Book Review: Putting the ‘Public’ back in Public Relations

I’ve never read a book about social media before. As I tweeted at one point a few weeks ago, I felt a flutter of irony every time I would have to sit down, close out the social media apps on my phone and crack open a physical book to read about the apps I had just closed. Another observation I had about reading this particular book, entitled “Putting the Public back in Public Relations,” was that reading a book about social media puts me to sleep. This book was written by Brian Solis and Deirdre Breakenridge, both of whom are professionals immersed in the public relations industry. I don’t know if the subject matter or the way this book was written is responsible for that, but I do know it was a struggle to get this book read. I love reading, but to be fair, I’ve always been terrible at focusing with nonfiction books.

In this review, when I make a negative comment, please don’t think I’m knocking the authors. I understand that it takes a lot of time and effort and expertise to put something like this together, and I do respect that. However, I was asked to right a book review for one of my classes and I’m going to be honest in said review.

With that being said (what a great way to start out a book review, right?), let’s talk about the thoughts I had whenever I did get myself to read these past few weeks:

Get to the Point

This book takes a very long time to get to the point. The first section of it, which I think was 80 pages, is dedicated to setting up the premise of why the authors are writing about social media. It goes on and on about how important social media is and how it’s revolutionized the public relations industry, forcing us to engage with consumers rather than talking at them. Those are totally valid points to make, but it doesn’t take 80 pages to make them. I kept waiting and waiting for them to actually start giving advice or tips on how to carry out those engagements, but no, that didn’t start to trickle in until part two. Even then, it was spotty. The whole thing kind of felt like the authors were trying to reach a word count. In the spirit of transparency, I’ll tell you now that I actually am trying to reach a word count, so this review is going to be pretty in-depth. Strap in.

In addition to just taking too long to get to the point, I feel like this book was kind of unclear when it was trying to give advice. For example, they spent quite a lot of time hyping up social media releases (SMRs) and they even go so far as to say they’ve included an example SMR… but I read through the section and there was never a completed SMR anywhere. It just repeated what the components of a good SMR would be. I was really excited to see what an SMR looks like, because it was a term I’m not super familiar with, but then it was nowhere to be found. I felt like I was mislead. And that happened a few times.

Social Media is Not about Technology

The bottom line is that you have to understand the sociology and the dynamics of human interaction within particular social networks before you can either write them off as useless or participate within them in the hopes of becoming a resource and building meaningful relationships.” – Solis & Breakenridge, page 157.

“Social media is about sociology and not technology,” is a point that this book stresses a lot (page 75). As someone who particularly enjoys looking at different topics from a sociological perspective, this ideology caught my attention. Much of this book is built around throwing out what we thought we knew about marketing and public relations prior to the social media takeover, which includes re-examining the way that companies attempt to engage with their target audiences. Solis and Breakenridge point out that “brands are more embraceable, shapeable, and approachable than ever before” with the advent and popularization of social media (page 38).

However, these positive results will only come about if P.R. professionals are willing to take the time to observe how audiences behave and interact on each platform. Users of social media platforms are “building online cultures across online networks and using the social tools they they about every day to stay connected” (page 77). As someone trying to connect your company or client to those same users, you should understand that culture, right?

As a user of Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and more, I have observed and engaged with the unique culture and ‘norms’ for each platform. The general profile of a typical Facebook user is very different from a typical Twitter user and so on. Long-established norms on Facebook have made that platform more personal – it is not uncommon for people to make long, extremely personal posts about conflict or celebrations in their lives. There are lots of family pictures and memories shared there. Facebook has also become increasingly common with older people who find it easier to use than other platforms. Twitter, on the other hand, would be a much younger individual if personified. It is full of memes and fiery political discourse, highly indicative of its millennial user-base. The youngest of the most popular social media platforms, from my experience, would certainly be SnapChat. Colorful branding and quick messages make it a perfect environment for teens to communicate and share a laugh.

To the authors’ original point, each of the platforms should be considered from a sociological standpoint by companies wishing to properly engage their audiences online. The proper strategy wouldn’t attempt to talk to a Twitter user the same way they would to someone on Facebook. It’s just science.

Incorrect Predictions

This is not the authors’ fault by any means, but a lot of the predictions they made about how the public relations industry was going to change haven’t really happened like they supposed it would. Now, this book was written a few years back and published in New Jersey, presumably focusing a lot on what the industry looked like in New York City. I don’t know if there are significant differences between the way that P.R. works in NYC versus Indianapolis, but I would bet there are a few. It’s possible that the predictions that the authors made have happened in bigger, more advanced cities than Indianapolis. However, most of the tools and tactics that were said to be hot and new when this book was published have not taken off based on my experiences so far here in Indy.

Although those sections were not particularly helpful, I found them to be fascinating. It’s very interesting to me how quickly our world and industry can change – and sometimes it seems totally unpredictable, no matter how hard we try to gauge what’s coming next.

Blogging 101

The tenth chapter focused entirely on business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) blogging, which is an area I have experience in and enjoyed reading more about. The chapter opens up by saying that blogging is “highly underrated and misunderstood by a majority of businesses.” While more and more companies are putting an emphasis on content marketing by including a blog on their website, I think that a lot of those businesses are unsure about why they have a blog to start with.

Furthermore, businesses who have a blog do not understand how to use it as a strategic tool to engage their audiences. It’s a common practice for corporate blogs to be written and thrown onto the website without serious consideration as to why that topic was chosen or how it would benefit their target markets to read the post. This is usually followed by a series of social media posts promoting the blog, attempting to drive people to read several paragraphs that are not relevant or entertaining. I know I sound cynical, but I’ve seen this happen a number of times.

The authors of this book, luckily, do have some advice for corporate bloggers of both B2B and B2C varieties. Citing Jeremiah Owyang, who discussed blogging in his own book, “Web Strategy,” Solis and Breakenridge emphasize the importance of defining the purpose of one’s blog early on. This can help prevent companies from falling into the trap I mentioned in the last paragraph, where they regularly string some words together that don’t do much to engage with their audiences. This section continues on to point out that companies should refrain from talking about themselves, or talking negatively about their competitors, in their blog entries.

Social Media isn’t a Spectator Sport

While the authors agree that observation is a good way to see how people engage with each other on social media, they also believe that social platforms are not the place for experimentation or sitting on the sidelines. I agree that “companies should not be questioning their participation [in social media]” (page 201). Social media is well-established as a great communications tool at this point and companies shouldn’t kid themselves in thinking it’s a fad.

To go along with their emphasis on sociology over technology, the authors state that the “tools will change, but people and their behavior remain constant,” meaning that there’s no use in getting caught up in how many new apps might pop up in the coming years (page 153). They go so far as to call out industry professionals who are guilty of saying things along the lines of, “I don’t even know where to begin – maybe I’m just too old” (page 156). I’ve heard older individuals make exasperated claims like this a lot and it has always bothered me. I had to learn how to use Facebook properly for work, too, and older P.R. professionals/companies should not consider themselves exempt. Solis and Breakenridge agree that people shouldn’t whine about advances in technology – new apps are just going to keep coming, adding that “social media is forcing changes that should have happened a long time ago” (page 156).

As far as actually engaging followers once a company begins participating in social media, Solis and Breakenridge believe that “participation looks a lot less like marketing” on these platforms and instead should more closely resemble customer service (page 201). In the past, marketing often meant sending out a one-way message to large audiences in the hopes of getting their attention. While the aim for attention is still there, social media should be a two-way conversation between the company and the people they want to reach. Solis and Breakenridge state that the “ideal PR professional” should be able to consider themselves “not only a market expert, but also an informed, socially adept conversationalist” (page 27).

Final Thoughts

Since it is a few years old, there were not many ideas or thoughts within this book that I was totally unfamiliar with. The content essentially reassured me that several of the observations I have made as a young professional are right and that my experiences so far have put me on a good path towards success in my industry.

“Putting the Public back in Public Relations” did encourage me to continue learning about my industry from experts and be more intentional about reading up on industry trends. As a public relations professional who is currently developing a bit of a specialization in social media, I think it’s important for me to keep up with industry experts and learn what they have to say. As I near graduation and my official entry into the workforce, it will become even more imperative that I pay close attention to what is happening in my field so I can be the best public relations and marketing professional possible.

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