Paul Holmes 18 Oct 2010 // 9:16AM GMT
My first instinct on reading Tom Martin’s Advertising Age column explaining why advertising agencies should “own” social media was to keep my mouth shut. My wife says this is an instinct I should follow more often. In this case, I figured that if advertising agencies actually bought into Martin’s view of social media then public relations firms could sleep a lot more peacefully. But many clients remain relatively unsophisticated about social media, and there’s a chance that some of them might actually buy Martin’s reasoning, so it’s probably worth taking a quick look at the case he makes. The core of Martin’s case is that “so much of what you see in social media is the creation of stories, content, photos, videos, information and entertainment. Now I'm not tossing aside the customer-engagement aspect of social media—that is and will always be the heart and power of the channel. But frankly, that part isn't really all that hard. After all, most of us have grown up talking to other people, so it's not like finding people who know how to talk to other people and actually care about what the customer is saying is all that hard.” There’s just a hint of arrogance in this. Roughly translated, Martin seems to be saying: “What you do well is so easy, anyone who wasn’t raised by wolves could do it; what I do is so difficult that without innate brilliance and decades of experience, it’s pretty much impossible.” But the reality is that if you look at companies that have made big mistakes in the social media realm, the problem has not been their inability to create compelling content, it has been their inability to interact in a transparent, authentic and credible way with consumers and other stakeholders. Which might make a more reflective person pause to question whether this “social” stuff is quite as easy as it seems. More broadly, however, his argument seems to me to be just another variation on the idea that social media is simply another channel, that advertisers—and their clients—can quite happily continue doing what they’ve always done: creating entertaining content, presenting it (with an accompanying drum roll) to a captive audience, and then sitting back and waiting for the applause (and the Cannes’ Lion). Even if you accept the argument that social media is all about content, I’d question whether it’s about the kind of content ad agencies are used to providing. Social media value qualities such as authenticity (messages that reflect the deeper character of the company or brand, not some carefully crafted persona); credibility (verifiable information, with third-party endorsement); engagement (the opportunity for consumers and others to “join in” and get involved); and dialogue (delivering a message is only half the task). I’ve said this before, but social media is not just another channel. Social media is people. It's people talking to one another. It's a series of conversations. The people taking part in those conversations are not there to receive your "message"; they're there to participate in a conversation. Martin seems to believe that as long as you ‘re the most entertaining person in the room—the one who knows how to tell great stories—everyone else will shut up and listen to you. But telling great stories is not the same as being a great listener. It’s the latter skill that makes a great conversationalist. I’m not suggesting that advertising agencies cannot develop listening skills (although Martin’s dismissive approach to the “social” aspect of social media would make me more skeptical). Nor am I saying that PR people do not need to get better at content creation. But I will say that when it comes to the things that make social media different—transparency, authenticity, credibility, engagement, dialogue—good PR people ought to have the edge.