‘A picture is worth a thousand words’, goes the often cited saying but the same can be true for a figure if it is chosen well. I learnt this as during this semester my class held debates about controversial issues in PR. I chose to debate about this motion:
“Social media has helped put the public back into public relations: two-way conversations and content sharing have replaced one-way publicity driven communications and media manipulation.”
The motion is based on Grunig and Hunt’s (1984) four models of PR. They argued that the two-way symmetrical model should be used by all PR practitioners. This has been accepted by the Excellence Theory which is the dominant paradigm in today’s PR world.
As I am always on the look-out for articles and blog posts about PR and social media (just check out my Scoop.it page, where I curate the ones I propose to be the most interesting/useful), I have come across the above notion myriads of times. So my natural instinct was ’Yes, that is probably true’ so I went to support the CONTRA side in the debate. (I know, this sounds illogical – I stepped up on the opposite side because I wanted to perfect my debate skills and the best way to do so is to argue against your beliefs.) I argued so well that by the end of the debate I managed to convince myself that two-way communication has a long way to go until it will become reality.
Right now I think that there is a huge gap between reality and the potential of social media for utilising the two-way communication model. The two-way symmetrical model remains, therefore, a normative model as opposed to a positive one. Statistics speak for themselves. I’ll just share two arguments against the motion based on facts.
Firstly, two-way communication on social media has not replaced the one-way model simply because the majority of the people on this planet do not have access to social media. There is a huge digital divide. The number to remember is 61%. For me, it was staggering to learn that 61% of people still do not have access to the Internet, according to ITU. Additionally, of those who have, a lot of people do not have proper social media skills, they do not speak English which is the dominant language on social platforms or simply they just do not care about social media. Brands use Twitter and Facebook the most frequently to interact with their audiences in a two-way manner (if they do at all), yet only 67.66% of Internet users have an active account on Facebook and 43.24% on Twitter, according to GlobalWebIndex. Social media, therefore, is far from being socially inclusive. This is very important to keep in mind when planning a global PR campaign.
Secondly, the basis for two-way symmetrical communication – the one that every PR practitioner should theoretically aim at – is to not only push messages at audiences but to gain feedback and to respond to them so that the interest and preferences of the audiences are served just as well as the organisation’s. A lot of people (if not most of them) are using branded social media as a kind of customer service. They would like to gain information about organisations or they would like to complain about, rarely praise, their services. Yet, based on Socialbakers.com figures response rates from brands on social media platforms are still far from satisfactory – and so the interests of the organisation’s audiences are not served properly. The airline industry is almost there but in the alcohol industry, which is doing the worst, only 32% of posts get a response on Facebook and it is even worse on Twitter.
So PRs are still far from ace-ing the two-way symmetrical model and it has definitely not replaced the ‘old’ one-way model. This is what organisations need to realise and they should not be satisfied with having social media accounts and posting contents regularly. The devil is in the detail. The devil is in how audiences get heard by organisations on social media.