A key aspect in analysing the extent to which social media can be used as a means of persuasion is to define what is meant by persuasion. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, persuasion is “the action or process of persuading someone or of being persuaded to do or believe something” (OED, 2013) stemming from the word persuade, “to induce (someone) to do something through reasoning or argument”, “[with object] cause (someone) to believe something, especially after a sustained effort; convince”, or “(of a situation or event) provide a sound reason for (someone) to do something.” (IBID). If one considers these definitions within the realms of social media then there is an obvious crossover. Public relations practitioners’ use of social media is undoubtedly to encourage action from the recipient audience – to do something or believe something. Taking these basic notions into account then of course social media can be used heavily by public relations practitioners as a means of persuasion; however this doesn’t mean the persuasion will be effective or successful.
One of the pitfalls of associating persuasion with public relations and social media is that persuasion, for many, resonates with propaganda which has an overtly negative connotation. Public relations theory has tended to steer away from using the word persuasion opting instead for more semantically pleasing words such as ‘negotiation’ and ‘adaptation’ (Tench and Yeomans, 2006, p.271), but these terms no longer fit the model used in public relations through social media.
“The ever-increasing amount of information flowing through Social Media forces the members of these networks to compete for attention and influence by relying on other people to spread their message. A large study of information propagation within Twitter reveals that the majority of users act as passive information consumers and do not forward the content to the network.” (Romero et. al, 2010, p.1)
Influence – “the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behaviour of someone or something, or the effect itself” (OED, 2013) – has more resonance with the social media use seen today. It is a term which can be linked with persuasion – and in terms of social media and content sharing the two go hand in hand – but appears more ethically sound. Edward Bernays wrote about public relations ‘engineering public consent’ and it is this kind of consent, support and assistance public relations practitioners strive for in their use of social media, but is this any different to the way public relations practitioners were able to use ‘traditional medias’? “Digital marketing can learn from traditional techniques; that digital isn’t just about direct communications; and that the fulcrum of PR had shifted from seeking directly to influence journalists to influencing those who in turn influence journalists.” (Walmsley, 2010).
As per the Romero quote above, passive information consumers are not those who have been persuaded by what they read online but there are few who do and their role in sharing the content is vital. This is strengthened by the studies of Andrew Walmsley who notes that “social media has fundamentally altered the ecosystem of influence that powers the communications business.” (Ibid). Though the system has changed the audience, largely, remains the same so social media can be used to the same extent as traditional medias in persuading the intended audience. The role of the audience, however, has changed. “Everyone is a media outlet” (Shirky, 2008) and the change from bystander to participant is one which is useful for public relations professionals to use to increase the influence and persuasion of their messaging.
Karpinski (2005) notes that consumers are more trusting of their own opinion and the opinions of their peers. Social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook for example, allow this “bottom-up” marketing to happen naturally with retweet and share functions readily available. Tapping into these conversations allows public relations practitioners to capitalise on the relationships built, listen to the consumer and respond in a way which earns their trust and increases their influence. This shift in dynamic can still be aligned with the dominant paradigm public relations is used to, most obviously the two-way symmetrical model whereby the characteristic is to “use communication to negotiate with publics, resolve conflict and promote mutual understanding and respect between the organization and its public(s)” (Grunig and Hunt 2004).
While the method of communication may have changed the messaging has not, and so use of media as a means of persuasion – be that new, old or social – is just as important to the PR practitioner as it was in 1984 when this model was established. The labels and roles may have changed but the basic premise is the same.
Bringing together the power of interpersonal persuasion with the reach of mass media, as enabled by social media, is something B.J. Fogg refers to as Mass Interpersonal Persuasion (MIP). Fogg states that MIP has six components:
- Persuasive experience: An experience that is created to change attitudes, behaviors, or both.
- Automated structure: Digital technology structures the persuasive experience.
- Social distribution: The persuasive experience is shared from one friend to another.
- Rapid cycle: The persuasive experience can be distributed quickly from one person to another.
- Huge social graph: The persuasive experience can potentially reach millions of people connected through social ties or structured interactions.
- Measured impact: The effect of the persuasive experience is observable by users and creators.
“Before the launch of Facebook Platform, these six components had never come together in one system” (Fogg, p.23). Fogg goes on to explain how easily people are persuaded to give their personal details to applications on Facebook, and how easily this information can be used for marketing purposes – to go on to persuade people to buy a product or service. Within the industry, Facebook platform’s influence stretched to other social networking services who also allowed third-party applications, so the power of persuasion of social media works both internally – those working within public relations or social media – and externally – those who are members of the non-passive audience. By the end of Fogg’s 10-week class study, in which his students were tasked with developing applications on Facebook, 16 million users had been persuaded to install the student apps with one million using them each day. The students who undertook this project went on to earn over $500,000 in advertising revenue within a few months proving that persuading people to hand over details or sign up to an activity can garner very real results.
In Paradigms of global public relations in an age of digitalisation (Grunig, 2009) Grunig warns that the latest fad – social media, in this case – is accompanied by the risk of practitioners using it incorrectly as a one-way communication, hence damaging the relationship between the organisation and its public.
“However, many practitioners are using the new media in the same ways they used the old—as a means of dumping messages on the general population rather than as a strategic means of interacting with publics and bringing information from the environment into organizational decision-making. For public relations to fully use digital media, practitioners and scholars must reinstitutionalise public relations as a behavioural, strategic management paradigm rather than as a symbolic, interpretive paradigm.” (Grunig, 2009, p.1)
Aside from reiterating the importance of listening and responding to strengthen relationships with the public, Grunig has also raised the question of the need for social media. If the message is the same then is there a need to change the medium? The key word is ‘interacting’ which is of huge importance to the dynamic between public relations practitioner and their audience. If the PR practitioner is not interacting and is simply broadcasting then it raises a question of ethics; an audience doesn’t choose the content they see, it is simply broadcast in their direction.
What Grunig has also introduced is the idea of social media influence within an organisation which is pivotal to the success of the tools used by the practitioner. If social media is not valued throughout all levels of an organisation as a strategic tool then it can be difficult to justify its use. “A recent study by research firm CEO Connection shows that 6 out of 10 CEOs still avoid using social media of any kind for corporate communications.” (Cudworth, 2012). Social media monitoring tools such as Klout have played a role in highlighting the importance of social media and its use to organisations. Klout – and Klout for business in particular – allow businesses access to analytics which measure how their social media communication is being engaged with, enabling practitioners to alter their content to best satisfy their most engaged (and most influential) audience. Knowing this can help practitioners to understand what their audience best respond to and use that information to satisfy that engagement. However, there are weaknesses identified in the data Klout produces – scores are skewed by spam, bot accounts and inactive users (Schaefer, 2011) – which may do little to strengthen the argument that social media is a useful tool for persuasion.
The best proof of social media at work is found in case studies. An excellent example of social media use to persuade publics – in this case to change their behaviour – is Brighton and Hove City Council’s public transport campaign, adopting the hashtag #twago – Tweet as you go. Working with Qube, a social media agency, Brighton and Hove Council started a campaign to get fewer people in Brighton using cars and more using public transport, cycling or walking. 17% of Brighton’s tweeting population became involved and recorded their daily travel under the designated hashtag, which also held an incentive for “tweet of the week”. Rather than focussing on a return on investment (or return on engagement) this project focussed on allowing the public to self-evaluate their transport habits, sharing publicly their transport choices and the justification for using them. More and more people were using sustainable transport methods by the end of the study, and rather than that being something forced upon them it was a change of habit forged by self-evaluation, scrutiny by other publics and an incentivised campaign. Persuading behavioural change is pivotal to public relation practitioners and this demonstrates how useful social media can be in that regard. Whether dealing with one marketing campaign or selling a particular brand, unless the consumers’ behaviour changes then their habits – buying, living, eating – won’t.
The use of hashtags on Twitter is an excellent tool in terms of persuasion – both garnering engagement and measuring results. As per Robert Cialdini’s six principles of influence, people are more likely to do something if they see someone else doing it – social proof. The Brighton and Hove case study also satisfied Cialdini’s principle of commitment and consistency. People who participated in the study didn’t want to publicly change their minds or goals halfway through, and this is evident in some of the more negative tweets people sent when they were forced to drive or take non-sustainable transport options.
However, while this concept of “bottom up” marketing is essential and useful to the PR Practitioner it can also serve to make their roles redundant in the eyes of superior colleagues. If most of the ground work is deemed to be done by the publics then it is not immediately obvious that the public relations practitioner is vital to its success. We are seeing a change in the roles previously adopted in the Westley and MacLean model of communication.
Previously the direction was linear – A communicated via C to reach B – but social media has allowed B to take a more active role and to communicate directly with A (the public relations practitioner) or with other members of the audience; B – B. What all of this has in common though is C, and social media is the cohesive link which enables the practitioner to engage directly with the audience and also to listen to the audience continuing their conversations. The feedback has become much more interactive, again satisfying Grunig and Hunt’s two-way symmetrical model of communication.
In conclusion, the argument for social media as a tool of persuasion is incredibly strong but weakened by a lack of understanding or uncertainty from top-level. There are still unsolved questions of ethics – is the fact that content is forced on people wrong? – but these arguments can be counteracted with the fact that followers and fans follow a brand or organisation by choice, what motivated them to do so undoubtedly includes an element of persuasion but it is what comes after this that delivers the results public relations practitioners are interested in. As social media evolves so will the attitudes and activities of public relations practitioners need to: “The nature of power and influence in the online world is vastly different from what we are accustomed to in the offline world. It’s important for businesses and individuals to understand this — your paradigm has to shift.” (Schaefer, 2013).
While social media is evidently a useful tool for public relations practitioners in terms of persuasion and influence a lot of the success depends on proving the results. Practitioners should be looking towards a return on influence rather than return on investment. This study has mainly focussed on the use of Facebook and Twitter as two of the most widely-used social networks, but there are other social media which are incredibly useful for the public relations practitioner depending on their audience and project in hand. Persuasion has been at the heart of public relations, from Bernays in 1947 to Grunig and Hunt in 1984. Social media is another facet to assist practitioners in their daily work and should be used to its fullest extent to generate the highest return on influence. The medium may have changed – and will continue to evolve – but the messaging remains the same.
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