Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.
The slogan used to run, “Before it’s in fashion, it’s in Vogue!” Then along came Twitter.
As a 20-year survivor of the PR industry, I’ve seen my fair share of upheaval, but nothing quite like the advent of social media. The holy grail used to be exclusive interviews and magazine covers, but what do we say today when someone seized the news cycle?
They went viral.
Andy Warhol prophesied that in the future, everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. Well, here we are: Any jerk with an opinion — or an appetite or a rescue kitten or an affinity for sunsets — can have a blog. Anyone with a smartphone can have a Facebook account. The age of the Instagram influencer is upon us, and advertising is transacted accordingly. Personality trumps affiliation. In this media environment, conspiracy theorists flourish and command massive followings, taking headlines hostage as they do. The stalwarts of yore are dismissed as old media, a feeble rear guard that leads from behind.
But anyone in PR who tells you that traditional news is dead is wrong. On the one hand, television stations, magazines and newspapers are starved for content: They scour the internet for stories to feed a news cycle that never stops. Yet, what gets the influencer the coveted blue, verified checkmark next to their social handle? What drives viewers to a page? A good, old-fashioned magazine cover or exclusive interview. Social media and traditional media are symbiotic: While we all exist online, traditional media can be what sets a social media account apart. To truly succeed at one platform, you might need the other.
As the founder and CEO of a PR firm that specializes in reputation management, I have long shied away from press releases. Simply put, the pitch could be taken as a mark of desperation. After all, why hasn’t the story gone viral on its own? This puts the publicist in a bind. What’s the point of having a publicist when there is no phone number to call? It’s not like they can take the algorithm out for a swanky power lunch (moreover, no one is even having any power lunches these days).
The role of the publicist has shifted drastically along with the media landscape. The relevance of PR hinges not so much on the ability to generate and ride a wave of publicity as on managing the existence of multiple waves at once. When done properly and timed correctly, social media and traditional media make waves that amplify one another, but when timed poorly, they crash, and the whole story sinks. The hustle is now defined by the ability to manage all these waves at once.
America’s former “tweeter-in-chief” provides a masterful example of a high-profile person who used social media to keep driving the news cycle. Elon Musk, meanwhile, nearly torpedoed his entire company with his “funding secured” tweet from the summer of 2018 — and was fined for fraud by the SEC. Musk’s image and Tesla’s stock value have handsomely recovered since then, but the precarious balance he strikes between his social media habits and the responsibilities of being a CEO is, arguably, part of what keeps him front and center in the public eye. Media old and new alike is most likely waiting with bated breath for the next time he loses his footing.
For this reason, I insist that my own consultancy is not an agency. We are a practice. While our business model certainly depends on our Rolodex, we have built more of a living, breathing network than I had ever imagined when I started in this field two decades ago. Our clients amplify one another over social media, over podcasts, and in magazines. All of these waves must work in tandem. It’s a cycle of generating content online, staying relevant and landing in the limelight when the moment is right. Botch that timing, and that whole process must be restarted and recalibrated.
In my experience, I have found that content generation is key. Take podcasts for instance. PR and publicists should consider how they can use podcasts as a networking tool as much as a crucial piece of a client’s presence in the media. First of all, a podcast allows the client to assert themselves without the mitigating filter of a journalist or a publication’s editorial directive. Secondly, it allows for a quid pro quo — on top of a stimulating conversation — with the guests on the podcast. To this end, you can use podcasts as a networking tool to increase online visibility and make strategic introductions for your clients. Additionally, podcasts can make a social media presence much less cloying: A Twitter feed can run alongside a podcast, and a client doesn’t have to strain to make news to stay timely. Rather, they can simply announce each upcoming episode and retweet what their guests have to say about it — as well as amplify what their guests are up to and get a retweet in kind.
Will a client’s fame endure past those 15 minutes allotted to us all? That depends, but not on Twitter metrics alone — I believe a Sunday Times exclusive or Forbes cover should be in the mix as well. Plenty of social media accounts are bloated with fake followers; the numbers don’t tell the whole story. For that reason, journalists must still know your name, but their chances of remembering it are far greater when there is a little blue verified checkmark by its side.