Social media change the way PR firms do business

Developing a strategy plan

Kai Ryssdal: All the changes to the media business the last five or so years? Newspapers and magazines dying off, bloggers and tweeters driving the news cycle as easily as the networks -- that hasn't just changed media. PR gurus, spin doctors and communications professionals behind a lot of the stories you hear have had to adapt, too, because managing the message just isn't what it used to be.

Ashley Milne-Tyte reports.


Ashley Milne-Tyte: The problem with doing a story about PR is most of your sources are -- PR professionals. It's their job to put a positive spin on things. And I'm going to get those people.

But first, meet David Brotherton. He has his own communications agency in Seattle.

David Brotherton: You can call me a recovering PR hack. Just kidding, don't do that.

For years he worked at PR agencies, sending out press releases and calling journalists to pitch his clients' products. He says back then, PR people controlled the message -- or at least tried to be gatekeepers. But in an era of digital communication, the gates have collapsed.

Brotherton: Consumers are skilled and increasingly empowered to seek out the information that they want to find, and the role of the PR middleman is decreasingly useful.

Brotherton says companies can get their message out themselves quickly and cheaply using social media from blogs to Facebook.

But PR practitioner Norman Birnbach says a lot of them wouldn't know where to begin.

Norman Birnbach: We hear often a question from prospective clients: "Isn't social media just a fad?"

After Birnbach clears that up, he explains their customers are on Facebook and YouTube and they need to be there, too. Once clients sign up, he keeps up the guidance.

Birnbach: We'll send them articles and say OK, what do you think about this? And we'll get their input and we can help edit their thoughts into a tweet, and in some cases, we schedule it for them.

Birnbach says most of his new business this year is from clients looking for help with social media. At global PR firm Edelman, social media work helped drive profits up 18 percent last year.

Russell Dubner heads the firm's New York office. He says the entire PR business has had to change because the public gets its information from so many sources.

Russell Dubner: So if you just go in with a single-thread approach to it, you're not going to get action from the consumer, the customer, whoever is the target you're trying to engage. So we've had to create more of a surround sound in how we go and engage the public.

PR is now coming at us from 360 degrees, on multiple platforms. That's a lot of platforms for companies to keep an eye on. Chrysler recently fired the agency that tweeted on its behalf, after an employee wrote a profanity-laced tweet dissing Detroit drivers.

Russell Dubner says sure, the job's a lot harder these days, but in a good way.

Dubner: You don't just go around saying something is terrific; you need to prove it and show it in an imaginative way.

And that's not just the case for products, it goes for ideas too. All those blogs and websites need a steady stream of new content to stay in business. And they can't produce it all themselves. David Brotherton says rather than pitching a dwindling band of reporters to get his clients' views across, he writes a lot of op-eds on their behalf and places them at sites like The Huffington Post.

Brotherton: There's a greater willingness in the online media anyway to accept commentary because there's less need for them to be arbiters of the truthfulness of that piece.

The site labels it "opinion" and fills its need for content. And he's still doing his job of getting his client heard.

I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace.

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