sharing" and "influence".

So, let's take a look at the effectiveness of so-called social media newsrooms. Defren and Solis have been quick to point to releases that did not qualify, in their eyes, for social-media brownie points. However, GM and Palm have implemented, as far as I can tell, pretty much all the recommendations they made. Both have comments and trackbacks active. They have links to and the like. Palm has gone with the bullet points; GM hasn't bothered. But I can't see how that makes much of a difference.

With all that social support, we should be seeing conversation erupt from the page. Surely, these sites are hotbeds of company-customer interaction that demonstrate the pent-up demand for people to talk back to press releases. But it's oh so quiet. The odd bit of poker or slots comment spam has drifted in on the wind, plus a comment or two on the company's adoption of this social stuff. Not all that much about the thing that was launched.

Similarly, backlinks to other near-social releases reveal a lot of PR chatter about release formats but very little about the content of the releases themselves. Now consider the highly unsocial release from Apple about the launch of Leopard. No social widgets at Apple's PR site: just plan old HTML text. As Techmeme demonstrated, a lot of bloggers quite happily linked to it while they chatted away. How so? Without any of that shiny social-media news release stuff, surely it should have remained ignored. How come it worked? It gave them something to write about.

OK, that maybe wasn't an entirely fair comparison. The technology blogs take notice of Apple's every word. Palm is not in the same position. So, let's take the Centro launch. Bloggers had the option of two press releases to link as well as the phone's product page at Palm's site. As far as I can tell, they chose the latter. What gives? How could they pass on the distinctly social release and go for the comment-free product page? I guess because it made sense to them. I didn't see anybody flailing around wondering where the canned quote from some marketing veep was hidden.

Which brings the whole thing full circle. The whole social-media news release bandwagon kicked off with Foremski's complaint. It's 18 months on and a whole lot of chat later, with practically no positive effect from any of it. If I wanted an example of how parts of PR are making themselves irrelevant to the world, I'd have to hunt around for a while for a better one.


The trouble is that the culture in most marketing organisations (of which PR is a part) is geared towards talking at their audience rather than listening to them. The web provides a genuine opportunity to change this, but many marketers are terrified of a genuine dialogue with their customers. So what is tending to happen is that they go through the appearance of a dialogue, whilst trying to finesse the outcome to the answer they first thought of.

Hi Chris -
I started a reply that became lengthy - and in turn decided to simply blog it out. A good debate. Thanks!

PR has always been about conversation. It's just never been as immediate. You can't run an effective PR campaign (and never could) without listening to your audiences in some way to determine their wants, needs, and influences.

Even on the evaluation side of things, there have always been ways to gather feedback. That's what we're getting with social media. Social media isn't the first instant evaluation we've been able to receive. That kind of conversation has been around at least as long as blogging.

Social media has done absolutely nothing to change what PR is or how it works (but of course the clueless who believe "public relations" and "media relations" are synonymous may disagree). Social media is just another tool to do what we should have been doing all along: understanding a variety of publics and audiences, reaching them with a message, and evaluating its effectiveness in reaching our / our clients' goals. We just have new ways to gather and disseminate the information.

Personally, I'm getting pretty sick of the types out there claiming that social media is completely altering PR. They're usually the same folks who are relatively clueless on the backend of the tools and issues, and how most are insanely manipulated. But that's a discussion for another day.

Of course, the propagandists for the SMNR argue that the vast majority of journalists (and PR practitioners) are luddites for not buying their cutting edge media tool.

Why can't they see that journalists are just not interested in commenting directly on a press release (why should they be?) and so the "social" side of the SMNR is a red herring. No, the champions keep insisting the Emperor is wearing clothes, when he seems naked to most of us.

If journalists have got something to say or more questions that aren't addressed in the release, then the vast majority will get in touch direct with the PR function by phone or email.

This doesn't reflect some luddite tendencies or a failing to be at the cutting edge or whatever. It means they largely don't want to get additional depth in a public forum - no more than most ask questions at press conferences, preferring one-to-one discussion and interviews.

Given the importance of developing real world, long-term relationships, professional PR functions (meaning they are not part of a marketing department) view journalists and bloggers as individuals not simply a mass market to be served by some snazzy online update of the much criticised press release.

The problem with the existing press release model (which is much more than 100 years old outside the limited historical context propagated by US practitioners), is primarily rubbish content, not a lack of interaction. In fact, most journalists interact quite well with those by hitting the delete button.

In a world where there are fewer journalists expected to deliver content to more media outlets, how long will it take for the PR industry to realise that hacks want to receive any initial information in more compact rather than more bloated forms? Frankly, anyone who has the time to get regularly entangled in a 'social' PR process obviously isn't doing his or her job - or is doing so under conditions of great frustration (which probably are not endearing the PR's client to the writer).

Once upon a time, there was a rule whereby any initial press release that exceeded the space confines of one sheet of A4/Letter-sized paper was deemed to have failed in its task (and at the fixed point size offered by an old steam-power typewriter - no obesity of Word formatting here).

Notwithstanding the kind of Sarbanes-Oxley boilerplate that has become prose's answer to high fructose corn syrup, this simple rule of thumb seems to have been forgotten. Perhaps it is because email does not visually confront you with the same restriction on space, perhaps the ability to waffle on about multi-functionality and multiple solutions in 8pt is way too tempting to resist, but perhaps also today, too many PRs (and/or the marcoms who approve their output) simply have no clue as to what a journalist actually does other than writing.

Yes, hundreds of releases arrive every day. Yes, those that get picked up tend to be the ones that highlight the main 'news' points quickly (and, trust me, very few stories have more than one or two of those). And yes, it's good that there should be extra background available, should you decide to take the story further. However, the current wave of releases churn up news and background in the most boring way imaginable (yes, folks, most of your releases get ignored not just because they are crap, but also because they are arse-hardeningly dull), and now this entire 'social' concept seems to be taking the whole melange idea still further. At the same time, what it wants seems to be completely at odds with the essential filtering process (that thing also known to some of us as 'editing') that is at the heart of journalism.

Oh, and one final point. The more info-bombing and relentless spinning that does enter the process, take note that it also suggests to many journalists that you simply don't trust them. Hah, and then PR people talk about building relationships. The tacit implication in all this that writers are dumb is perhaps the biggest problem facing the whole PR process today.

Oh, and those old A4-confined press releases... they were double-line spaced too.

I think the proble with GM social newsroom is that has little "soul". It' s a very good tool, very badly written. The text is cold, distant, long... sometimes boring. So I'm with you, calling it social doesn't make it, you have to be social, to communicate. The problem is not in the tool, is in how you use it :-)

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Via an otherwise curmudgeonly post about Social Media Releases at Chris Edwards’s “Hacking Cough” blog, I learned that Palm had implemented a Social Media Newsroom and was issuing Social Media Releases.  Add another big company t... Read More