Ruud Questions: Dr. Mihaela Vorvoreanu

by Ruud Hein September 4th, 2009 

Dr. Mihaela Vorvoreanu taught public relations at the University of Dayton, was a Fellow of the Society for New Communications Research, an Assistant Professor teaching public relations in the Department of Communication Studies at Clemson University and now is Assistant Professor technology at at Purdue University where earlier she achieved her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees.

With everything I read from her hand online and a thesis titled "Building and Maintaining Relationships Online: A Framework for Analyzing the Public Relations Website Experience" I couldn't help but wish for an interview — a wish she gracefully, and I like to think joyfully, granted.

You've said that people don't use Facebook to communicate with a company — unless they're passionate about the brand or experience.

Do you feel that the same holds true for other social networks and social media; that people don't tend to want to communicate with a company or organization?

No.

I believe that different social norms "different cultures- emerge on different social networking sites. Things that are appropriate on Facebook may not be appropriate on Twitter and the other way around.

My research with college students shows they are very territorial of Facebook and dont want anybody else in there but their friends. But those of us who are on Twitter have grown to EXPECT corporate presence there, as well as prompt and effective customer service.

Why is it that being friended by a corporation is "creepy" … and why do companies want to be part of our social space anyway?

in our
networked
society, attention
is the most
precious commodity
On Facebook, it is creepy because it is unexpected; It is perceived as inappropriate. Also, it is creepy because it is a manifestation of the surveillance companies conduct online " it reminds students that someone is watching, searching, monitoring " that Facebook is not their private dorm room.

Companies want to be part of our social space because they need our attention. I believe that, at this point in time, in our networked society, attention is the most precious commodity. Everybody, from pets to trolls to large corporations, will do crazy things to get attention. Because so much of our attention is in our online social space, thats where companies want to be, too. Its where the fish are :)

You believe that social media's impact on public relations is a move to honesty, to mutually beneficial relationships; authentic conversations; "nakedness", as you call it. In an earlier interview I wondered out loud if soon we'll see corporate courses on "how to be genuine"; is real the new fake? *Can* a company, a corporation, be real, open and honest?

I believe that social media make it technically easy to implement the kind of authentic, mutually beneficial, relationships that the public relations academic literature has been advocating for decades. We didnt call it nakedness, though " Scoble & Israel did in their book, Naked Conversations. I love seeing so many people advocate honesty and mutually beneficial relationships. It gives me hope that PR practice can become what PR theory has long envisioned it could and should be.

I am not as excited about the conversation/dialogue part. Theres a time and place for it, but we cant have dialogue all of the time, with everybody.

Honestly, I dont care to talk to a bottle of soda. I dont want to see corporate interest infiltrating every conversation I have, in every single space. This will only move our society to even more consumerism.

Look at it this way: talking with a bottle of soda is at best entertainment, at worst a marketing trick meant to reinforce the brand and keep it at the forefront of my attention. I can do away with this dialogue.

On the other hand, if we could have authentic conversations about issues that really matter (say, the environment?), and I could trust that corporations listen and take action based on these types of conversations, Id be happy to participate in them. So, a responsible company has to make careful choices about when to engage in dialogue, and in what space, and when to respect the publics space enough to stay out of it. Its really not as simple as conversation 100% of the time. But the lines of communication should be kept open, even if theyre not constantly used.

Now, to the second part of your question: Can a company be real, open, and honest? In principle, I believe it can, and in the long run, it will benefit from being so. But, can we the public know and trust that they are indeed real, open, and honest? How? It all comes down to the age-old question of trust. It takes time and action to build it (note: action, not only conversation). Will companies fake it? I think they already do. Will we fall for it? No.

In my mind social media seems to have forced a change in PR's game from *press* relations to *public* relations. Yet the 2008 study you co-authored shows traditional media is still the main audience. So I'm just wishful thinking basicially, right?

This discussion, which is very popular in the PR blogosphere, is a bundle of fallacies, in my opinion.

PR was never about press relationsFirst, PR was never about press relations. Really, whats the point of having relations with the press? The press was important because it was the medium that could help a company reach their publics. Not many other media were available. So, even if you look at PR as media relations (which is only one of many PR techniques, only one chapter in our textbooks) – you see that the purpose of media relations has always been public relations.

Now, in addition to mass media, PR has other avenues for communicating with the public. Some of these (social media) are direct avenues of communication " not mediated by the press. Its up to each company to decide what the best avenues are for communicating with a specifc public. It depends on where the people are. If their attention is focused on the press, then it makes sense to use the media relations technique of public relations.

There is another reason why it makes sense to use media relations: Because going through the filter of a journalist is supposed to increase the credibility of the information.

Journalists, theoretically speaking, serve the interests of the readers (lets just buy into this assumption for the sake of this argument). If they filter information from companies (who are supposed to serve the interests of the investors), the resulting, filtered information is a bit more credible, and the public feels a bit more protected. I still believe that journalists should protect the public, even if their role is not to filter out news releases anymore. This journalistic filter benefits the public, but also the company " because if the message got through the media filter, its credibility is increased.

At the root of this confusion between public and media relations is the fact that public relations education is relatively new. Many PR practitioners did not have the opportunity to take public relations courses when they went to college, either because the university didnt offer PR courses, or because the textbooks had not yet been written. As a result, you have many people who are good writers, who are trained in journalism or other fields, practicing what they think is public relations, but what actually is only media relations.

I think as we have more and more practitioners who learn the big picture, and who learn to think about ethics and responsibility early on, the profession will move closer to achieving its potential.

PR textbooks might not be page turners, but they could be really, really, interesting and useful, even to seasoned PR practitioners. Several times, I have attended PRSA meetings where people paid a lot to hear somebody tell them what I had just taught my class the week before: basic PR texbook stuff.

Despite reputation management, social media monitoring, analytic campaigns, engagement, conversions and what not … the main criteria for measuring the success of an online press release are the number of times it's been republished, with sites like Google News or Yahoo News obviously weighing heavier, and the number of times it's been viewed online. What's up with that?

People do whatevers easy that will produce some numbersPeople do whatevers easy that will produce some numbers. Why? Any or a combination of the following:

1. they dont know any better " see the education issue above (even today, very few PR educators teach social media and social media measurement)
2. they do know better, but do not have the time/resources to actually perform the research or purchase the services

Then, theres the issue that many aspects of PR can be measured, and some, cannot be.

In PR theory, one of the roles of PR is to buid trust and goodwill (social capital). What price can you put on that social capital? At some points, you may need to draw on it " say, in a crisis situation. And then, the crisis is much smaller than it could have been, or doesnt happen at all (i.e. a lawsuit doesnt happen). But how do you know how much it would have cost if it had happened, when you dont know what could have happened?

As the PR profession evolves, I think it is important to measure aspects of PR that can be measured, AND also to raise awareness about the value of PR that cannot be translated into numbers. I know management likes numbers, and thats why sometimes PR people do silly things to come up with some numbers. Colorful charts are a plus. :)

Business-wise there are two aspects to social media; strategy and process.
If you had to spell it out, how does a small/medium business setup a social media strategy — and what would a social media process look like?

I assume the question is about PR strategy in social media.

Said small business shall purchase one of these books:

Strategic Planning for Public Relations, by R.D. Smith

and/or:

Strategic Public Relations Management by E. Weintraub Austin & B.E. Pinkleton

How does anybody set up a PR strategy?

By answering the following questions:

Who are my publics?

Learn all you can about who they are, what they are like, opinions, behaviors, and media & communication behaviors, preferences, social norms.

Spend at least 25% of your resources on this research, and the rest will be clear. You will KNOW what you need to do next. (I made up the 25%, its not based on any research).

You dont have to hire a research firm to do this. Listen. Observe. Talk to your customers.

What are my goals?

Spell them out. — i.e. Where do I want to be in x years/months from now?

Make sure everything that follows is in line with these goals.

What steps (objectives) do I need to accomplish in order to reach my goal?

Objectives usually come in 3 flavors: awareness, acceptance, and actionObjectives usually come in 3 flavors: awareness, acceptance, and action.

You may need to raise awareness about a product/issue; or change attitudes and gain acceptance of the product; or, if awareness and acceptance are already there, motivate action.

You cannot have action without awareness and acceptance. (You can, but its called coercion, and thats the topic of another class, I tell my students [smiles]). They build upon each other. However, if your research shows awareness is already there, then you know not to waste your money raising awareness :)

Objectives are specific and measurable. You measure: awareness (just like a school quiz), acceptance (attitude change), action (did they or did they not engage in the behavior you advocate? i.e. purchase, washing hands, etc.).

Note that theres no eyeball counting involved :)

What activities (tactics) do I need to engage in so I can accomplish the objectives?

Tactics are really simple if you think of them this way: Message + Channel = Tactic.

You need to know where you stand, what you need to talk about, what is the topic of conversation, of all the possible topics that could be relevant.

You need to select the communication channel that fits the particular public, the message, and you. This may or may not be social media.

What is my time table…

…how do I allocate resources, and other boring stuff that goes into a spreadsheet or Gantt chart.

What is different in social media is the term of engagement.

In a traditional PR campaign, you could run the tactics for a period of time, then retire them. With social media, once you engage, it is advisable to stay there long-term. Think of it as setting up lines of communication, that you will continue using in the long run. Be realistic about how much and how often you need and are able to use them. It is easy to set up a social media program, but you dont want to find out 6 months later that it is very time consuming to maintain. Assess your needs and capabilities upfront.

Note that, if you pick a certain communication channel for your tactics, you need to know how to use it. You need to understand how to operate the technology (how do I dial a number on this phone?) AND you need to understand the social norms, or etiquette of using that communication medium.

Social media have very rich social norms, and if you are not culturally-sensitive you will end up beeing creepy. To learn the social norms of social media, do what you would do when you travel to a foreign country: Listen, observe, emulate, blend in, ask for directions, hire a trusted guide. Then, you wont be creepy.

You can find Dr. Mihaela Vorvoreanu online on Twitter @mihaela_v and on her blog PR Connections where you shouldn't miss reading, among other things, Death is dead, youre all wrong, and everybodys lying

Ruud Hein

My paid passion at Search Engine People sees me applying my passions and knowledge to a wide array of problems, ones I usually experience as challenges. People who know me know I love coffee.

Ruud Hein

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One Response to “Ruud Questions: Dr. Mihaela Vorvoreanu”

  1. [...] Read my interview, on various PR topics, here. [...]