For years, those who toil in the world of public relations have hung their hat on the unique craft necessary to help shape and control the message. We’ve spent years mastering the nuances of different industries. We know just who to call when the need strikes, and although we sometimes get a bad rap, public relations is integral to business success at all levels.

When social media platforms exploded onto the mobile devices of people everywhere, we worked quickly to master that, too. For years we’ve used tools like Twitter, Facebook, and other new digital mediums to get our messages through to the public. However, a recent client experience has us thinking more deeply about the role of social media and the impact this communications channel can have on an entire issue and message. Let’s take a deeper look.

Should PR professionals fear social media?

Picture this. You’re a reputable company with award-winning products and services, and a great track record in the community. Out of the blue, a customer shares a story on social media about a horrible experience that allegedly took place within your organization. People react, stones are cast, and the story is shared thousands of times. If you work in PR, you’re probably already thinking of the list of things you’d do in this situation. In any case, this is a perfect example of the way these platforms can create a crisis out of what may be thin air. This situation may have never even happened, but to the thousands who engaged with the story, it is very much real. Situations like this can create more work for PR professionals and can negatively impact brand reputation.

Impressions from public relations experts

I spoke with a number of PR experts on our team to get a handful of diverse perspectives on the issue at hand. What did they think about the way social media impacts the industry?

Social media is great—until people mess with the facts

Dante Bellini Jr., EVP and Partner at RDW Group shared, “[Social media] impacts the conversation to a great degree. And depending on the nature of the issue can, in turn, impact the course of the earned media. Facebook is the forum for citizen journalists to weigh in and pontificate even, as we have seen, absent any facts or even the wrong facts. Twitter is a forum where credentialed members of the media are sharing, discussing and editorializing on pertinent issues. Of course, it’s not always negative or slanted but in this present divisive and “gotcha” environment, social media rarely helps the PR side on issue-based ‘news’.” He adds that social media is an asset for topics more promotional or pure informational in nature, rather than what should be more properly vetted and objectively delivered…news.

Social media can help support your PR pitch

Account Executive Giselle Mahoney tends to agree with Dante when it comes to how social media affects news coverage. “If it is something controversial, then social can be a potential liability, as it becomes an open forum for folks to share their own thoughts and opinions; even those posts can sometimes become a whole news article in itself. So while you are able to control the exact message you put out on social, you are not at all able to control the message you get back. And of course, deleting messages you don’t like isn’t a great option (or sometimes it’s not an option at all depending on who you are).” Removing posts or blocking users can lead to legal trouble for your organization.

Giselle continues, “Social media is a form of digital influence. Creating buzz around a product or service on social media can help give “proof” to reporters that the story is one their audiences would be interested in. The social media buzz supports the argument you are making to the reporter in your pitch. Note: you are still not able to control other people’s posts, but we’ve seen many times where champions of the product or company will step in to answer other people’s questions or correct posts which are inaccurate.” All of this lends itself to the idea that social media is an excellent listening tool. You can gauge public sentiment, identify misconceptions, and adjust your messaging based on these findings.

Managing a PR crisis on social media isn’t always comfortable

Public Relations Director Michael Masseur also shared his thoughts on the topic. He noted a challenge from the agency side of managing client expectations as it relates to social media activity and the implications (real or perceived) for media coverage. “…sometimes we have to make field judgments and that can be unsettling for a client (and for the PR pros, too). Seeing a social conversation gaining momentum can make anyone nervous, but it’s important to identify the potential courses for action and the corresponding reactions. Sometimes our counsel is to do nothing about the social content itself, but simply be prepared to respond should the conversation make its way to the mainstream media or to our client’s social media properties.” As you can imagine, these situations can be hard to grasp as brand managers. But ultimately, it’s our job as consultants and partners to provide the best possible advice, even if it’s not what someone may want to hear.

Organizations should depend on social to disseminate important information

When it comes to sharing important organizational information, Jay Conway, SVP/Partner explained, “Social becomes an important communications channel when making an announcement, especially a sensitive announcement. There are some schools of thought to post your news release on social before distributing to the press to help control the message unfiltered. Though I don’t espouse to this as a regular course of action (naturally, there are always exceptions), it raises the question of timing within the same context of the chronology of telling your employees, telling your customers, telling key gatekeepers, and, yes, telling your ‘friend’ base. The social channel is a big part of the news distribution strategy. From my perspective, it’s important to make case-by-case decisions on when and how to use social with news items…but it must be part of the mix. And, I feel that it is a great channel for flushing out misinformation and correcting the record.” He continues, “Two-way public dialogue is always risky, but PR practitioners have to think strategically about how to use social, applying the basic tenets of our business…are we proactive or reactive.”

So, what’s the verdict?

Social media provides two-way communication opportunities, which can have a positive or negative impact. Positive because of the ways we can reach so many stakeholders with our message, better connect with the media, and interact with our audience. When we think of the negative impacts, they are few. Of course, the spread of misinformation is threatening to any organization. But at the end of the day, it is clear the beneficial aspects of social media outweigh the risks. The most important thing you can do is prepare yourself. Work with a consultant you trust, or develop the capabilities in-house to be in a position to react the right way. While in the moment a social media crisis may seem like the end of the world, ultimately, it’s actionable. Stay calm and level-headed. Try to see the whole field. The stronger your presence before the situation, the more easily you can manage it. Don’t let the fear of striking out keep you from taking advantage of one of the most impactful communications tools of this generation.