Gary Stevens is a front end developer. He's a full time blockchain geek and a volunteer working for the Ethereum foundation.
At the moment, we are all being bombarded with claims that the COVID-19 pandemic is going to change everything about the PR industry and the way that we all use social media.
It's true that the crisis is having huge effects on businesses and how, when, and why customers are using social media. But whether these changes are here to stay is a more difficult question.
For many firms, the clearest of these effects has been huge increases in social media traffic, which is forcing many PR professionals to return to the basic techniques that have long characterized effective social media outreach: knowing when to post on social media, how to use visuals on social media effectively, and avoiding social media blunders.
For others, social media feeds have become a crucial tool in connecting with customers who are working from home for the first time, and in strengthening brand communities at this time of crisis.
In this article, we'll look at some of the changes that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused when it comes to social media for PR professionals, and then identify which of these trends is going to last.
In attempting this kind of analysis, it's instructive to remember that social media has already gone through some major changes over the past decade. Previously, there was a widespread perception that social media represented a novel, powerful, and predominantly truthful form of communication. It’s perhaps because of this that 86% of marketers incorporate social media into their marketing strategies.
Since then, however, the perception of social media content has undergone a dramatic transformation. The Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the growing perception of just how much "fake news" the platforms carried, undermined consumer trust in them. This loss of trust has been especially pronounced among younger generations, who are increasingly turned off by brand messaging delivered by social media.
For the PR industry, these shifts gave rise to a huge problem. The loss of trust in social media messaging essentially undermined any attempt to use these platforms, and forced many businesses and organizations to look elsewhere for the kind of direct audience engagement that is so effective.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, and with it another major change in the way that consumers see social media.
There are three elements to the current transformation in the perception of social media. One is simply that in the context of widespread lockdown orders and shift to remote working, usage of these networks has increased dramatically.
Second, many charities and local governments have (finally) turned to social media as a tool for facilitating connections between citizens and customers. These techniques will not be new to PR professionals, but many have abandoned them due to the lack of trust that has grown up in relation to social media platforms, especially in relation to Facebook's privacy policies.
Third, it seems that consumer trust in these networks is slowly recovering. Youtube and Facebook have been unusually active in deleting fake news, and even Whatsapp have limited message forwarding in an attempt to stop the spread of rumors.
In short, it appears that the early promise of social media – as a place where individuals could genuinely connect with each other, and connect with the brands they buy form – is returning.
Whether this will last is, of course, a very difficult question. Nevertheless, there are some key lessons to be learned from the way that some PR professionals have used social media during the crisis, and which point to the future of social media engagement. In other words, the crisis offers glimpses of a post-COVID future.
It's worth recognizing, for instance, that remote working is likely to increase hugely after the crisis, as firms recognize the value of it. This means that the spikes in social media usage we've seen over the past few months are unlikely to reduce back down to their pre-crisis levels. For PR professionals, this means that returning to social media will be a crucial part of post-COVID marketing strategies.
It's also likely that the efforts of Facebook, Twitter, etc., in combating fake news will return to these platforms a level of trust not seen for many years. This means that PR professionals may finally be able to use them for converting visitors into buyers by using them for the kind of direct marketing that has recently been seen either as "too salesy" or – worse – as a phishing scam.
Finally, looking at the companies who have been most innovative in using social media during the crisis, we can see that they have all actively joined the fight against the disease. Some companies – and sometimes very unlikely companies – have taken it upon themselves to help their customers navigate the myths about the disease they will see on social media, and to disseminate health advice.
This kind of "social value" campaign is not new, of course. But the crisis appears to have accelerated the level, and value, of them. In times of need, consumers are turning to brands to be beacons of hope and advice, and social media is still the best place to do that. For PR professionals, this means it might be time to pass on your social media account to your employees, and let them reach out to your customers directly.