Public Relations and the Social Web

Trying to read complete books while you are also trying to build up your own business can be a difficult balancing exercise. I bought Rob Brown‘s Public Relations and the Social Web: How to use social media and web 2.o in communications almost as soon as it was published and immediately started reading it. However, client work and pitches for prospective new clients meant the reading got interrupted and I have only just finished it.

With 20-plus years of B2B PR experience behind me and having been an enthusiast for social media for some years, I opened the book hoping that Rob would confirm much of what I already knew and maybe give me some pointers towards areas that I might need to brush up on. And that, broadly, is what the book has done.

For those practitioners relatively new to social media, the first half of Rob’s book talks about the changing nature of communications, media fragmentation, relinquishing control, the emergence of new channels (blogs, wikis, RSS, podcasts, bookmarking, social networks), search engine optimisation, new ethics and the “the battle for influence at the digital frontier”.

The second half looks at what that “battle” means for the PR industry. Rob suggests ways in which PR practitioners will need to reconsider their communications ‘mix’, describes some tools of the trade – from social media releases to evaluation and measurement – before reminding us about some potential “bear traps” and wondering about “the next big thing”.

As the social media world is constantly evolving, occasionally some of Rob’s descriptions of the new channels and the major players are slightly dated – a lot can change in the months between submitting a manuscript and the book finally hitting the bookshelves (as I know from my own experience in writing a book). For example, I found myself thinking “you could have mentioned …” only to realise that the company or application I had in mind was only recently launched.

Some omissions are probably more a matter of personal choice (as you would expect with something so essentially focused on individual interaction). For example, when discussing  evaluation and measurement and Twitter, Rob doesn’t mention my favourite desktop Twitter client Tweetdeck; I really like its built-in search and group tools, giving me an at-a-glance view of Twitter “buzz” on a selection of keywords or groups of keywords – some of which relate to my clients.

But that’s a small issue. For me, Rob’s social media experience particularly shines through in the section on podcasts and in the chapter on evaluation and measurement. His outline of some of the free and commercial services to monitor reputation online is wide-ranging – if space allowed, I would have added discussion forum monitoring tools (eg: BoardTracker) – and he stresses that PR professionals’ instincts and judgement remain as important as the analytics, especially as social media monitoring is an “incredibly new sector … [with] a certain amount of smoke and mirrors and few if any [providers] will have a significant bank of experience.”

Overall, Rob’s book is a very readable introduction for PR professionals to the whole field of social media. If work hadn’t intervened, I would probably have read it from cover to cover in a weekend, then gone back – as I have today – to re-read certain sections. It now sits on my bookshelf as a useful reference.

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