It is without a shadow of doubt that social media is reshaping the public relations (PR) profession in Zimbabwe and the world. Professionals are grappling with how to remain relevant in a fast-changing environment where traditional methods are fast becoming extinct.
Public Relations with Lenox Mhlanga
Clients are consulting on how they can stay ahead of the added scrutiny and the landmines that line up their route to relevance. Even the government has got its knickers in a knot scrabbling to regulate social media — a tall order given the contentious political atmosphere the whole debate finds itself mired in. I have my strong views on this which I choose to share in a future column.
Local PR professionals want to know how they could incorporate social media into their work. Fortunately, a number of studies have been conducted on the impact of social media on PR. These have shown that local professionals are not alone in their quest for insight into how they can stay relevant in the new and fast-changing communications landscape.
The Institute of Public Relations has shared a study which is based on in-depth interviews with 43 in-house PR and communication leaders working in diverse leading United States-based organisations. These are individuals who work on the client side of PR, such as in companies, charities and government agencies.
The study shared in a research paper entitled, Strategic Social Media Management and Public Relations Leadership: Insights from Industry Leaders, set out to establish how PR leaders perceived the major functions of social media and how they employed social media to establish their leadership within their organisations.
It explored how social media use has affected leadership behaviours of PR leaders in the United States and will provide guidance to local practitioners as well.
More importantly, the fact that social media can empower PR leaders and foster their leadership skills is amply illustrated in the study. It reveals that social media can help PR practitioners to strategically manage the public relations function, create vision and motivate public relations staff to achieve their common goals.
Through social media, one can communicate with internal and external stakeholders, provide knowledge in decision-making and problem-solving, perform environmental scanning and collaborate with other management functions.
Four key dimensions emerged from interview results on how PR leaders can strategically use social media to establish leadership roles: exhibiting expert power, gaining decision power by demonstrating tangible outcomes, displaying leadership vision in social media use and establishing leadership among peers.
Almost all PR leaders have acknowledged some fundamental functions of social media in PR practice, such as message promotion, building participative, interactive and problem-solving oriented community, monitoring stakeholders and crisis management.
Social media use helped the PR leaders demonstrate their expert power through displaying their strong expertise in technology, understanding of publics, and effective online engagement with strategic publics.
In other words, PR professionals should grab the opportunities that social media present in enhancing an organisation’s effectiveness. Information technology personnel might not necessarily be the people to drive the human face presented by social media.
Most participants stressed that social media alone did not increase the likelihood of them being involved in top-level strategic planning. Rather, it was the strategic alliance of social media use with solving business or organisational problems and achieving tangible outcomes such as profit or donations.
The study further revealed a “neoteric facet” of PR leadership, that is, the innovative use of social media, charismatic forward thinking and cultivating social media strategists. Organisations have embraced this through the creation of new posts such as that of chief social media strategist that invariably fall within the ambit of public relations.
Many PR leaders noted the increased recognition of the value of public relations by other management functions when they demonstrated leadership among peers through strategic use of social media.
Public relations leaders in this study assumed e-leadership through their visions of new technology (like social media), creative use of the interactive platforms and their ability to influence top management’s perception on the efficacy of strategic social media management.
The key to linking social media and leadership resided in the issue of how to demonstrate expertise in social media and how to strategically integrate social media into communication programmes.
Public relations managers can advance their leadership though three mechanisms: exhibiting expert power in technology, linking strategic social media use with bottom line and demonstrating leadership vision of innovation and forward thinking.
The study, however, mentions as a word of caution that the role of social media use in enhancing the relationships with external publics is conditioned on a public relations leader’s vision and ability in creating relevant, engaging content. Top management’s perception of the value of the public relations function, and the availability of technical, social, as well as human resources is also crucial to its success.
Suggested future research directions included how public relations leaders’ engagement in social media management has affected the whole leadership structure within the organisation and to what extent public relations leaders could influence the ethical use of social media or the issue of social media governance.
l Lenox Mhlanga is a communication specialist with experience working for the World Bank Group. He is an associate consultant with Magna Carta Reputation Management Consultants and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 0772 400 656.