Don’t Fire Your PR Consultant: Evidence that the Public Relations Industry has Overcome Challenges in Social Media Marketing

In 2010 Watson Helsby outlined ten challenges facing the PR industry in a comprehensive report titled Digital Communications and Social Media: The Challenges Facing the PR Industry.  The underlying theme of two of these challenges was a general lack of understanding and/ or skepticism of digital communications and social media among business leaders.  Below, I will outline these two challenges, which Watson Helsby presented, and offer examples of how the PR industry has recently overcome these challenges.



Challenge #1. The aforementioned report noted that the old guard in the PR world lacked understanding when it came to the consequences (both good and bad) of losing editorial control.  Watson Helsby explained this challenge by noting, “unlike traditional media, online content doesn’t (generally) have to pass any editorial control and whilst journalists are used to having to make judgments on what is and isn’t a story, consumers don’t have to worry about making such judgments” (p. 14).  In other words, whereas in the past a corporation had a great deal of control over its reputation with traditional media by feeding the system closely monitored and expertly crafted press releases, in today’s world of social media anyone can self-publish nearly anything about a corporation without its knowing.  Additionally, because research has shown that people trust content coming from their peers over corporate communication (Bernoff & Li, 2011, p. 132), some PR professionals saw this challenge over editorial control as a breaking point in their industry.


Challenge #2. Likewise, Watson Helsby reported that some PR and marketing professionals were skeptical about how the return on investing their time with new media could be measured.  Since the effectiveness of campaigns used in traditional media were measured by using well understood metrics, which included frequency and reach, a way in which to measure social media was unclear.  As suggested in the Watson Helsby report, instead of using metrics “towards measuring one-off campaigns,” PR professionals “need to make analysis more relevant to the ongoing dialogue used in social media” (p. 20).  Nevertheless, this challenge translated into a general skepticism in the PR industry, because it was questioned whether it was possible to provide such an analysis.


Alas, as formidable as these challenges sounded in the 2010 Watson Helsby report, there are already sure signs of success in the digital communications arena among PR departments in major corporations.


Overcoming Challenge #1.  For example, as a way to combat the first challenge with consumer-published content as discussed above, PR professionals are becoming masters at creating an impressive amount of sponsored content.  While it was mentioned that consumers trust other consumers’ content, the PR industry has found that there is still space for corporately-driven content that has an authentic and transparent look and feel.  Josh Sternberg (2013) of Digiday explained that a good example of such content is when PR professionals at the National Dairy Council ran a “piece about how milk can ‘break the cycle of poverty’ for kids” (para. 7).  The article, which ran on and The Washington Post, was paid content, but had the look and feel of an editorial piece.


Overcoming Challenge #2.  Similarly, the PR industry has overcome what seemed like a formidable challenge when trying to measure the ROI of new media by insisting that regardless of the direct return, not participating in social media is out of the question.  This conclusion is not only held among those in the PR industry though; major corporations actively participate in social media, but admit “there remains little evidence social media does anything to boost brands’ bottom lines” (Marshall, 2013, para. 2).  In fact, Erich Marx, director of digital marketing at Nissan, was quoted in a July 15, 2013 article in Digiday as saying “We don’t think about the ROI of social; we think about the cost of ignoring it.”


Therefore, although consumer generated content might always be considered more trustworthy than sponsored editorial pieces, and even though business leaders will continue to strive to develop workable metrics to measure ROI on their investment in the social landscape, there is evidence that challenges the PR industry was facing three years ago have been successfully overcome.  PR specialists have become effective at shaping the news by creating compelling, sponsored content, and the skepticism over whether or not participating in new media can contribute to direct sales, for at least the time being, is not seen as a reason to not develop robust social media marketing plans.



Bernoff, J. & Li, C. (2011). Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social


Technologies. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review.


Marshall, J. (2013). Why Brands Don’t Sweat Social ROI. Digiday. Retrieved from


Sternberg, J. (2013). PR Nudges Its Way to the Content Table. Digiday. Retrieved from


Watson Helsby. (2010). Digital Communications and Social Media: The Challenges Facing the


PR Industry. Retrieved from



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Ethan McCarty

Digital strategy | Social business | People-centric biznology

Alana Harris Photography

some of my favorite photos and their stories


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