Definition Byte: Social PR for Business — Relating the Inside Out

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Part I: Defining Social PR for Business

“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.”  Heather Yaxley, co-author, The Public Relations Strategic Toolkit

Have you given thought to where you are headed with your organizational social PR efforts? What are the benefits of integrating “social” into your strategic organizational public relations programs and “adventures” in this brave new world?

Wait. I’ve noticed a stop sign. Let’s take the appropriate pause and then coast towards defining social PR.

When I searched and meandered around the interwebs prior to writing this column, some articulations about social PR stopped me in my tracks.

Most related to less-comprehensive (marketing-based) activities or more specialized functions, such as online media relations, blogger third-party validation, campaign-specific “story telling,” SEO, digital crisis communication, big-data computation (solely related to a bigger transactions pool), native advertising, outputs/outtakes measurement of online programs and activities and so on.

Some of the definitions wandered vaguely, others were turbo-charged with novelty and performance promises. Very few resembled comprehensive (social) public relations as I understand and practice it, revolving around organizational profile and reputation, value and relationship building with a variety of publics.

Which begs another question: Does social PR need a stand-alone definition?

I believe the answer is two-fold: social PR “perception” yes (at this stage you need to have “social capital skin in the game” and develop appropriate knowledge and skills or fear appearing as a PR- and social-business ostrich) and “big-picture” public relations not quite as much. Increasingly, social PR is an important part of the holistic equation, but it is not the sum total.

So we can put some fuel in the tank and recognize that public relations aims to increase understanding and awareness of the organization through frequent and honest communication, including social.

Besides personalization of the relationships with stakeholders, one of the greatest things social allows is datafication of “reality mining.”

Although I’ve named this Definition Byte, perhaps Explanation or Exploration Bye would be more apt.

Opportunities for social PR

Opportunities specific to, or augmented by, social PR abound, including online influence (such as thought leadership), engagement (i.e., two-way communication), relevance, reach and resonance—some of the trendier digital concepts.

From a public relations perspective, this allows increased wisdom about inferences and predictions of how an organization is perceived (or will be), gleaned through social dynamics such as “…connections, opinions, preferences, and patterns of everyday living.” (This is from the fascinating Big Data book I’m currently reading.) The “what” of this external information gleaned needs to be “related” to appropriate stakeholders. All relate to corporate reputation.

There’s the 24/7 truism of more-effective communication less encumbered by geographical boundaries and time zones (or time scales), at least via platforms if not in-real-time humans—search engines will assist in locating the social PR destination, but often it’s humans in the public relations or corporate communication functions that initiate the bridges for relate-able, customized information and experience beyond things like ecommerce.

And not to forget the possibility of forming communities of interest with active and passive stakeholders and publics, either robustly participating/co-creating/sharing or monitoring (by the organization itself and perhaps by regulators, competitors or activists) or more passively researching about the (social) business.

One immensely important social PR goal is shifting from the oft-repeated stereotypes of information “gatekeeper/broadcaster” or “spinner” to access greeter” and “illuminator.”

Getting closer

Windmill Networking’s CEO, Neal Schaffer, likes to detail how the biggest distinguishing feature of social is that “it touches everything,” which is why he is constantly expanding the contributor base—areas and subject experts—in the social business realm. Given that this column has bitten into culture and insourcing, I’m in de facto agreement with his mindset (a reason I lobbied for a social internal communication specialist contributor, to underscore the necessity of consistent and joined-up external and internal messaging in social).

But just as Neal’s social approach touches everything, so does organizational public relations, externally and internally, even if related simply to awareness (“perception is reality”).

Every organizational decision made and item of content offered and consumed (i.e., brand journalism), each encounter, engagement or sale, any employee from the CEO down, can impact not only the reputation, but how the social business is valued and whether or not it is trusted. Just as the traditional public relations function often performs a boundary-spanning role, so it does in social, to increase the understanding and awareness in multi directions and networks as an organizational information value chain.

And that’s why I developed my personal short-hand definition (which inherently relates to my #socialPR column focus):

Social PR for Business: Relating the Inside Out

By extension, social PR also “relates the outside in.”

If you are only interested in my definition of social PR, feel free to stop reading here at the 700-plus word count. If, however, you’d benefit from a more “contextual” understanding of the communicative organization per my “PR appreciation” of it, please continue along on this journey about how I arrived at this definitive March 2013 juncture.

Part II: Defining “Big Picture” Public Relations

A number of self-identifying PR practitioners dislike or are unexcited by various industry association-driven definitions of public relations, feeling they don’t relate to what they do.

Setting aside the possibility of the unconvinced not actually working in public relations, what do you think of this one offered by Catherine Arrow in the (professional social networking) LinkedIn Group, PR Professionals?

Public relations builds and sustains the relationships an organization needs in order to maintain its licence to operate. PR develops understanding and engagement inside and outside the organization and is not just a single part of an organizational process—such as marketing, research and development or production. 

Instead, it is concerned with the “whole”—covering, among other elements, reputation, crisis and issues, future planning and development, organizational character, values and narrative. 

If you accept this as the remit for public relations, also rev up your engine about social ways and means to accomplish PR goals and increase understanding in order to relate (and translate) not only the inside out, but the outside in.

Many of the things Catherine mentions in the second paragraph already lend themselves easily to a (social PR) organizational narrative, including (co-)creation of graphics, images, video and audio communication.

Besides the multimedia advantages of social, think about the increased opportunity for social business transparency and flexibility in engagement and responses.

Because this is the PR mindset of a connected company and it’s why I appreciate so much the innovative “Our Food, Your Questions” program and platform from McDonald’s Canada. Without the social component, it couldn’t be done. Think about it: Based on direct feedback and co-creation from interested stakeholders, McDonald’s Canada is “relating the inside out” through social and banking its reputation at least partially on it.

More definition (and PR differentiation) fuel

In his contribution to Alison Theaker and Heather Yaxley‘s  The Public Relations Strategic Toolkit, Toni Muzi Falconi stated:

“…it is necessary for public relations professionals to articulate and ‘own’ the ‘value network’ and the ‘communicative organization’ concepts…. 

A ‘value network’ approach to strategy implies that the societal value of any organization lies in the quality of relationships among participants to an undefined and fuzzy number of internal/external networks, as well as among the networks themselves. 

A ‘communicative organization’ approach to management implies its embeddedness in a framework where all actions and behaviours are communicative, and being communicative, for any organization, is an essential and horizontal part of its sustainability policy vis-à-vis the quest to reinforce its licence to operate. ” 

Beyond relationships and networks, I have italicized key concepts such as “articulate, value network, communicative organization, horizontal and embeddedness,” to reinforce the concept that “PR touches everything” in an organization, particularly a social business. After all, Why would or should social PR be any different? 

And before anyone’s appreciation gets stalled by Toni’s “own” word, remember that he’s talking about an organizationally horizontal structure, meaning that every department and area should be given equal internal consideration even if that doesn’t translate to externally facing (social) PR profile.

I quietly thrilled to Toni’s “embeddedness” concept because of how inclusive it is:

This is what allows any employee in any capacity (such as customer service) to be an organizational public relations representative and spokesperson when and where empowered with the appropriate training and understanding.

Finally, one final concept from him that spoke to me:

“…acquiring competencies and tools to fully align and integrate internal/external/mandatory/voluntary reporting and stakeholder engagement processes.”

Again, I emphasized voluntary, because that “relates” (of course) to “opening the social PR business kimono”…on your terms.

And so we continue on this journey of understanding….

Also in the Strategic Toolkit, PRSA’s vice president of public relations, Arthur Yann, indicates:

“It has been estimated that reputation accounts for as much as 30 to 70 per cent of the gap between the book value and market capitalization of most companies. 

The value tied to corporate reputation is something that public relations professional have long understood. But as Arthur W. Page noted, the public’s perception of an organization is determined 90 per cent by what it does and 10 per cent by what it says. ” 

Social PR helps in demonstrating what an organization does because its decisions and actions related to reputation and value is on searchable, long-term record. And even if it’s only valued at 10 per cent, the saying or information sharing needs to “relate to” and justify why a course of action was determined, not simply detail how it was executed.

Which brings me to the final subject expert drawn from the Strategic Toolkit, Anne Gregory (chair-elect of the Global Alliance) who indicates that public relations professional have to be more aware of the overall context in which their organizations operate:

Contextual and communicative intelligence will be the new gold. Understanding, interpreting and interacting with a world of growing complexity will be a skill set that will be highly prized….”

The social PR component of integrated communication plays a huge role in adding contextual understanding of an organization, perhaps in a more interesting and “engaging” way than traditional formats.

In conclusion

To paraphrase a famous quote, “I would have written a shorter definition if I had had the time.”

This wasn’t the planned column for March–look for an in-house profile/interview soon about “enterprise scaling,” revolving around someone whose real-life social PR responsibilities demanded full attention (and definitely not within a 9 to 5 format). On the other hand, defining social PR was something Neal Schaffer has been “encouraging” me to do for awhile.

I had a definite sense of the end destination, but the maps I would use and roads I would take were less clear. The discussion in the LinkedIn Group (ye olde “PR versus marketing” focus and responsibilities debate)—particularly Catherine Arrow’s excellent definition—helped to accelerate the process.

The need to put the writing “pedal to the metal” also prompted me to revisit my copy of the excellent The Public Relations Strategic Toolkit for inspiration—if you work in PR, this 2012 textbook is a veritable treasure trove of information, including a chapter by Heather Yaxley on Digital Public Relations.

So I ask again: Have you given any thought to where you are headed with your organizational social PR efforts? How do you define it?

It really is a good exercise to articulate what you plan and hope to achieve in social PR in this endless adventure towards becoming a mature social business.

And I’m throwing down the gauntlet to Neal to finally write his definition of social business and to the entire Windmill Networking team—if you have not yet done so—to define your own “social” area of expertise.

OK, it seems we’ve reached an appropriate rest spot. Braking….

Judy Gombita
This monthly Social Media and Public Relations column is contributed by Judy Gombita. Judy is a Toronto-based public relations and communication management specialist, with more than 20 years of employment and executive-level volunteer board experience, primarily in the financial and lifelong learning nonprofit sectors. She is the co-editor and Canadian contributor (since 2007) to the international, collaborative blog, PR Conversations. +Judy Gombita
Judy Gombita


Sr/hybrid (social) public relations & communication management strategist. Mindful curation @PRConversations. Heart: travel, film, theatre, opera, books & food.
(Awesome) Marlene Neill (@neillpr), @PRWeekUS: Are PR pros 'professional manipulators?' This study says not #PREthics - 2 hours ago
Judy Gombita


  1. says

    Judy – as ever an insightful and thought-provoking post. Thank you for giving the statements from Toni, Art and Ann a new audience, and recommending the PR Strategic Toolkit. Despite writing a book, you can forget the richness of information it contains and someone shining the headlights on different parts is a good reminder.

    I was also reminded in your discussion of social PR, how much of what you said applied to my first manager ole in PR back in the 1990s (pre social media). As the only PR practitioner, I viewed everyone in the organisation – 700 employes – as part of the PR team. They directly influenced reputation and relationships as well as being responsible for the ‘what we did’ operations.

    But, they were not alone as our services were delivered by a network of other businesses and so the values, and indeed PR-mindedness, or mindfulness, I was advocating internally had to extend beyond the organisational boundary. This seems to me to be a challenge for social PR going forwards as the recent European horsemeat scandal (& BP etc before it) show how the network base of the organization’s operations increasing spread out through other parties. What we say and what we do are increasingly in the hands of others. To continue the road metaphor, if you don’t tell the driver where you want to go, who knows what road they will take you on? N’est pas?

    • says

      Sorry for the delayed response, Heather. First off, I want to say that The Public Relations Strategic Toolkit was actually “embedded” throughout this column, in particular the concept that:

      “public relations aims to increase understanding and awareness of the organization”

      (emphasized by Alison Theaker and you in numerous sections, particularly in regards to distinguishing organizational public relations goals from marketing, campaign-based objectives).

      You probably recognize other things, too, like my comment on outputs/outtakes measurement. (The “outtakes” portion was of particular relevance and interest to me, as most focus on “outputs” vs. “outcomes,” particularly as related to PR.)

      Toni, Arthur and Anne provided small, encapsulated definitions of 21st-century PR (and opportunities), so they were easier to quote.

      I am in wholehearted agreement about the network of other business (or community or government) partners that factor into public relations (and now social PR). In January 2012 devoted an earlier column to it (which I thought was particularly useful, but it never did get that much traction):

      Social Capital Byte: Institutionalizing Parity in B2B Relationships

      I’ve actually been a bit discouraged of late seeing how vendor/service companies related to our industry/craft are giving social PR profile to non-affiliated (mainly consultants) properties, rather than to their clients and other partners. (I may be doing a guest post on this topic….)

      Your ” What we say and what we do are increasingly in the hands of others” speaks to this. In fact, the parts where I talked about multimedia advantages of social PR and co-creation also were influenced by your Digital Public Relations chapter in the book (as well as your PR Conversations complementary post, Plotting PR narrative in social media).

      This is another area where McDonald’s Canada’s “Our Food, Your Questions” program/platform proves exemplary, as the companies that work with them (particularly the food suppliers) participated in creating the answers to the queries posed. It was thanks to OF,YQ that I knew McDonald’s Canada’s beef was NOT supplied by the company–XL Foods–that had the tainted beef crisis in 2012. I knew that Cargill, who has never had a similar sweeping health concern charge, is its supplier.

  2. says

    Judy – congrats on yet another meaty column that deserves a deep read and thoughtful reply. I wish I had something truly thoughtful to add. . .

    Conceptually, the social “media” are mere tools in service to wider objectives; I’ve noticed a small trend to call them “social tools” and not limit their utility to the asymmetrical comms functioning. If this is true, then we should always look to our social network as a qualitative exercise, not chasing mere numbers of followers, or number of shares/retweets, what have you. Hon and Grunig’s work on measuring relationships is relevant here —

    The continuing battle over marketing versus PR seems more reductive than ever – I’ve always understood PR to be the holistic discipline that thinks about all of an organization’s stakeholders, that has a wider perspective and a somewhat skeptical, detached mien. So your definitions make sense to the degree that they facilitate that view.

    I think some of the resistance to PR definitions is based on a misunderstanding of the purpose of that definition — PR is not merely a batch of activities. It’s as much an attitude and strategic tool as a means of generating publicity, or writing an intranet post, or shooting video and telling stories.


      • says

        Sean – I like your comment about PR is “as much an attitude”. This connects in part to the post I’ve written at PR Conversations:

        In that post, I’m reflecting on how we all have our own worldviews, and linking into the next couple of posts which present thoughts on a model that seeks to encompass a worldview for PR.

        What your comment made me think about though, is whether there is an attitude that is either inherent or learned among PR practitioners. By this I don’t mean a PR personality, which is always rather a superficial consideration of the nature of practitioners. Rather, if we do share a mindset, way of thinking or indeed a worldview.

        I recall Hutton’s comment: “Regarding attitudes as well, there appears to be substantial differences. Marketing tends to demand a more aggressive, competitive, hyperbolic, selling mind-set, whereas public relations often demands a more conciliatory, peace-making approach. So, although their research, process, and objectives often are similar, the knowledge base, audiences and mind-sets of marketing and public relations frequently are quite different.”

        For me this is most particularly evident in the social media context where the former (marketing) attitude tends to reflect the approach Judy is rejecting in favour of the latter (PR) mindset.

  3. says

    I really like the concept of how social media can help PR move from being a gatekeeper to being, inter alia, “an illuminator”. This can work on both the inside out and the outside in modes as outlined in the great post above. Shining a light on the organisation’s practices and attitudes should ultimately lead to more transparent organisations. And seeing into all the corners of stakeholders’ views will also be informative for the organisation. A light bulb moment indeed.

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