There’s not much question that the proliferation of social media has blurred the lines between public relations and marketing content. With the potential to reach millions of consumers and influencers with a single post, Facebook and other social platforms have become vital tools in the arsenal of both disciplines.

And even though their cross-purposes might lead to some confusion among the public, that doesn’t mean companies shouldn’t take advantage of the opportunity to reach such a wide and accessible audience.

“As marketers, I think we get hung up on message hierarchy, or audience, or channel strategies,” said Jasmine Atherton, social media and content lead at Delta Air Lines. “In the end, the customer doesn’t connect those dots. They just like or don’t like what they see, read or watch.

“To the consumer, your content is about a brand – a news clip talking about the brand, a bus shelter advertisement they see on the way to work every day, a tweet from the brand. Each is essentially one of the many touchpoints a consumer has with your brand.”

The key is to ensure your company’s marketing and PR content work together to promote your message, said Cindy Miller, CEO of the Atlanta public relations company Cindy Miller Communications.

“It’s still two different sets of expertise, and tactics can vary widely,” Miller said. “But no doubt they have to be in sync.

“Take Papa John’s, for example,” she noted. “They clearly have a public relations problem right now, but marketing and PR have to work together to get back on track. Tesla, too. Marketing the car is easy, but Elon Musk is a PR challenge.”

When the two areas work together, the power of a company’s content can be magnified through social media.

“We still use a lot of the traditional content channels, but social media holds it all up right now,” Miller said. “Getting your client’s story on the No. 1 news station in your market is still valuable – but even more so now, because it can live many lives through social media.

“Whatever attention you get from your content on other channels, you can amplify it greatly on social media,” she explained.

With more than two billion users on Facebook – more than one billion of them active on any given day – it’s no surprise that many marketers view that platform as their best opportunity to share content. Brands that have Facebook pages post an average of eight times per day, according to a report published by the website Sprout Social, and more than 90 percent of marketers use Facebook advertising regularly.

“You have to fish where the fish are,” Miller said. “Just the sheer numbers make it important. Where there are billions of people, you have to be there.”

Marketing and public relations departments must be careful, however, not to rely solely on the organic reach of Facebook and other platforms, said Brooke Wilson, a senior vice president at Moxie who has worked in both public relations and marketing.

“There’s a question of how much value there is now unless it’s paid,” she said. “Even if you have a Facebook page with thousands of followers, only approximately 2% of them will actually see your post in their feed, because the algorithm doesn’t serve it up – unless you put paid spend behind it. If you don’t ‘boost’ or target a post, it won’t be seen.

“Twitter still has organic exposure, but the problem there is, it moves so fast that not many people have a chance to see it.”

Still, the reach of social media is impossible to ignore. More than 60 million companies now have Facebook business pages, a Brandwatch report said.

“Social media has become an effective vehicle for brand awareness,” said Holly Clifford Corral, president of the Press Marketing agency in Tampa, Fla. “Someone can read a raving PR article on Facebook, resonate with the brand and become a loyal consumer.  A clever marketing campaign can gain PR traction on social, as we’ve seen countless times with brands like Apple, Dove or Airbnb. Consumers become brand ambassadors by sharing content from their favorite brands every day on their social channels.”

Social media also provides the opportunity for marketing departments to “repurpose” content that originated in the public relations department.

“Social media can be used to amplify content that PR produced,” Wilson said. “You can re-share the media content and boost it – earned can actually become paid, which can be very effective in influencing your audience.”

How marketing works with public relations – and understanding the different roles of the two departments – is key, said Mark Braykovich, executive vice president at The Wilbert Group, an Atlanta public relations agency.

“It’s important to remember they are different functions that can complement each other,” he said. “Many companies have PR departments reporting up to Marketing, and I don’t necessarily view that as unhealthy or unworkable. But marketers need to remember that PR has a different mode of operation and what makes for successful marketing (such as a great ad, a brochure, creative website language) doesn’t work on the PR side.”

Professionals from both disciplines stress that difference, and how it influences everything from content strategy to staffing.

“I view marketing as the activity of identifying, conceptualizing and developing a product or service, figuring out how to price it, choosing the best distribution channels, and promoting the hell out of it,” Braykovich said. “PR is generally focused on promoting and protecting brands through (mostly) unpaid placements in traditional and social media.”

Figuring out how the functions work together is important, Clifford Corral said: “Traditionally, marketing and public relations were very church and state. Now, the two are working more closely in tandem than ever before.

“It is essential for companies to understand the distinction between the two yet understand how they function together. Companies should develop both departments and not assume one can cover the other since they really are different specialties.”

Figuring out this dynamic – and how it’s impacted by the use of social media – is changing the way companies develop strategies for delivering content to their target audience.

“Social media content is not only becoming more and more valuable, it’s become the starting point for brands, especially new ones,” Atherton said. “New companies aren’t spending money on content for traditional channels. Revenue and sales are being driven by social – through their content, through influencers talking about their content, or through interesting press coverage.”

New companies, along with smaller, established businesses, use social media to “play up” against bigger competition. Seventy-one percent of small businesses planned to use social media content to attract new customers in 2018, according to a report by Infusionsoft.

“Social media is the content monster,” Miller said. “It levels the field – small companies can compete with big businesses.”

But with that level field comes vulnerability. Reactions appear quickly on social media, and they are not always complimentary. Ninety-six percent of people who talk about brands on social media aren’t following those brands, according to a report by Brandwatch, so they are not necessarily loyal customers.

“Information – good and bad – spreads rapidly,” Miller said. “Everyone has a microphone – lovers and haters. You’re very vulnerable on social media.”

Because of this, social listening becomes a vital function for both marketing and public relations departments.

“It’s important to monitor a social media, and responding to people often is a shared function,” Wilson said. “Someone must direct activity to the proper channel – some posts might go to customer service, some might go to marketing, some might go to PR for crisis control, anytime there is a negative or viral conversation about the brand.

“It can get muddy out there, and someone – or a tool – must get conversations routed to the right department. It’s important to have an overall strategy for who owns what, and with clear roles and purposes for each channel.”

And even when the response is positive, it’s important that a company engage with its followers, Miller said.

“You have to communicate to establish good public relations,” she said. “Inactivity communicates the wrong message. If a company page has thousands of likes and you aren’t regularly posting relevant content, that’s a mistake. It’s a missed opportunity.”

While Facebook gets the most attention, companies must take care not to ignore other platforms. LinkedIn, for example, does not have the same reach as Facebook but still plays an important role in a company’s online content strategy.

“We encourage clients to focus on the individual profiles of executives and influencers rather than a company page,” Wilson said. “If they can gain followers and become known as thought leaders, that’s a great opportunity for a company to reach people.”

The key, Miller said, is to be sure a client or prospect finds you when they go looking. “This is your social media business card,” she said. “When people think about doing business with you, they look for your LinkedIn profile, whether you’re an individual or a company. You don’t have to have conversations on LinkedIn, but you must be there.”

There are other shared content spaces to consider, and companies should be aware of all relevant channels where people engage and share their thoughts.

“Amazon could be considered a social channel because people post reviews and comments there,” Wilson said. “There’s a lot of content on Reddit, but if you don’t know how to appropriately communicate there, it can be dangerous. Depending on the company’s strategy and brand, we often recommend that our clients monitor but not engage.”

The Author

Robert Mashburn is a veteran journalist who has worked at newspapers from Atlanta to Abu Dhabi.

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