As part of my Masters degree I researched introducing social media into the practice of public affairs as part of her Public Relations post-graduate degree from Manchester Metropolitan University.

Below are some of the key findings.

Social Media is causing a wave of disruption creating new outcomes in terms of transparency and accountability for the Public Affairs industry.

  • Statistics show the importance of Social Media relating to usage and engagement by the public:
  • Facebook accounts for 47.87% of social network traffic in the UK (Econsultancy ISC, 2012: 122);
  • Facebook leads SM use on mobile browsers and classic web (Econsultancy ISC, 2012: 123);
  • Some 87% of companies now employ Twitter as part of their SM marketing or online PR activity, while 82% use Facebook (Econsultancy ISC, 2012: 123);
  • Some 40% of companies have employed training and governance models related to Social Media, while 60% have not.

PA “markets”, like business markets, will adapt to the new reality. But staying ahead of the game means understanding the potential of SM to disrupt every aspect of an organisation’s PA strategy.

As SM theory is in its formative years and the acceptance of it in the practice of lobbying is still on debate by the industry, the gap in theory becomes clear. The research gap identified is the current level and potential uses of Social Media by PA practitioners. The biggest barrier to effective SM engagement is the lack of resources, cited as a considerable issue by approximately half of companies (52%) surveyed and the lack of budget, which is cited by 30% of companies. (Econsultancy ISC, 2012: 124)

Even though Public Affairs practitioners are aware of the increased importance of Social Media and the high level of the public’s trust in it, they are also conscious of their deficiency in terms of skills to effectively engage and use it as a means to increase transparency and confidence in the sector.

Latitude’s involvement:

Interviews were conducted both in the London and Warrington offices with Digital Marketing Practitioners in different levels of seniority:

Key Findings:

The fundamental findings which emerged from this study are: Public Affairs practitioners don’t have the necessary skills to effectively employ Social Media; Social Media can definitely increase transparency but the impact on the reputation will not be necessarily a positive one.

  • The mystery surrounding Public Affairs makes it easy for the general public to have a negative opinion towards it;
  • Practitioners enjoy the mystery as it gives them power over their knowledge in the field keeping the public unaware of what the practice actually entails;
  • Negative sentiments towards the industry emerge from the conception that lobbyists are paid to express any opinion.
  • After an analysis of the responses it is worth noting that at this moment, considering the skills gap, PA practitioners can certainly go in the wrong direction by using SM. It would not necessarily be a disaster, but it is a variable to take into account.
  • Virtual exposure creates more responsibilities, worries and time to allocate to, and this is part of what PA practitioners are most afraid of. It is an issue that will either be solved in time, or either abandoned, in the sense that there will be the younger practitioners who will find it easier to adapt to the SM evolution, and probably, the others – who will conform to the old rules of communication in PA.
  • A code of ethics would be unhelpful and irrelevant unless practitioners assume a personal ethical standard first;
  • Trying to regulate SM in the practice of PA will be useless and will never work;
  • SM brings transparency and creates debates which practitioners are trying to avoid due to fear of having their weaknesses exposed.
  • Social Media breaks down the barriers between the sender and the receiver of a message thus making it difficult to control it in the online environment;
  • Social Media will not be able to affect the reputation of Public Affairs;
  • The effect Social Media practice might have on trust in the Public Affairs sector and practitioners is still undecided

The results highlight that Social Media is a tool of the future that will increase transparency in the PA sector but it seems it will not have a positive impact on its reputation.

I began this study by contextualising the social, political and economic background which underpins the need for increased scholarly and practical focus on PA practice. To address the significant gap in PA theory, I centred the investigation around four key objectives: to identify how Social Media can potentially improve the reputation of Public Affairs sector and practitioners; to examine the potential impact of Social Media integration and practice on the reputation of Public Affairs; to discover whether there is any current evidence that Social Media facilitates transparency in the Public Affairs industry.

The study revealed that practitioners coming across as a bit more genuine will probably increase the amount in both turnout and investments, when embracing SM. The solution can be to come up with small concepts to reach out to people, which might help their reputation.

In addition, SM is only going to help them if they are honest and engage in debates with people in an attempt to demystify what they do and clarify why they do it – and what that entails for people who receive their stories.

Implications for future practice:

The practitioner’s feelings that Social Media integration into their practice will ultimately lead to greater transparency and vulnerability at the same time, makes them reluctant to engage in this new medium due to lack of skills and knowledge of appropriate usage of SM. This lead the author to advocate more training in relation to Social Media skills and awareness brought by Digital Marketing practitioners and PAO’s that have successfully made use of the tools. Practitioners which understand the effect and importance of integrating Social Media in their practice and realise its future implications as well, can nurture mutually beneficial relationships more effectively and will benefit from the activity it entails in the new medium.

There is no recipe for an effective method or for increasing engagement, probably because it is very hard to quantify an efficient use or to what extent this type of online communication impacts the future of the PA sectors. Nevertheless, there has to be a common guidance within the industry, which of course is related to an ethics of language, but also to the knowledge scope of the instruments used and detecting a demographic of the public if they want to engage with them.