This question came up last Tuesday at a launch briefing for our new book and then a friend sent me a Mashable article on the same subject. It’s an important question because, as the article points out, there are social media activities going on in the marketing, customer service, public relations, investor relations and lots of other functional departments in companies. So, to parse this out, we probably need to answer some core questions: is there a central skill set called “social media” requiring functional specialists whether tweets or fan pages are being used for customer service or investor relations, recruitment or some other thing? Does social media consist of “places” that, while shared by different functions, need to be managed like real estate? To the extent that corporate social media places carry independent content, do they need a gatekeeper? Is being responsible for social media like or unlike deciding what goes on the company website?
This handful of the possible questions already demonstrates the organizational complexity of integrated social media use. We think that a hybrid model might well work best, in which public relations is responsible for the real estate, but a cross-functional team of all the departments using social media for some purpose constitutes a consultative council. In this model, there are social media specialists in marketing or HR who are managed by their own function leadership. However, they need to make sure that public relations is kept abreast of their social media activities and plans. Does public relations get to veto a social media plan hatched in marketing? Probably not in most companies we’re familiar with, but as the party responsible to management for the real estate, they should be entitled to register strong displeasure if they feel a marketing initiative threatens the brand.
Why public relations? I won’t argue that there is a special mystique about the function that makes it especially deserving of this responsibility although some have suggested that marketing, the ancestral home of one-way communications, is not the place for social media. I do think, however, that public relations tends to be a better place to aggregate and track activities from other functions and, certainly, public relations is on deck when a social media strategy goes pear-shaped. As public relations is the locus, in most companies, of the monitoring of external opinion, it would also be logical to house social media, a medium mostly about listening, within that function.