Social Media Policy is Comin’ to Town…

Sorry, now that it’s past Thanksgiving, I couldn’t resist the holiday pun…


It’s been a crazy couple years in the PR industry. While we millennials were preoccupied domesticating the newest technology, PR companies got the rug pulled out from under them with the rise of social media. Or so I learned at my summer internship. And while the PR agency for which I interned was on top of its game, that can’t be said for everyone.

Deirdre Breakenridge’s Social Media and Public Relations seeks to help technologically impaired companies dip their toes into the brave new world of social media. This guide provides step-by-step instructions on how to use the latest technical affordances. Breakenridge breaks her advice down into eight meticulous, yet repetitive, strategies for implementing social media with core PR practices.

Having PR experience, I expected to breeze through the chapters. But surprisingly I found myself feeling duped. D2i pinpointed this discrepancy in targeted audience. We found the content disappointingly vague and abstract. Social media terms were “dumbed down” for perplexed PR professionals, yet PR terms weren’t “dumbed down” enough for a communications student. If I felt dissatisfied with the PR definitions, I wonder if old-fashioned PR pros felt equally dissatisfied with the social media definitions. With such a sweeping title, it might’ve been helpful to consider all potential readers (even Alice Marwick & Danah Boyd’s, “nightmare readers” from “I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience”). What if I were technologically challenged AND new to PR? The two sides aren’t mutually exclusive.

Breakenridge’s goal is simple: for any reader (of high or low ranking) to drive the tech revolution in their company. I find this idealistic but unrealistic. All it takes is a technologically deterministic-boss to shoot it down. She’s adamant that all companies must adapt, only briefly acknowledging that some may not have the means. I can’t help but apply Nancy Baym’s concept of the “digital divide” (Personal Connections in the Digital Age). So some companies don’t have access to sophisticated social monitoring tools. Does that mean they’re useless?

Breakenridge divides the book into ten chapters, but I condensed the material into four key concepts and my corresponding thoughts. Overall it’s worth noting that ALL PR is immaterial labor being cultural capital used to influence viewpoints… even if compensated, as d2i discovered (Tiziana Terranova, “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy”). Patrick Domingo and Alexis Donitz agree that Erving Goffman’s “impression management” is equally abundant, including the unmanageable factors of signs “given” and “given off” (from Sun Sun Lim, Shobha Vadrevu, Yoke Hian Chan, and Iccha Basnyat’s “Facework on Facebook: The Online Publicness of Juvenile Delinquents and Youths-at-Risk”).

There’s No “Tech-Determinist” in Team

Brands must keep a consistent representation in which PR companies are constantly evaluating and updating. Caity Gray, Ryan Elsman, Stephanie Diggles, and I noticed how Anthony Giddens’ “reflexive project of the self” could enhance this idea, viewing a PR team as one solid being (referenced in Zizi Papacharissi’s “Without You, I’m Nothing: Performances of the Self on Twitter”). This begins with internal communication. Breakenridge insists that all employees be on board with company social media policy. But she overlooks the complications of conflicting viewpoints. How do you convince what Baym identifies as a technological determinist to believe in social shaping? Breakenridge seems to lean toward social shaping: employees work side-by-side with machines’ affordances by creating content. Social media improves traditional PR practices, it doesn’t change them. D2i recognized this, except Melisa Demaestri and Stephanie, who identified a more technologically deterministic standing. Breakenridge could build on her basic communication concept by asking WHY people think the way they do about technology.

I speculate whether Breakenridge considered that everyone may not know each other, having “latent ties” (Caroline Haythornthwaite, “Social Networks and Internet Connectivity Effects”). Before any collaboration can be augmented through Don Slater’s “disembedding” (noted by Caity, Alexis, Melisa, and Antonia Iragorri), everyone must meet and greet (“Social Relationships and Identity Online and Offline”).

Smile, Your Internet Activity Is on Candid Camera!

Nowadays, PR companies must monitor what customers/stakeholders are saying online in order to meet expectations. Via “listening,” companies know how long people stay on links, which sites they visited beforehand, and other click-through data. However Caity and I find her ignorance of the offline world troubling. Not everyone does their bad (or good) mouthing online. It was odd that Breakenridge didn’t acknowledge this as a privacy breach, something Kaitlin Gu also observed. D2i unanimously agreed that reading up on Lee Humphreys’ controversial “surveillance” would put “listening” in a more sensitive perspective (“Who’s Watching Whom? A Study of Interactive Technology and Surveillance”). Humphreys’ definition is spot-on: the collecting of data about a person/group with the aim of managing them. Breakenridge unknowingly defends herself from what Patrick sees as Michel Foucault’s panopticon by underlining that companies are looking at patterns of data, not specific individuals.

Screen shot by the author, November 25th, 2013

It’s not only the public whose privacy is invaded. She mentions how PR employees should speak on behalf of their company. Patrick, Melisa, and I discussed this over Twitter, noting the contentious point that employees seem to become company property, expected to advertise on their own SNSs – free labor when off the clock (Terranova). It’s unclear WHEN they’re speaking for the company: at home, work, both? In this case employees would never be able to “disembody” (Slater) from a work to personal identity. Breakenridge suggests that companies silently spy on their employees’ SNSs. This could be enhanced by Baym’s discussion of lurking, something d2i thought was out-of-bounds.

Influencers Can Do Everything You Can Do Better

PR companies alone can only do so much for their brands. Influencers – a term I learned at my internship! – with large audiences, audience engagement, and relevance can do miracles if they adopt your brand. Stephanie, Caity, and I could see potential for Zeynep Tufekci’s discussion of the “attention economy,” since audience is viewed as a commodity (“Not This One: Social Movements, the Attention Economy, and Microcelebrity Networked Activism”). Breakenridge doesn’t seem to see the possibility of false influencers whose followers are mostly bought, though. Further enrichment would come from Baym’s argument that people trust information coming from a place other than the source because it seems more authentic (seen by Stephanie, too). Influencers also have a large reach (Baym), which makes them even more useful, according to Caity.

Of course, to get there, Breakenridge provides steps for forming strong relationships. Haythornthwaite’s concept of “strong ties” and “media multiplexity” would work better here, as opposed to her manual that can read as a cold approach to online friendships (like questioning “Friend” vs. “friend”).

Putting on a Human Face Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Combining the last two concepts, Breakenridge sees the advantage of communicating with the public in ways that weren’t possible before. Slater’s “disembedding” allows this, a theory she would do well to incorporate. “Disembedding,” paired with a lack of Baym’s social cues, neutralizes differences online that would be social deal-breakers offline. So, like an older man can court a twenty-something on OkCupid, PR companies can convince the public that they’re friends and disregard power relations. Still, like that older man who probably posted a deceiving picture on his profile, companies must “perform” a more likeable identity by adopting a human face. Once again, no recognition is given to the contentious quality of this strategy.

Caity, Patrick, and I noticed that this choice of persona appeals to Marwick & Boyd’s “lowest common denominator.” People prefer talking to other people and so will be more apt to share opinions. A discussion of Papacharissi’s “performativity” would dissect the authenticity obstacles that arise, as Stephanie, Melisa, Ryan, Alexis, and Caity also observed. Additionally, like Marwick & Boyd’s discussion of celebrity Twitter practices in “To See and Be Seen: Celebrity Practice on Twitter”, PR companies create a sense of fake intimacy, especially in conversing with the public like friends through bi-directional ties (Nicole Ellison & Danah Boyd, “Sociality Through Social Network Sites”). Eventually they can capitalize on these blooming strong ties for social capital (Caity, Kaitlin, Alison Emmes, Melisa, Alexis). But only after considerable social grooming. It all seems so mechanical.

In the end, I think it’s fair to say that Breakenridge’s book gives good advice for the unknowledgeable PR professional looking to up his/her game. But for a communications student conversant in social media theory, I see too many holes to ignore. It’s not her fault… it’s my brain’s for not being able to shut off.


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