Why Social Media Leadership Won’t Come from Public Relations Teams

Steve Rubel of Edelman wrote a post the other day that got me thinking. His premise was that social media specialists will no longer exist in the near future. Given what we do at Ignite Social Media (we are social media specialists after all), I disagreed, but I’d like to explain why it would be both unnatural and unlikely for social media thought leadership to come from public relations agencies.

Let me start by saying, I’m not against PR firms in the slightest. I worked for years in PR and marketing before getting the idea to build Ignite. So I understand it well enough to see the differences in goals, methods and skill sets between the disciplines, but I do it out of great respect for both.

Divergence is the most powerful force in the universe

Charles Darwin noted that “the Great Tree of Life” grew because branches divided, or diverged. In their 2004 book,Darwin's Tree of LifeThe Origin of Brands, Al and Laura Ries note that “the Great Tree of Products and Services” also grows by divergence of existing categories.

  • Where first there were computers, that branch split into mainframes, personal computers, laptop computers and handheld computers;
  • Where first there was television, now there is analog and digital television, regular/EDTV/HDTV, satellite/cable/IPTV and even Joost.
  • Where first there was coffee, that branch split into freeze dried, decaf, organic, fair trade, gourmet, cappuccino, lattes and more. Even food categories diverge.

As the world progresses, it gets more complicated, not less. And with every split in the tree branches, there is a new leadership opportunity. It’s almost never the brand leaders who cause the split and almost never the brand leaders who emerge as leaders in the new area.

That’s why (the old) AT&T used to lead on landlines, then cellular came out and new brands like Cingular and Verizon led the way. (Remember when AT&T Mobile folded up shop completely). Then IP phones came out and companies like Vonage took off. Now a new AT&T (really in name only) had to come around and buy its way back in the game. They certainly didn’t innovate.

Nature favors divergence, but entrenched leaders don’t diverge because they usually can’t. It’s against their business interests because divergence is disruptive.

It would be unnatural for public relations firms to provide social media leadership. Just as we have SEO firms (which, one could argue, should’ve been done by PR firms if they were effective “catch all” public stewards of a brand), so shall we have social media agencies and social media specialists. Website development should have/could have been “owned” by advertising agencies, but we saw web development leadership in the late 90s come from new fast growth companies.

Does this mean that no social media people will work at PR firms, or on PR teams in companies? Of course not, lines are never that crisp and clear.  But social media thought leadership (meaning the best work, the coolest innovations) will not come from those firms. Here’s why:

Social Media Leadership Will Come from Social Media Specialists

Social media is one-part public relations. But it’s also one part SEO (not PR agencies’ strengths), one part usability design (not PR agencies’ strength), one part programming (again, not), one part customer service (ditto, although arguable) and one part anthropology/sociology (which PR people can be pretty good at). To do some blog posts, or blog pitches, or leave comments in social networks, you can be a PR person.

But to maximize the likelihood for breakthroughs in social media marketing (meaning to figure out the very best, coolest, most effective ways to pull all these parts together and then to implement it correctly), you should pull a team of folks from all those disciplines together and have them think about nothing else. Have them learn and practice the rules of social media marketing. Have them twist and contort the tracking tools, the analytics tools, the widget tools in new ways.  Have them understand the assets you have in social media marketing and how different they are from your assets in a PR campaign. That’s exactly what a social media agency is, at least how we’ve defined it at Ignite.Quote

This process of divergence never stops. At some point in the next 5 years or so, even social media agencies will begin to specialize. Just as PR firms now have specialist shops in investor relations, technology PR, analyst relations, crisis management and countless other niches, so shall we see specialties within social media.

Five years hence, Steve’s company will likely still be a major player in PR. But there will be new major players leading the way in social media marketing agencies. I can’t guarantee one of those will be Ignite (although we’re working on it), but I can guarantee you that (a) they will exist and (b) they won’t be the big PR brand names–not unless those folks write a big check to buy an innovative specialist firm (which they might).

It’s not personal. It’s not that they’re not nice folks or smart folks. It’s just laws of nature.

What do you think? Am I right? Is this a new specialty? Or is Steve right, and companies like Ignite won’t lead the way? Let me know in the comments section and, generally, what your background is.

Ignite Social Media