The Use of Social Media in PR Practice
By Wole Olaoye
Social media as defined by Wikipedia, are computer-mediated technologies that facilitate the creation and sharing of information, ideas, career interests and other forms of expression via virtual communities and networks.
The new wave of social media could make or mar our lives. There is no critical sector of national life that can function properly today without paying due attention to social media. Society is very different from what it was a couple of decades ago. Let’s step back in time a little and consider what would have been the requirement of a Public Relations personnel some years ago.
If you were to write a list of competencies required of new entrants into a PR unit or department, you would probably include things like ability to write well; familiarity with cameras; contacts and familiarity with journalists; ability to type (the typewriter was one of the ancestors of today’s computer); ability to address a gathering; etc. If you were to draw up a similar list today, there is no doubt that you would include ability to use social media. That question becomes even more important when one considers the fact that technological convergence has led to the integration of different tools in one handheld device called the mobile phone which also serves as camera, clock, radio, tv, mini cinema, video camera, computer and post office.
The convenience and speed of the new technology could only have been the stuff of James Bond movies many years ago. But that is our reality today. And it comes with serious challenges for every profession, especially Public Relations.
The first bus stop of contemporary PR professionals in promoting their viewpoints, launching campaigns, managing crisis, or defending reputations — is the social media. You can no longer sit back and wait until you address a press conference when your organisation is being rubbished on social media. These days, a well composed tweet, or WhatsApp message, or even photographic posting on Instagram will go a long way because of the multiplier effect of those media.
Within a few hours, a lot of damage control can be done. We are in a world where we cannot possibly do without social media. The technological innovation has now led to a social revolution of sorts where virtual relationships exist side-b-side with good old interpersonal relationships. If anyone still has any doubt about the inevitability of the use of social media, consider the following:
• If Wikipedia were a book it would be more than two billion pages. (Source: IACP)
• The average user of a social networking site has more close ties and is half as likely to be socially isolated as the average American. (Source: Pew)
• If Facebook were a country, it would be the third largest in the world. (Source: Socialnomics)
• 1 in 5 new couples met online. (Source: Socialnomics)
• Social media has overtaken porn as the #1 activity on the web. (Source: Search Engine Journal)
• YouTube has more than a billion unique users per month which equates to nearly half of all internet users. (Source: IACP)
• There are over 10 million Facebook apps. (Source: Search Engine Journal)
• Emails with social sharing buttons increase click-through rates by 158%. (Source: CeBIT)
• 1 in 5 divorces involve social media. (Source: Socialnomics)
• Each minute, 150,000 messages are sent on Facebook. (Source: IACP)
• 43% of online adults over the age of 65 use social networking sites. (Source: IACP)
• Users send out 58 million tweets per day, with 9,100 happening every second.(Source:Search Engine Journal)
Every advantage conferred by social media has an equally muscular flip side. But nobody in the modern world can do without social media anymore. Call it a necessary evil. The world is a better place today, partly due to the birth of social media. No serious professional can afford to ignore the advantages of connectivity; entertainment; education; help and advice; information and updates; noble cause; awareness creation; crime fighting and surveillance; community building among interest groups (e.g. golfers). That is the good news.
The bad news is that the social media constitute a novel threat to airmen. Social media sites expose them to unseen external threats more than ever before. Sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter, for example, could constitute unintended avenues for the enemy to cherry-pick personal information about citizens and their movements for nefarious activities.
Many of the Apps in use today always demand additional information from the user such as location, access to contacts list, access to photos and permission to use gathered information for whatever purpose the app designer deems fit. A professional has to be circumspect in this regard.
Using social media militias could enable a cyber-offensive act against foreign governments or to spread an ideology widely (as ISIS and Boko Haram are doing). That is why many governments are promoting the growth of internal cyber units composed by specialists who analyse in real time the principal source of interest to monitor a global situation from cyber space, like a cybereye on the real world. For fuller details , go to http://resources.
infosecinstitute.com/social- media-use-in-themilitary- sector/
The massive reach of social media makes them ideal for governments and intelligence agencies, especially the military. The US, Russia and China are frontrunners in the use of social media to advance military operations such as Psychological Operations (PsyOps), OS Int, Cyber espionage and other Offensive purposes.
WhatsApp is the most popular app in Nigeria with about 60-70% use by those with internet access. In fact, WhatsApp is gradually taking over the role of newspapers. The app boasts 1.5 billion monthly active users, 55 billion messages sent daily, 4.5 billion photos shared daily, 1 billion videos shared daily and it supports 60 languages.
Fears mount over WhatsApp’s role in spreading fake news.App blamed for circulating false information in India, Brazil, Kenya and now the UK. Consumers around the world are reading less news on Facebook and are increasingly turning to WhatsApp.
Abijeet Nath and Nilotpal Das were driving back from a visit to a waterfall in the Indian province of Assam earlier this month when they stopped in a village to ask for directions. The two men were pulled out of their car and beaten to death by a mob who accused them of stealing children. “The villagers got suspicious of the strangers as for the last three or four days messages were going around on WhatsApp, as well as through words of mouth, about child lifters roaming the area,” Mukesh Agrawal, a local police officer said. Indian police have linked dozens of murders and serious assaults to rumours spread on the messaging service in recent months.
In Brazil, WhatsApp has been blamed for a yellow fever outbreak after being used to spread anti-vaccine videos and audio messages. In Kenya, WhatsApp group admins have been described as a major source of politically motivated fake news during recent elections. And there are signs that the messaging service is being used as a conduit for misinformation in the UK.
New analysis by the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute found that consumers around the world are reading less news on Facebook and are increasingly turning to WhatsApp.
“In some sense it’s not that dissimilar to ordinary conversations but what makes it different is the speed with which these things can spread,” said Nic Newman, who co-wrote the report.
“The reasons why people are moving to these spaces is because they get more privacy. If you’re in an authoritarian regime you can use it to talk safely about politics – but it can also be used for nefarious means.”
Newman said WhatsApp’s privacy settings make it difficult to ascertain the scale of misinformation on the service: “It’s very early days but I’ve got a hunch this is going to become a much bigger story.” WhatsApp lets users send messages, links, pictures and videos to other users. Unlike Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, it has no algorithm deciding which content is shown to users, no ability for outside companies to buy adverts and discussion happens within private groups.
This should in theory make it harder to manipulate and there is little chance of a large scale Cambridge Analytica-style scandal. But its use of end-to-end encryption means that no one – not even the creators of the app – can intercept and monitor messages between users. This has angered government officials around the world – including in Britain – who want to have the ability to monitor potentially illegal behaviour. But it also makes it near-impossible for WhatsApp to intercept misinformation being shared.
Even measuring how a story spreads on WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook but run as an independent business, is nearly impossible.
“People don’t want to put themselves in the public domain by putting something publicly on Facebook and Twitter, but there’s still need for humans to gossip and share communication,” said Camilla Wright, who has run the Popbitch email newsletter since 2000 and tracked the evolution of online gossip.
“People are sending things to each other on email again and on WhatsApp,” she explained, drawing parallels with the
round-robin letters and private forums that existed before Face book and Twitter. “It’s much more in tune in with how humans have evolved to gossip because it feels like you’re telling people on a one-to-one level. The closed WhatsApp group is the modern water cooler or school gate.”
The sense that news is being provided in secret by a friend – who got it from their friend, who claims to have got it from their friend, who claims to be in the know – is part of the appeal and only adds to the credibility of rumours.
British users got a taste for this recently when a rumour spread that David and Victoria Beckham were about to announce their divorce. Much of the speculation, which was strongly denied by the Beckhams, came from a
series of screen-grabbed messages that spread through WhatsApp, allegedly from people in the PR industry who had the inside track.
For its part the messaging service is aware that it is dealing with a growing problem, which has already prompted the growth of fact-checking services in countries such as Mexico.
A WhatsApp spokesperson said some people used the app to spread harmful misinformation. “We’ve made it easy to block a phone number with just one tap – and are constantly evolving our tools to block automated content. We’re working to give people more control over private groups, which remain strictly limited in size. We’re also stepping up our education efforts so that people know about our safety features, as well as how to spot fake news and hoaxes.”
But veterans of the online news business see the private nature of the service as being perfect for unmediated gossip. “People feel much more comfortable sharing important things through WhatsApp,” said Wright. “It’s that feeling of being in on a secret that people love.”
As a general rule, every responsible PR professional ought to seriously consider the following:
• You are responsible for what you post.
• Consider how a post can be (mis)interpreted.
• Maintain appropriate communications.
• Social Media for Families (don’t mix official with private)
• Do not post your exact whereabouts if occupying a sensitive position.
• Be careful about posting children’s photos, names, and schools.
• Be image aware. Not all fabrics should be dried in the sun.
• Let your children and wards know they should seek help for cyber-bullying.
• Do not post classified information.
• Stay in your line of core competence.
• Obey applicable laws.
• Differentiate between opinion and official information.
• Use best judgment.
• Replace error with fact.
• Be image aware.
• Avoid the offensive.
• Do not violate privacy, copyright and trademarks.
• Do not make unverifiable endorsements.
• Do not impersonate.
There is no limit to the good that can be wrought by the use of social media — if positively deployed. In the area of education, information, entertainment and surveillance, social media could not have come at a better time. Indeed, there is a sense in which it can be argued that the general public is much more informed (and misinformed) today than 20 years ago.
As Public Relations practitioners, it is our responsibility to ensure that we do not join in the craze of using social media to spread panic, false information, libel, pornography or hate. In managing our clients’ reputation or protecting their brands, it is essential that the only route we subscribe to is the ethical one. The PR tools of yore may be old fashioned today, but truth will never go out of fashion. The ball is now in the court of PR practitioners to identify key proactive actions that would enable their client navigate the challenging path of social media in order to get the best out of the revolutionary trend.
In the coming years, the extent to which we responsibly deploy social media in our work and our private lives will determine the extent to which the new tool will be a force for good and not a harbinger of social dislocation.
Wole Olaoye, a PR Practitioner par excellence with rich national and international experience is the Chairman, Diametrics Limited, a newspaper columnist, Fellow, IIPR, Fmr. Editor, Drum & Life Magazine, Fmr. Director, Academy Press, OAU Investment Limited, as well as Fmr. Member, Governing Council, OAU, Ile Ife.