Guest Lecture: Digital PR and Social Media

As promised to the students at Ulster University, here is a blog-style round up of today’s guest lecture (my second and hopefully not my last!) on the topic of Digital PR and Social Media, packed full of practical examples of the best and worst the internet had to offer so far in 2015!

Back when we graduated in 2006 we didn’t have Facebook or iPhones. Currently, most of the industry is self-taught. And not always to the highest standards. We’ve done it on the hoof, by the seat of our pants, we’re winging it.

YOU have the opportunity to get a head start in this area because let’s be honest, Digital isn’t going anywhere.

Digital is the future.

And no-one is more living proof of that than my son. He lives online. From streaming shows on his Apple TV to Skyping my husband’s family in New Zealand, his PS4 games at home and his iPad when I force him out into the public. When he grows up he wants to be a “Vlogger.”

At his age I wanted to be an astronaut. Or Kylie Minogue in Neighbours.

Digital is the future in PR too. I know this because it takes up the majority of my work, and the work of most of my peers in the industry:

My weekly to-do list now might have one press release writing and distribution to media. The rest of it will be things like website articles optimised for SEO, blog articles, email newsletter content, social media content planning, Facebook advertising, blogger outreach.

And there are other elements you might do in-house, such as Public Affairs using social/digital or online video production.

When you look back at the origins of the industry - the ultimate aims of swaying opinion to change it or induce people to action - then it makes sense. You go where the people are. And today, most of them are online, somewhere.

Including journalists.

So even if media relations remains, as it does, a staple of our work; how and where we interact with journalists is moving online.

The local media landscape reflects these statistics (from Bell Pottinger). Almost all our journalists use Twitter and many prefer to be contacted via Direct Message. Their roles change so often now that the days of building relationships are gone. You need to use these channels to find out who is responsible where, get their contact details, learn what they like and pitch them properly.

And I find that the best way to learn is from other’s mistakes (and successes).

So I’m going to run through a list of some of the best and worst examples of Social Media and Digital PR that I’ve seen since so far in 2015.

Let’s start on a positive note.

Newsjacking is a term you should all know and it’s a great tool for trying to cut through the noise online and hook audience’s attention.

The Salvation Army won the internet it seemed with their brilliant newsjacking of the “Is it a blue dress is it a black dress” phenomenon. Their quick turnaround was the key.

Likewise, although Dove never claimed to produce this ad in response to the Protein World “Beach Body Ready” scandal, it’s a common tactic to leak potential messages to gain positive traction online, which it did.

Nando’s in Victoria Square also showed a cheeky side to their personality with this job advertisement around the time of the Ashley Madison hacking. They didn’t want to post it online but knew inevitably someone else would do it for them.

And no round up would be complete without Paddy Power - the King’s of the Controversial Newsjack. This was in reference to the betting odds for the Same Sex Marriage Referendum in Ireland. It’s risky but that works because it fits their brand personality and the audience they seek to attract.

On Twitter, newsjacking invariably means Hashtag Hijacking, in order to be seen among the most popular conversations. It can be difficult for corporates and public services to do because they often don’t have the freedom to be humorous. But the airport’s jibe at Madonna’s Brit Awards fall and the fire service statistic during the launch of the 50 Shades movie, both garnered them well-deserved coverage online.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art have been praised for this Snapchat campaign, simply because it’s often difficult to fully utilise the lesser-known channels. You’ll often find there’s no-one in your entire team who’s ever used them!

Even in more traditional PR tactics - like the PR stunt - what you’ll see these days is more emphasis on preparing them well for Social Media sharing - making sure they are striking images even without a traditional newspaper caption. This Game of Thrones one by our local Tourist Board was popular, as was this clever piñata World Record for the launch of Pringles Tortilla chips.

Storytelling is the new industry buzz word but all it really means is stepping outside selling in a one-way communication and taking fans on a journey, connecting on an emotional level with them, joining in the mundanity of their lives.

Anyone who has children will glow in agreement and appreciation when they see this one and they Liked it in their thousands on Facebook to prove it.

Because CBeebies recognised that their audience are not actually children but stressed out parents.

Social Media works really well for brands who want to engage online influencers too, as you’re guaranteed massive audiences if you do it well. The England Women’s Football Team definitely scored a goal with this gift to Harper Beckham via her famous father in advance of their first game.

Likewise, Toblerone reacted superbly when Brian O’Driscoll’s wife joked online that he better bring her back the traditional airport gift when she saw a photo of him crowd surfing on a working trip. She demanded a big one. Toblerone sent Brian this. And even he agreed it was pretty clever.

Click-bait is another phenomenon of modern writing. We all hate it but it works and increasingly even our local media want you to allow for it. Local agency MCE PR did it very well with this attention-grabbing statistic in their press release, and sure enough the news of the Merchant Hotel’s expensive bottled water went global.

The real winners online though, were the Hudson Bar in Belfast who newsjacked it with their parody water list:

A major problem for all brands online is content generation. It’s time-consuming. I spend about 4 hours a week per client just researching, creating and scheduling content across their channels. That’s before you interact or conduct customer service.

So the solution is encouraging user-generated content to share, which has the added benefit of endorsing you or the product. Locally, Belfast Fashion Week’s selfie mirror bus shelter ads were quite clever, and the “Twelfie” campaign by the Orange Order showed that even the most traditional of organisations are dipping their toes into online PR.

For any Instagram lovers you’ll understand the modern power of a great image. Brands now put a lot of resource into it and if photography or Photoshop is a skill you can develop, you will be more employable than your peers. Suki Tea are a local company that do it well on a very limited budget:

With bigger teams and budgets, some global brands are literally taking on the Vogues of this world when it comes to brand publishing, because they understand what people want and how to package content so that it is more shareable. Like online retailer ASOS, who have the seasonal fashion infographic down to a fine art.

Remembering as with all PR, online PR will incorporate all aspects of the PESO model, and Paid Media has a place too. This is why we’re probably the only people online who don’t immediately scroll passed ads to see photos of our mates out on Saturday night.

You learn what works by consuming media and this advert by Shell on LinkedIn caught my eye because it appears to show me as an employee there, purposely, to make you imagine yourself in the job:

Social Media is also great in a Crisis, but as with everything it’s all in the way you handle.

When someone drove their sports car into Ballyhackamore restaurant Graze they knew it would spread online so they made a joke about becoming a “Drive-Thru” and ensured THEIR message would be the one people shared, keeping ownership and personality during a time of business crisis. It endeared people to them.

The rise of Digital Media also means our online news sites are hungrier for content than our newspapers ever were. And their audiences are bigger. With that in mind, many companies, like Belfast nightclub El Divino, know that if you do something risqué enough they might pick it up if they see it on Social Media.

Which is exactly what happened when the club made their flyers look like parking tickets and left them on people’s cars, leading to media debate about good versus bad publicity.

Now onto the bad.

So online communication leads to online slang, leads to Emojis. Now I love emojis. And a lot of brands are using them. But if you’re McDonalds and you regularly have your ads vandalised, then be aware that the funny graffiti one is more likely to go viral than your original one on the Motorway will.

Likewise, Coca-Cola. Now I appreciate that they can’t really do anything without being criticised but if you’re an unhealthy product, don’t create a campaign around a man who became obese or a woman who died prematurely. You’re asking from trouble. Stick to hippy happy messages and Polar Bears.

Now if you’re on Twitter you’ll know how popular word-play games are and I love them because I love a good pun. Brands get involved all the time, to great success.

But Benefit seriously misjudged this one and it should have been obvious given the nature of their consumers - women who spend above the odds on products that make them feel better about themselves. These are self-esteem products. Do not make fun of people’s weight.

In PR and Communications you’ll often also be tasked with writing brand copy, for anything from leaflets and ads to the tiny stuff on the label.

Whoever in Bud Light thought that saying “removing NO from your vocabulary for the night” on a beer bottle was a good idea has a lack of common sense so severe they are surely a danger to themselves?If you have secured coverage or endorsement from an online influencer, like say a rugby player and your brand is the rugby sponsor for example, please ensure in the small print that you have editorial review of the messages.

Naming no names. [Heineken]

More emojis. This is interesting because it should work slightly better in that it’s utilising WhatsApp messaging ads, which haven’t yet taken off here but they’re big in the Middle East.

Emojis fit more comfortably in social rather than corporate communications like this. I’m not so sure they would make me buy washing powder but there you go.

When we talk about how useful Social Media is for media relations we must remember that it’s not foolproof.

You can’t talk to journalists in soundbites as though you’re enticing customers. They want a headline, a line on why it’s useful to their audience and they want it by deadline. Know their deadlines.

Same goes for bloggers. Too many people treat them as though they should be jumping at every opportunity. They are simply another media contact and if you torture them, they will set your emails to auto-spam.

And then the blogger will out you on Social Media. Like this one did.

Newsjacking too, for all it’s wonderfulness, can go badly wrong. These days most often by costume companies around Hallowe’en funnily enough. But also by brands butting in on issues that are causing people anger and just getting in the way, rather than actually being useful.

Don’t talk to people who in a bad mood unless you can make it better.

I can’t even with this next one. I just can’t.

Now charities have been the real beneficiaries of online PR in recent times, especially this charity for Motor Neurone Disease given the global success of the Ice Bucket Challenge. But they got their follow-up badly wrong with a sentence that plainly looks like some kind of chain letter threat. So they went viral this year for all the wrong reasons.

Some brands are still old-school and stick to in-store, real-life promotions, like Irish retailer Dunnes Stores here with their back to school fake tan shelves. But you still need to risk-assess messages in the same way or else someone else will put you online and make you go viral. 

And finally to the ugly.

No roundup of the internet is ever complete without a mention of the Queen of public manipulation Mrs West. Now this was only ugly for her; it’s an absolute blinder by the designer house. Because they ensured their response would get even more traction online than her initial spelling mistake would.

And her Instafamous peer Ms Halcro also has a lesson for us PR’s as she and others become the victims of hacking to expose their endorsement costs and the lack of transparency around sponsored Social Media posts.

Engage in every written communication as though it may some day go public.

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

If I haven’t convinced you already of the importance of immersing yourself in the online world for your own career, I thought I’d finish with a brief explanation of how I used social and digital strategy personally to get ahead in my own career.

Firstly I needed to understand SEO. I learned by doing, setting up this blog which is WordPress hosted, reading up on the subject and just practicing really.

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. I would encourage you to do the same.

Add to that my presence on Twitter – focussed on the industry, networking, sharing articles and job opportunities and my blog posts, and now I’m over 1,500 followers, many of whom are from the local media or PR industry.

I then put myself forward to be a member of the CIPR Committee. I don’t see half the students use their free membership as they could.

  • Attend events.
  • Introduce yourself to people.
  • Tweet about things you’ve been to.
  • You will learn and you will get your name known.

That matters here, trust me.

My work with the CIPR 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 a lecture room full of students to know that you need to stand out.

But I don’t need to apply for jobs now because I turned the blog into a business. Local PR Agencies send me sub-contracting projects they don’t have time to do and I have clients of my own that I do Digital PR and Social Media work for.

So where do you start your future career in Digital PR?

Well you could write a guest article for my blog if you like. I’m running a series until November to coincide with the CIPR’s campaign to align more closely the worlds of practice and academic study.

There’s an article on my blog that tells you all about it as well as the first student submission as an example, but basically it’s an opportunity to practice a skill that you will be asked to do regularly, and from very early on in your career, i.e. writing for an online audience.

You’ll gain some Social Media coverage, Search Engine Ranking, you’ll have a piece for your online portfolio and you’ll have a reference - me!