Social media has forever changed the media landscape for public relations (PR) professionals. Beginning as a place to gather information, meet new friends, and create online communities, social media channels have since evolved to engage users in new and innovative ways. They have become a place where entertainers are realized, crimes are solved, products are sold, voices are amplified, news—both fake and real—is disseminated, and much more. Simply stated, social media has become a powerful force to be reckoned with.
As a PR professional, social media is a must-have tactic in every PR strategy. As channels advance and new apps populate the marketplace, many seasoned professionals are taking on new learnings on how to best navigate and leverage social media marketing. These are learnings that today’s YoPros (young professionals) either naturally acquired at a young age or learn in their communications studies. Whatever experience level or age range a PR professional falls into, learning how to use social media to their benefit, as a necessary skill in their public relations and communications toolbox, will positively impact any brand campaign.
Public relations has a very complementary relationship with social media. With a goal to raise brand awareness and tell stories, social media can be seen as a form of PR itself. However, as quickly as social media can create an influencer, it can just as quickly cause a reputation crisis if not handled properly. While PR and social media can seem similar, they do require different strategies and thinking—but when working together, can uplevel a brand’s communications strategy. Here’s how.
Build Your Media Network
Journalists were one of the first groups of communications professionals to capitalize on the benefits of social media—particularly with the creation of Twitter. Using tweets as a call-for-stories as much as a real-time news report, many reporters have made it common practice to tweet their work and needs as well as the news, ultimately driving PR professionals to Twitter, not only to join the conversations but also to stay informed.
As an example, the shooting and death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, gained national attention to raise awareness of Brown’s fate on Twitter. Through the usage of specific hashtags, journalists from across the country received real-time updates on what was happening in Ferguson—without needing to be there first-hand.
Journalists aren’t the only ones who utilize social media as a place to share and receive real-time updates. Over half of U.S. adults report receiving their news from social media platforms. The question is, as a PR professional, how is social media being used to leverage and enhance brand awareness?
With local and national newsworthy events and stories being shared in real-time every day, and journalists using the channels for info gathering, PR professionals can capitalize on their storytelling efforts by doing the following:
- Follow specific hashtags relevant to your brand or clients.
- Follow journalists that cover relevant beats.
- Engage with journalists so, over time, they may become familiar with your name (this is especially effective when it comes to local news).
- Add journalists you have a solid rapport with on other channels like LinkedIn, adding a personal message to your connection request.
- Look for ‘newsjacking’ opportunities to insert your brand into relevant and timely conversations trending in the news.
As mentioned above, social media is constantly evolving with new platforms and apps, such as TikTok. Haven’t jumped on the TikTok bandwagon? Not sure if it’s the right fit for your brand? Then you may be behind on the latest in social media networking and lead sourcing. A healthy knowledge of social media doesn’t mean you’re filming TikTok dances with your teens; it means you know how to navigate a space filled with opportunities.
Take Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) and TikToker Isaiah Garza, for example. By partnering with Garza, who has 7.3M followers, KFC has developed a strong campaign promoting its #KentuckyFriendGivingChallenge, a grant fund established to support nonprofits fighting hunger across the country. This partnership is a PR moment that is about to hit major key performance indicators (KPIs) in terms of reach and engagement.
For another example, check out this feature on Parents.com. Elyse Meyers is a TikToker whose vulnerable content showcases the realities of being a mom during the COVID-19 pandemic. Imagine your brand has a target audience of moms or individuals with young children. How could your brand leverage a viral video such as Elyse Myers’ to raise brand awareness?
Set the Stage
Now that you have an idea of the importance of using social media in your overall strategy, let’s talk more about how to incorporate it with PR. Imagine you handle public relations for a local art studio that specializes in pop-up installations. An installation is coming to town that has the potential to blow up but hasn’t gained traction in your city. What strategies would you use to begin developing traction? How does that strategy involve both PR and social media?
Thinking outside of the box and establishing tactics to set the stage for your press release or activation to be picked up is not just a potential anymore, it’s a necessity. Begin teasing the activation on social media—run ads targeted to art lovers in your city. Scour social for accounts from others who have attended the activation and use their stories to amplify the experience. At the same time, develop a press release or pitch letter, identifying a strategic story angle that’s relevant to targeted media outlets and audiences. Consider interviewing the artist or asking for current video footage to include with your story. When you get a media “win,” share it across platforms. Make the content shareable and engaging so the artist’s followers can engage and share across their platforms—ultimately increasing awareness, engagement, and followers. These are all things to consider when looking for ways to ensure the integration of your public relations and social media strategy is effective.
Amplify Industry Leaders
In 2016, Leah Thomas found herself in quite a surreal situation—she was going viral. After publishing a letter on her LinkedIn that discussed instances of discrimination she and her classmates experienced through micro-and macro-aggressions in their predominantly white community, Thomas found that her voice was not only heard but also amplified.
Again, Thomas was met with virality when she posted her infamous “Environmentalists For Black Lives Matter” Instagram post; but this time, that virality left her in the spotlight of the conversation of what it means for Black lives to exist in the environmental landscape, and what it means to be an intersectional environmentalist. From there, the world of opportunity opened up to Thomas. Since then, she has done media interviews with the Washington Post, W Magazine, Good Good Good, and Coveteur. She wrote a book, scheduled a book tour this year, and has 233,000 followers on Instagram. In a short time, Thomas became a thought leader in the world of intersectional environmentalism—and social media served as the pivotal medium that first supported and heard her voice.
While not all brands or brand leaders can go viral, social media has opened a once closed door to the potential of thought leader virality in niche spaces—a space once owned solely by TED Talks. Thought leaders now have additional tools to expand their reach that include every corner of the internet. Adding to traditional public relations tactics like speaking engagements and media interviews, they can build upon their reputation and legitimacy through Instagram posts, LinkedIn blogs, live Facebook Q&As, and more.
And while not every Instagram post will be suitable for PR, it sets the stage for when a media-worthy opportunity comes along. Represent a nonprofit director in animal welfare? Write an op-ed to publish on the organization’s blog. Share it across your social channels and leverage this through media outreach. From there, watch the magic happen.
Public relations is an essential communications function and pairing it with social media will elevate your brand story—increasing awareness and impact. Without it, brands can get lost in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Thankfully, we have at our fingertips access to tools that can amplify the stories we want—and need—to tell.