My Guest Lecture: Social & Digital Media

CIPR & Ulster University Seminar Series

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

I was honoured to be asked to take part in this year’s series of seminars by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) and the University of Ulster - the very institution that set me on my path into the industry back in 2003 when I studied the Communication, Advertising and Marketing degree.

My topic was Social and Digital Media, partly because I’m a local blogger and have used it personally, and partly because writing my blog means I have debated many different brand and charity strategies using this medium, so I was able to (hopefully) bring some real-life practical examples to the students.

As promised the content - roughly planned as it was - is pasted below for people to refer back to or to catch-up with if they couldn’t be there in person:

So for those of you who don’t know who I am (which I’m guessing is most of you), you’ll rightly be asking why I was invited to stand here and tell you about Social and Digital Media. Well I was asked to take part in this seminar series primarily because I sit on the regional Committee of the CIPR, to which I was elected last year after 3 years as a CIPR Member. I won a PRide Award in 2012 for Best Not-for-Profit Communications when I was Comms Manager of a charity and then my team were finalists for Best Event in 2013. However, I’m most widely known in the local industry for writing a blog on PR and Communications in Northern Ireland which I set up in June 2013.

The reason I agreed to take part in this series is because educating the next batch of PR professionals was a huge driver in my setting up the blog in the first place. I wished there had been something like it when I was studying. But we didn’t even have Facebook or iPhones when I was studying. Don’t make that face; I’m only 30, that’s not old!

I also relished the opportunity to come back here, where I studied the CAM degree in 2003.

Where I had to decide what I wanted to specialise in; whether it was Marketing, PR or Advertising, whether I would go in-house or agency, whether I would take a gap year, a work placement, or would I just power on and graduate early. Back when I worked a 30-hour a week job in between studying (I can admit that now because they can’t shout at me!) But things were definitely simpler then and you are all facing a world of social and digital media that is ever-changing and developing.

Like us fresh-faced graduates that we were, you’ll have to learn to keep your own skills up-to-date, to learn by the example and mistakes of others, and to build your own networks and knowledge groups to get ahead in what remains a highly competitive field. So I’m here to give you a taste of how you can do that and why you shouldn’t be afraid of it…

It’s now 2015 and my son wants to be a gaming video blogger on YouTube when he grows up. If I didn’t know it before, this proves for me the fact that digital is the future. It may change but it won’t revert and so we best just get on with learning the ropes and making it work for us. With that in mind my presentation focuses on real-life good and not-so-good examples of social and digital media as part of PR campaigns, some national, some local. Hopefully a few will be new to you unless you read my blog in which case you’re permitted to sleep for the rest of the session!

I’ve put this slide up, not to scare you, nor bore you by running through them all, but to make the point that you can’t learn social and digital strategy from a text book. You would no sooner acquaint yourself with all the channels than they would be replaced by new ones. Even the modern Digital Marketing Diplomas are based on best practice examples delivered by practitioners. So what I’ve compiled for you is exactly how many of us in the industry learn from each other, by looking at what is being done, why it works or doesn’t and putting those strategies into practice. We find the examples by using the very channels we’re learning about to find networks of people who discuss, who blog, who link informative articles, who write book reviews, etc. It’s not a dark art, but much of it is trial and error. And most of it is creativity which is the basis of PR anyway…

So last month we had the local pop-up Crisp Sandwich shop created by the owner of an existing café in Belfast. “Simply Crispy” started out as a parody article by a comedy media outlet and ended up a real-life shop that sold out in a few hours on its first day. It was, what is known as, a “viral success.” What does that mean? Well basically they ended up with global press and social media coverage that is the stuff of most PR dreams and they didn’t spend a penny on it.

It’s a great example of social and digital because:

  • They used a substantial existing social media following (with a distinct humorous brand personality)
  • They piggy-backed on a related news agenda (i.e. the local men who opened the Cereal Café in London)
  • BUT unlike those men, this business man continued his attitude of not taking himself too seriously in the face of criticism
  • Social media discussion grew locally – as the idea surfaced emotive memories for people – and globally – as the rest of the world debated our unusual local delicacies
  • Brands began to hijack and celebrities wanted in on the action
  • And all of this took place in the space of a week because they saw an idea, they went for it and they probably didn’t give too much time to writing a detailed risk register and crisis communications plan.

This approach wouldn’t be advised, particularly for people like this guy who didn’t have much in the way of trained PR experience, but in this instance it worked and as long as it’s understood why it worked, then similar tactics could work again.

Going back to Christmas 2014, seems a long time ago already! We met Monty the Penguin who was part of an integrated campaign by retail giant John Lewis as they battled for the annual coveted position of best Christmas ad.

It’s a great example of social and digital because:

  • The use of a hashtag monitored debate that would no doubt take place following the release of the Christmas TV ads
  • Creating a Twitter personality account before anyone else took the idea drove the content and shares for fans of the character and the ad
  • The release on YouTube prior to full broadcast release enabled the company to keep ownership of it and drive traffic
  • The associated cuddly toy not only increased sales, but encouraged even more discussion online
  • The idea was open to brand-jacking and was successfully used online by other brands like Penguin Books, Universal Pictures, ASOS and Paddy Power.

Next up is a good example of blogger outreach, something that is also becoming part of many PR campaigns but is, again still a learning curve for many. In August of 2014, Irish travel agent Tour America successfully partnered with Suzanne Jackson of to drive awareness of their brand for those thinking of visiting America.

It’s a great example of social and digital because:

  • Instead of blanket press-releasing every blogger in Ireland (and trust me, there’s a lot), Tour America worked solely with Suzanne, largely considered a powerhouse of Irish fashion and beauty blogging thanks to her 800,000 monthly readers and just as large social media following
  • The project included not just a trip to New York (a global Mecca for fashion fans) and tickets to Fashion Week shows as content for Suzanne’s blog, but also coincided with her writing content for her second book
  • The trip lasted a week and all the while Suzanne would post to her social media channels about her outfits and the tourist sights she was experiencing which included a Sex and the City bus tour, again fashion-related
  • Most importantly, despite the exclusivity of the partnership, at no point did it feel that the brand was pushing their product or their name, leaving the blogger’s integrity and the overall brand sentiment intact.

Now we’ll move on to the not-so-good examples.

You’ll notice that most of these use exactly the elements of strategy that we see in the good examples.

So we learn how to avoid the same fate by looking at what was different and why it didn’t elicit the same positive outcomes.

For the first example I take you back to September 2014 and the launch of the iPhone 6. Arguably, these phone launches are no longer in need of PR support because they become media and social media talking points anyway. But of course, brands will always desire to control and steer such conversations, and with that in mind Apple decided to utilise some celebrity endorsement in the form of Joan Rivers’ social media accounts. Unfortunately when she died no one was able to go in and delete the scheduled posts…

So what went wrong here?

  • This is when risk assessments are vital – when you’re not the main owner of an account, and when you can’t account for either human error or human lifespan
  • Celebrity endorsement always carries the risk of looking insincere because we all know it’s been paid for and often it isn’t written in the personality’s own tone of voice. This risk is magnified indefinitely when said celebrity dies and posts from beyond the grave!
  • Regardless of timing and how quickly you move to rectify the situation, screen shot-ing capabilities mean that the content can and probably will go viral even when the original material has been deleted

A local example of social and digital gone wrong can be found back last May when a Belfast gym became the hapless victim of Facebook backlash after a seemingly innocuous post about how the death of Oscar Knox reminded them of the importance of good health.

So what went wrong?

  • Being relevant and having a brand personality is one of the cornerstones of good social and digital strategy, however certain topics need to be approached with care
  • Again, as with celebrity endorsement, every post from a business or brand could be subject to scrutiny of its integrity and this is magnified when the company talks about an emotive subject
  • Tone is particularly difficult to convey in written communication and often business posts are compiled quickly, with little time to review
  • This leads to the same problem of viral sharing and the inability to properly delete something once it has been published online
  • Companies large and small need to remember that what is posted online has the power to destroy a reputation in an instant. With that in mind, those responsible for social media posts should be trained, experienced and valued appropriately within the organisation, i.e. not the receptionist (can you tell this is a bug-bearer of mine?!)

This is a practical example of how companies and business owners with little experience of Marketing or PR theory are more at risk from reputation damage than those who are experienced. Although we have to appreciate that they can’t often afford to pay for professional help in this area, they should be careful to keep their personal and work personalities separate.

Now this was a difficult example to place. The difficulty lay in whether last Summer’s ‘selfies for charity’ social media crazes were ultimately successful or not. The campaigns specifically, rather than the strategy as a whole, is therefore put in the bad books!

So what didn’t work here?

  • Any viral trend will increase awareness and positive sentiment and that’s a PR success
  • However, the Ice Bucket Challenge and #NoMakeUpSelfie specifically received public backlash, namely because it became their prominence became annoying to the public
  • This then lead to PR difficulties in terms of the charities being scrutinised as to how successful the campaigns actually were in terms of fundraising, which is ultimately what a charity needs
  • Add to that the issue with confusion over which charity “owned” each initiative and, regardless of funds raised, which were significant in number, you’re still left with a messy PR evaluation

What did work for the #NoMakeUpSelfie was how quickly Cancer Research UK were able to take ownership of an idea that was growing organically without direction, whereas Motor Neurone Disease UK simply didn’t have the resources to compete with MacMillan Cancer where the Ice Bucket Challenge was concerned, even though MND was the original cause where it began in America. As a Communicator in the voluntary sector for many years I’m afraid that’s simply the reality of great ideas in small teams with no money and it’s a challenge that has to be incorporated into all PR planning in the Third Sector.

I said at the beginning that many of us in the industry will use social and digital media to keep up-to-date with the latest trends, innovations and campaign ideas. So for my final few examples I’ve taken more hashtag trends that I blogged about just last week to keep the examples as fresh as possible for you. If I wasn’t on Twitter I wouldn’t have seen them so it’s yet another reason to be an active user on that channel for your own Continuing Professional Development.

So after just slating the PR value of hashtag campaigns for charities, this week’s best campaigns were, you guessed it, charity hashtag campaigns! So I’ll explain why they worked when compared to the more confusing campaigns of Summer 2014:

  • #DaveDay was created for a specific charity by a supporter and had a very simple gimmick which was easy for everyone to get involved with online – especially anyone called Dave! – and there would be little confusion because the Day was named after an actor’s TV character and he died of that very specific form of cancer
  • Unlike big budget projects, a charity campaign started organically with heart and passion will always be welcomed with more open arms by the public and charities would do well to support more of these ideas than spending resources trying to craft their own gimmicks
  • AgeUK’s hashtag campaign differs slightly because it is part of a much larger integrated communications brief but it’s the simplicity of it and the emotion behind taking an image with your grandparent that will ultimately garner the huge celebrity and public support hat is already gaining momentum

Compare these efforts with a big brand like Coca-Cola, with a PR/Comms team to rival any superpower and they can still get it wrong:


  • Well firstly, big brands remain cocky when it comes to the engagement they can get online. They don’t have to chase mentions and retweets, they get more than they can manage on a daily basis anyway
  • Where they fall down is in the foresight, still, despite the many public examples of this problem, to accurately risk manage global hashtag discussions
  • And lastly, to put any faith in robots, in this case algorithms, to do the job that really requires the judgement of a human being, to save you from abuse, misuse or online trickery

Where the professionalism and skill of experienced teams like this does shine through is in their response to such a crisis – where they expertly turn the prank on its head and use it to reinforce their original campaign message – i.e. we needed to counteract negativity because AS THIS PROVES the internet is full of it. I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the gist of it!

So I hope that round-up of practical examples of different kinds of social and digital campaigns has given you an insight into how it is utilised in the industry, when it works and when it doesn’t, and most importantly why.

If I haven’t convinced you already of the importance of immersing yourself in this online world as part of your own continuous learning and networking, I thought I’d finish with a brief example of how I have used social and digital strategy personally to get ahead in my own career.

So firstly, I needed to understand SEO. No-one can teach you this really, because it changes constantly. I learned by doing; setting up my blog which is WordPress hosted, reading up on metatags, Google+ and search rankings and just practicing really. I needed to do this because I had modelled as a student and when I was Google searched by prospective employers – as you can guarantee you will be! – I didn’t want this to be the first thing they saw.

So I created the blog as an online writing portfolio, showcasing that I was passionate about my industry and, hopefully, proving I knew what I was doing. Gradually, the positive content replaced the old stuff.

Add to that my presence on social media – namely Twitter – where my persona is very different to my personal Facebook, focussed on my industry, on networking, on sharing articles and job opportunities and my blog posts, and now I’m approaching 1,000 followers, many of whom are from the local media or PR industry and means that I have existing “virtual” relationships with people that I can then approach to meet in person.

And I do this regularly, under the guise of “guest profile interviews” on my blog. I’ve been inside Belfast City Hall’s Comms team, Ulster Rugby’s media suite, the NI Chamber of Commerce and more PR and Digital agencies than I could shake a stick at. This is where social and digital integrates into your real world, expanding it for you and helping you research before you dip your toe in. Don’t be afraid to approach people. Ask for their help or advice.

You would be surprised how many people said yes to me back when no-one knew who I was!

I then put myself forward to be a member of the CIPR Committee after 3 years as a Member. You all have student membership, I don’t see half the students use it for maximum benefit. Attend events. Introduce yourself to people. Tweet about things you’ve been to. You will learn and you will get your name known. It matters here, trust me.

Then you should continue your membership when you graduate. It’s money well-spent. I joined the committee primarily to broaden the training events offering to in-house PR people like me. And I was able to run events like Meet the Media for the Voluntary Sector and Meet the Bloggers.

All of these opportunities are open to anyone in the CIPR. Make use of their social channels, their website and their e-zines. They’re also developing new editorial content teams. They have a Conversation section of their website that you can link your self-penned articles to. Get involved.

So where did Social and Digital Media get me?

Well my work with the CIPR has made me an Accredited Practitioner. There aren’t many of those in Northern Ireland so if I apply for a job I’ll stand out. And you only have to look around the size of this room of students to know that you need to stand out.

But I don’t need to apply for jobs now because companies contact me, on LinkedIn, on Twitter, by email from my blog.

For the most part, the roles haven’t suited me. Until recently when I was approached by a local agency, the owner of whom I met at a CIPR event, and a company who had asked me to write a guest blog post for them last year, which I did.

They needed a Media and Communications Manager; I needed more commercial industry experience.

I start with them in a few weeks’ time.

That’s how easy it is. I hope you’ve heard something to inspire you today! Thank you for your time.


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