Last week a post graduate student studying media and public relations interviewed me for her final dissertation. Here is the interview – writes Scott Guthrie

The social web allows us to coalesce around passions. To share ideas. To nudge conversations along wherever in the world we are. We just need an internet connection and to be in a placed where we aren’t geo blocked from services.

Last week a post graduate student studying at Newcastle University got in contact with me via my LinkedIn profile.

Dongmei Jin tells me she stumbled into the discipline of public relations by chance two years ago and has developed a passion for it.

After  graduating from China Women’s University she applied to Newcastle University for a postgraduate degree in Media and Public Relations.

Dongmei is currently writing her final dissertation about using digital public relations to build travel brands.

With her permission I am publishing the questions Dongmei asked me along with my answers.



Q1. As a professional digital director, what do you do differently from a traditional media director in seeking influence among publics? How important is the role social media plays in your work?

A1. Being digital or social media savvy is not a specialised activity. It’s a fundamental requirement to doing our job today.

Understanding big data, how to shoot video, build compelling content ‘marketing’ and then optimise that content for search are some of today’s necessities for any PR person.

There have always been people with the disproportionate ability to influence the way others think, behave or act. Traditionally these have been journalists, and politicians. Their mouthpieces: newspapers, radio and television.

In today’s splintered media landscape the source of influence has evolved, spreading to include anyone with an internet connection who can prod a passive audience into life. Anyone who can inspire engagement through conversation. Ultimately anyone who can spur others to action – influencing them to do things differently or do different things.

As always, though, everything starts by answering two questions:

  1. What are your objectives?
  2. Who are the publics you want to influence?

In turn you need to determine who and what influences your publics. Increasingly this will have at least a social media element. Consider that, according to surveys run by US magazine Variety, US teens find YouTube stars more influential than mainstream celebrities.



Q2. In your article Don’t shoot! I’m a customer not a target, you mentioned organisations should build meaningful relationships with their customers and treat them as a co-creators. Do you think social media provides a chance for organisations to build meaningful relationships with publics online? Why?

A2. Absolutely, social media provides organisations with the platforms from which to build meaningful relationships with publics.

Organisations need to seize the opportunity to build meaningful relationships with publics because social media has shifted the power from business to consumer.

Companies can no longer control the message. Like it or not the broadcast era has ended; messages are no longer one way. Customers, and other stakeholders, are talking about companies with each other and with competitors as well as with your company. The only way to remain relevant is to be part of the conversation.

Marketing has shifted from ‘selling at’ to ‘helping out’. Publics want to know what organisations stand for, what they believe in, and how they can help solve publics’ challenges.

Publics will no longer endure being talked at and not listened to by brands. They’ll vote with their feet and walk across the digital street to a competitor who places social at the heart of how they do business. So organisations need to listen, respond, be helpful, and re-learn how to be human.



Q3. On the one hand, social networking is considered to be a two-way street and has enabled everyone to become a brand spokesperson. On the other hand, if things go wrong, the audience can react louder, faster and more publicly than ever before. Understanding this, do you think that social media has made it easier to manage the relationship with the public or more complicated?

A3. Great question. The ability for anyone to manage a two-way relationship is wishful thinking. Organisations can’t control conversations its publics are having about it. At best organisations can influence these conversations.

Social media is an amplifier. It is an indiscriminate amplifier. As consumers we’ve always had opinions. We’ve always shared those opinions with family and friends. The difference today is that the social web has given us all a voice to share our opinions globally online. If we see something we like, we’ll share it online. If we see something we don’t like, we’ll share that too.

The social age is a significant change catalyst. It calls for transparency and honesty. Publics now measure organisations on what they do rather than what they say they do or think they may do in the future.

This means an organisation has to live and breathe its corporate values and ethics as bundled into its culture.

For instance internal and external communicators need to work together to help employees lift the organisation’s mission statement off the page, off the intranet and off the ‘about us’ section of the internet and embed it as part of the organisation’s DNA.

The distance between what organisations say they do and what they really do forms a legitimacy gap and the social web – as indiscriminate amplifier – turns up the volume on any gap.

Occasionally, inevitably, something will ‘go wrong’ within an organisation. The organisations which have steadfastly been honest, transparent and empathetic in all of their actions will fare better in these situations with the publics that surround them than those who have displayed only a veneer of their values and attempted to spin their ways out of trouble.

Publics don’t expect brands to be flawless. Publics actually want the brands they have a connection with to be human. That means having good days and bad days.

In fact, as long as organisations are honest and open about their flaws we’ll even think their flaws can be awesome. Today, as consumers, we’re interested in brands and their leaders that show some empathy, generosity, humility, flexibility, maturity, and humour.

Anne Gregory and Paul Willis, the authors of Strategic Public Relations Leadership describe brands as flawsome when they “have flaws, but are still awesome, just like human beings”.

The authors make the point that “brands and organisations with personality are attractive and if they have the humility to admit they get things wrong, the public can be forgiving.”

For leaders in the social age authenticity is key. That requires being transparent in everything they do, including admitting when they’re wrong. Then putting things right.

Handled well, there’s a positive to being wrong. Peter Aceto, CEO, Tangerine Bank (formerly ING Direct) argues:

“Fixing a perceived misstep actually has its upside, where making no missteps does not.”



Q4. I did a small survey (183 respondents) about travel websites’ online PR management. One survey question asked how trustworthy people thought travel information on social media is?

  • Over half (54.64%) of respondents showed either negative or passive attitudes (not trustworthy at all, not trustworthy and not sure).
  • 45.64% respondents have positive attitudes (trustworthy, very trustworthy and absolutely trustworthy).

Considering this, how effective do you think social media is in influencing a publics attitude? And what could digital PR do to change negative attitude among its online publics?

A4. As consumers we are bombarded each day by so many marketing messages as to have succumbed to what Mark Schaefer calls ‘content shock’. We turn to influencers to cut through all of this clutter and to help us form opinions about products and services.

Brands use influencers because these creators consistently generate compelling content which causes their followers to act in some way.

We believe in what these influencers have to say. For us their voice is authentic and relatable. It resonates with us. We find it credible and unvarnished.

Public relations professionals need to work hard to identify, select and nurture long-lasting, mutually-rewarding relationships with the most appropriate influencers whose voices chime with their client’s publics.

Offering a consistent, cohesive voice and narrative will engender positive attitudes. As long as this voice is authentic.



Q5. I’m studying online public relations in brand management, especially for travel websites. I’d like to know which travel website do you like? And how do you think of their online PR management? Any suggestions for it?

A5. One online travel agent (OTA) which has enjoyed success through its online influencer relations campaign is Travelocity. It suffered from the perception that OTAs are cold and purely transactional. To reverse this perception Travelocity used influencers to create a community known as the “Gnational Gnomads,”

The aim: to generate brand awareness and scale influencer selection to sustain the community by creating a travel expert influencer community to authentically connect with customers over long term.

The results to date, since the programme started in 2014 speak for themselves:

  • Increased impressions by 1200%
  • Increased brand mentions by 1000%
  • Increased number of activated influencers by 330%


Thank your for your time.

A pleasure; good luck with your dissertation.

Scott Guthrie is a professional adviser within the influencer marketing industry. He is an event speaker, university guest lecturer, media commentator on influencer marketing and active blogger. He works with brands, agencies and platforms to achieve meaningful results from influencer marketing. That tells you something about him but it's not giving you a lot of detail, is it? So, read more here.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}