Understanding hearts and minds is at the heart of social media

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Not to flog a dead horse until it’s deader still (grammar cops, back off!), but I’m going to pick up on a topic that my fellow Ottawan and social media evangelist Joe Thornley touched on yesterday, and which has been circulating through the PR blogosphere for a while now.

I agree with Joe and Shel and others that “ownership” of social media is a nebulous concept at best and, to Joe’s eloquent point, will be ”owned” by the individuals who “who have the imagination and intelligence to explore and understand social media’s potential” regardless of their discipline (I have stated as much in recent heated debates). Likewise, I share Joe’s position that social media speaks to many of the skills that forward-thinking PR practitioners inherently understand or, at least, should understand – including deep knowledge of the audiences we need to reach and engage.

But it begs the question: simply because our segment of the communications industry has the terms “public” and “relations” as its moniker, does it automatically make us experts in understanding these communities, and how best to engage them? Have we as PR practitioners truly developed these skills and do we fully understand this changing dynamic?

Sure, we claim to understand the media environment. But as the noted historian and critic, Jacques Barzun, once put it: “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game — and do it by watching first some high school or small-town teams.”

It is that depth of understanding that is essential to the appropriate application of social media.

And that is the challenge that not only our industry, but any communications discipline, now faces as we seek to extend our offering into the social media space. Understanding the technology implications of social media is not enough. It also requires deep understanding of the communities we hope to engage through social media, and the “rules” and “realities” by which they play.

There are agencies out there that get this – PR and otherwise. It’s why we’ve hired experts in specific fields that understand (because they’ve been – and still are – active participants in these communities) the unique perspectives of specific communities – be they of “interest” or “geography, and why we rely so heavily on our knowledge management and research teams to shed ever more light on the perspectives that unite and drive these communities. It is a strategy that speaks to the increasing importance of direct-to-stakeholder engagement – which is at the heart of social media. And it’s why David, myself and the digital team work extremely closely with these experts to ensure our counsel reflects these unique perspectives.

As we look to engage directly with stakeholders using social media – particularly those communities that already exist online – we must, as Joe puts it, “escape the shackles of media relations”. However, we must do this by not only joining and contributing to communities of interest, but knowing the “hearts and minds” of those audiences we need to reach.