Another point of view re: changes in media and what it means for nonprofits

Steve Heath, President and CEO of United Way, weighed in with a reaction to my blog post about changes in nonprofit PR.  Steve was a PR pro before becoming an association exec:

I don’t agree with a number of the premises in your post last Wednesday about how social media is changing PR.

Yes, PR pros absolutely need to understand the new distribution channels and the audiences they reach.

Yes, today’s “big win” in PR would involve broad positive exposure across both traditional and new media.

However, communication today usually needs to be both one-way and two-way—especially on major issues; it is not an either/or.  [To clarify, I saw my “to/from” chart as depicting direction rather than suggesting “either/or” end points.]

Ditto for channel size. Generally, for the kinds of messages an organization would use a PR pro to deliver, the PR pro needs to be using both mass and smaller channels.

No, having new communications channels does not eliminate the need for control of the message. If anything, it heightens the need. Organizations still want/need to speak with one clear, consistent, accurate voice in their public discourse—especially on sensitive issues. The new communications channels don’t erase the fundamental principle of communications, they just challenge us to figure out the best combination of channels to achieve the desired reach and frequency for our messages, marketing or PR. And this is to say nothing of the risk management problems that would occur if inconsistent or inaccurate communications resulted in some sort of injury or loss for members of the target audience.

For the same reasons, the message does still need to be approved by organizational leadership and the guidelines for people communicating the message through new media probably need to be more rigid, not less. The more sensitive the issue, the more important this becomes. There is a natural human tendency to get tired of saying the same thing over and over. If you don’t believe me, look at all the different ways sports writers have invented to say “home run” over the years. Unless guidelines are fairly specific, people will naturally start “freelancing” their own messages—which may or may not be consistent with what the organization is trying to say or how it wants to be perceived. Once an incorrect message is out there, it is virtually impossible to pull back. The old saying about not being able to un-ring a bell is true with new media as well.

Likewise, you can’t have everyone empowered to act as an official spokesperson for an organization. You need people who can stay on message and communicate consistently.

The same is true for materials. The message needs to be consistent whether it is in a traditional news release, a speech, a Facebook posting or a tweet. The new skill PR people need is the ability to cram it into a tweet.

I agree with your last point. The new media do offer the opportunity to use new mediums. On most levels, I think that’s great. I always wanted to be able to deliver audio and video news releases to the broadcast media when I was working in the field. The cost was prohibitive and, often, the video or sound clip would be rejected anyway (in much the same way newspaper editors often disregarded self-serving written news releases). Today’s technologies certainly make it economically feasible to produce materials and the unfiltered Internet certainly makes it easy to get materials out there.

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