In this opinion piece, Paul Blanchard of marketing and PR business Right Angles investigates the impact of social media on PR activity. Right Angles works for a variety of clients including small businesses and campaigning organisations.

The Pew Research Center in the US recently launched its latest State of the News Media Annual Report, looking specifically at the impact of Facebook and Twitter on how news is consumed. The topline statistics suggest that social media has yet to become the be-all and end-all of how we read and listen to what’s happening in the world:

  • Only nine percent of digital consumers regularly click through to news links posted by other people (‘news recommendations’) from Facebook or from Twitter on any of the three digital devices (computers, tablets and smartphones)
  • More than double the digital news consumers follow news recommendations from Facebook than follow them from Twitter
  • 70 percent said friends and family sent them most of the news stories they saw via Facebook (and 36 percent of those on Twitter)
  • Those who get news through Facebook were more likely to feel the news they got there is information they probably would have heard or read elsewhere
  • 71 percent of those who ever follow news links on Facebook also get news somewhat or very often by going directly to a news organisation’s website or app. It seems social media is an additional way to get news, not a replacement
  • Twitter news followers tend to be more mobile than the rest of the general public and they tend to use smartphones.
Admittedly these are statistics for the US, but the UK is in many ways an equally sophisticated market and some similar issues apply. However, there’s no doubt that the PR sector, sometimes (unfairly!) seen as the news industry’s dodgy uncle, has seized onto social media and is now trying hard to justify its usage to clients and other businesses. It’s the shiny new toy we all want to play with.

In a guest blog on Econsultancy, Natalie Cowan of first direct highlighted that this adds another layer of potential confusion to the challenge of measurement. PR has often struggled to justify its spend to members of the board – can you say for sure that a positive mention in a news story or a byline article in a key trade title has led to more business or improved your likelihood of customer retention? Put simply, has it made a return on investment?

That’s why the industry has taken such pains to develop measurement metrics that can help answer those questions. They range from the reasonably straightforward (track the ‘equivalent advertising spend’ so you can see how much those editorial column inches would have cost if you’d bought them as advertising – and this doesn’t even take into account that editorial is far more powerful than an advert) to the more complex (positive vs. negative mentions, key messages detailed and so on). Many of the more progressive businesses ask clients – and especially new business prospects – if they’ve read about them in the media and if that had any impact on their decision-making.

As Ms Cowan notes, “Like it or not, there is still the expectation for PR departments…to provide a cuttings book every month to demonstrate success. However, we know that due to the development of digital channels, the cuttings book is just not a nuanced enough tool to track and measure the success of a whole campaign anymore (if it ever was).”

Social media, in some ways, makes this quantification job much easier. You can measure re-tweets of your news stories and links to your blog posts. More importantly, you can also track where your new customers have come from if they’ve bought from your Facebook page or used the special promotional code you only offered to your Twitter followers. Of course, it also provides a direct channel for dissatisfied customers to air their grievances for the whole world to see – which means your customer service response team needs to be just as dialled into your social media efforts as your PR and marketing people.

Many journalists have welcomed social networks and use Twitter in particular to ask for comments on stories they’re writing and to liaise with PRs in a way that five years ago was all done by email and phone. But the Pew data suggests that social media has yet to really take off as a vehicle for news consumption, which suggests business owners looking to get their story out to a customer audience and build awareness should still focus their attention on traditional and online media. Of course, some old-fashioned (and frankly, wrong) businesspeople still only want to see their brand name in print and discount any coverage that only appears online – but that’s an argument for another time.