Battle over who owns social media continues

In 2009 the Canadian Public Relations Society held its annual conference ‘On the Edge’ in Vancouver. Like the good communicators they are, John Kageorge and his organizing team encouraged members and attendees to blog, tweet, debate and discuss the communications issues of the day. It was a lively exchange and I’m sure made for a better conference.

One of the blog posts really caught my attention. A recent PR grad at the time posed the question ‘Should marketing report to communications?’ In this case the word ‘communications’ was code for Public Relations. Some folks find PR to be a dirty word (okay, phrase) and look to disguise it. I do not. She went on to say:

“What I have come to understand is that the job of the communications team is to listen. Marketing’s job is to speak. Proactive versus reactive messages.”

It has taken me two years to calm down enough to write about that statement. Just kidding. Sort of.

I’m sure my MBA marketing profs would guffaw at the naiveté and complete misunderstanding of what marketing is. However, that’s not my point, nor is it my intent to pick on a youngster – the question was asked in good faith.

My point is there’s a real turf war firing up in 2011 over where social media ‘belongs’ in the corporate landscape, or more precisely, which department ‘owns’ it. People are carving out social media turf and sitting on it protectively without much thought to the greater strategic impact on the organization.

Since the summer of ’09, when I read that post, I have seen numerous articles and heard many conversations along the lines of “PR should own social media” or “It says ‘media’ right in the name, so clearly media relations owns it” or “This is a matter for human resources” or legal or *fill in name of department that wants control here*.

It’s like fighting over who owns the telephone.

Social media is a tool that might be employed successfully by many departments. It needs to be a child of a greater communications plan (which includes marketing, public relations, community relations and heaven knows what else). The communications plan must be a child of the business plan. In other words, good social media serves the goals of the corporation, not one silo or another, and the corporation does not serve social media any more than it does the phone.

I’ve given this a lot of thought over the past two years. I think there’s a collision happening among the disciplines, a communications ‘mash-up’ in Internet parlance. Call it ‘PublicReMarkVertising’. Ask yourself – is a facebook ad for a job advertising or social media? Yes it is. Is a social media release on an environmental program PR, engagement, or marketing? Yes it is.

The main reason the silos between marketing, advertising and public relations exist in the first place is a factor of old media production. You did PR because you needed journalists to write stuff your intended public would absorb. You booked ads because the audience was captive in mainstream media. You distinguished between marketing and PR because one was strategic with an eye to paid media and the other was strategic with an eye to earned media. But now there’s owned media, and un-owned media.

The Internet is changing the old production-based silos, breaking down the barriers. It isn’t pretty, it is disruptive, and as the disciplines shift, the turf wars heat up. Eventually it all has to blend. Public relations, marketing and advertising have always been about talking to people to get them to think about (your) stuff, they’re just now merging as they must.

I look forward to the day we see vice presidents of PublicReMarkVertising blending the best of all three disciplines. On second thought, maybe we should disguise that as VP Communications.

Doug Lacombe

President of Calgary social media agencycommunicatto

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