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The Lowdown: Is Social Media PR or Marketing?

Social media is a powerful tool to have at your disposal, for PR or marketing pros, for aspiring bloggers or influencers – and for ambitious business doing as much as possible in-house.

Most of us – and our parents, colleagues and children – are members of at least one social network. So, it's safe to say that social media marketing has become the new 'word of mouth' marketing, or PR. Companies use social media to talk to consumers and partners – but because we're not all at work all the time, we need to remember that we're not always customers when we're online.

Sure, companies want to connect with consumers, but do we want to connect with them? But perhaps more importantly, if you're a business owner or product marketer, is posting about a product (or service) really enough to keep your brand or product top of mind?

Why PR had to get social

When social media became the shiny new marketing kid on the block, PR was left at the sidelines for a while. As businesses scrambled for the race to secure market share and come up with new and exciting ways to engage their customers from the comfort of their own screens, social media became the marketing tool de jour.

And as account followers grew, so tribes formed around challenger brands (new start-ups who took on the big, established brand names) and not every viral trend was masterminded by a big agency. Soon, local businesses and niche brands realised that for a small budget cost they had the chance to engage directly with their potential customers and share the same air space as their much larger competitors. For the first time, mass market advertising was not dependent on massive budgets.

But as the conversations about social media grew, it was always marketers at the helm of the discussion. PR maintained its traditional expertise of campaign management, media relations and proposing the story. But the conversations were often picked up my marketing departments, most often the emerging breed of Social Media Managers.

But marketing is not PR, it is a very different function. Sure, there is cross-over and the two jobs work very well in tandem, but the storytelling that social media now encourages us to do is really the domain of PR, not marketing.

What did social media do to PR?

Social media has made PR a friend of everyone in a business – its owners, employees and stakeholders. You might have seen this called 'relationship marketing', but in a nutshell this is PR using social media posts to present a business as warm, relatable, authentic. Even the most business-like businesses can find an approachable side to tell their story on social media.

Thanks to all the social media channels – Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook – your company communications and your PR story can get a story seen by a much larger audience. Social media amplifies a message which means if you have a PR campaign running – or if you've sent a press release out that week – then your social media posts will help your message get seen by more people, which we call amplification.

New channels have emerged and become popular, there is now so much more choice than Facebook alone. Depending on your business, Snapchat, TikTok, Pinterest and WhatsApp might be part of your strategy, but don't think that you have to be everywhere all the time just because they are available. If your audience are not on Pinterest then don't bother with it – it's a big channel and requires a lot of maintenance, so you're better off using your time to send another press release!

And content such as press releases not only has the potential to be spread faster, with the help of social media it can reach further and live longer. Because when press releases are posted to public websites online – such as your website – SEO will render them searchable long after the release is issued and the story published. This makes your message stronger and more powerful. It also means your communications will not just be seen by people with specific interest – like investors or journalists – because digital PR has reduced distribution costs your budget will enable you to take the story further.

How social media can be differentiated from PR

But while there are similarities, there are also major differences between PR and social media. Social media is about generating conversational messages to influence sales, so companies should use a consistent lexicon of words and tone of voice. This is sometimes called the 'voice of the business' and changing that voice can result in loss of trust.

PR communications are not trying to influence sales, but to tell your story and encourage others to share it. This may not seem to influence sales, but the fast pace of social media responses means that an audience can be encouraged to take action via PR communications to social media channels.

Influencer marketing has been the game changer here because this is an audience that is a heavy user of social media, yet understands the commercial objectives of a business. Sales teams often seek out brand influencers but it is the PR relationship that is key here. Regardless of whether or not the audience knows the influencer, they are likely to build a relationship with the influencer quicker than the brand. This is a relationship based on trust, and is a clear intersection for social media and PR. so consistent tone of voice and messaging are key to success.

It's notoriously hard to determine return on investment from PR activities, but the impact of social media is measurable, because readership, endorsement and interaction can all be reviewed for specific posts or campaigns.

Social media is thought of as a marketing tool that stands alone in its own right. But it is a valuable tactic for digital marketing - and even more powerful PR tool. Interaction and ROI is harder to track when you focus on PR, but if you use it for storytelling and to help you discover and maintain your brand tone of voice, I think it's priceless.

Coming soon on the blog: How to incorporate social media in your PR plan

Image credit: Pavan Trikutam, Unsplash

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