Social PR – An Interview With Shonali Burke


The evolution of “social PR,” as Shonali Burke calls it, has changed the way organizations value relationships.

At my first job as an AAE at a PR agency, I was taught by my managers to do mass mail merges with Microsoft Word. The thought alone still gives me nightmares! So many innocent journalists, spammed by me!

Today, in the digital age of PR, and with the help of social media, relationship-building strategies are much more valued (and understood).

In many ways PR is moving closer to marketing and marketing is moving closer to PR. Influencer marketing, specifically, is a practice that blurs the line between PR and marketing. A focus on strategic relationship building with influencers who can move the needle for your brand, measured by lead-driven metrics like website visits, downloads, social shares… is this PR or marketing, or perhaps “social PR”? The practice of influencer marketing isn’t contained to one job title, rather taken on by those who understand the value of relationships.

I talked to Shonali, the ultimate source of PR knowledge, about how the digital evolution has changed PR, relationship building strategies, and this new “social PR”.

1. What are some of the noticeable differences in PR since the introduction of social media?

I wouldn’t say it’s been specifically since the advent or, rather, the explosion of social media, but one of the biggest differences in PR in the digital age is the significantly increased ability to measure what’s meaningful. Don’t get me wrong; there’s still a lot of half-assery going on, but more and more, I see not just curiosity around smart metrics, but the willingness to roll up one’s sleeve and do it.

The difference that social media specifically has made to PR is, in my opinion, the advent of what I call “social PR” – the ability to rapidly spark and facilitate online conversations between organizations and their publics, that can lead to significant results.

Whether your work focuses on government relations, advocacy, member communications, media relations… social media is part of everyone’s job.

2. What is the most helpful use of social media for PR?

Connecting with relevant influencers is what PR pros do; to a large extent PR pros are still focused on media influencers, but what “social PR” brings to the table is the ability to connect with a wide range of influencers.

Now, just because you *can* connect with a relevant influencer doesn’t mean they will respond to you. So one of the best uses of social media for PR is to engage in effective listening; pay attention to the conversations taking place among, and generated by, the people you’re trying to reach, so that you can appropriately add to the conversation at some point. And that’s when the real connections start happening.

3. What are some tips for setting up a social listening “machine” for media targets?

I prefer to call it a “listening dashboard” (and do, with my students!).

Any kind of listening first comes down to smart keywords and keyword phrases. So, for example, you could use these to set up lists (Twitter, Google+, Facebook, Pinterest… the possibilities are endless, though they may be called different names on the different networks) of any media who might be covering your focus area.

Or, you could set up lists dedicated to specific media, if you already know who they are. I think Twitter especially is great for this, because of how easy it is to find people.

There are any number of permutations and combinations, but at the end of the day you have to figure out what is most useful to you, and focus on that.

While I truly believe there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, there’s always a way to openly and sincerely listen.

4. Is it ever ok to pitch over social media?

It depends; when relevant, depending on the preference of the person you’re pitching, and the relationship you have with them.

My typical M.O. would be to say, “Hey, I have something I think you’ll be interested in; what’s the best way to get the info to you?” And then respond accordingly. I’ve had the most success following that format.

Social PR is not simply about pitching reporters via Twitter. So if that’s all you’re using Twitter for, you’re missing out.

5. Do you have an example of success with relationship building via social media? 

Too many to name! We’ve been able to successfully pitch and interact with relevant media for former clients like Cision and Kimbia‘s Give Local America; we’ve been able to do everything from secure high-profile media as event participants, to getting our client’s info in front of them by smart listening and then appropriately offering the client up.

6. Now the reverse… do you have an example of old school PR tactics that aren’t as successful these days (e.g. the mail merge!)

Old-school PR tactics that drive me nuts: do you really want to get me started?

Blanket pitching via email blasts is probably the biggest offender. That’s #8 on this post I wrote a while back, and there are a ton more on that list!

What is sad is that while I don’t think you earn quality coverage via the “spray and pray” method, there are enough bloggers and content farms out there, that someone or other *will* bite.

So then these people can cite blah “blah blah impressions” or “media value” (I can’t STAND that) as “success”… and gullible clients eat it up. Which brings us full circle to the half-assery I mentioned at the beginning!

Building relationships with influencers is a process that should not be compromised. Social media is your best friend in this journey, but the big numbers won’t come quickly. Discovering your influencers, listening to their social channels, and tracking and managing your relationship progress all takes time. It’s a fundamental shift in the PR practice, from the quick one-and-done pitch-focused tactics of the past; but it’s a shift to quality work that gets real results.