“A Qualitative Examination of the Impact of Social Media on Media Relations Practice”

In a never ending quest to become a Social Media Maven, I chose a research article about how public relations is practiced in this relatively new realm and how/if social media has seen a significant shift in its users and their purpose. “A Qualitative Examination of the Impact of Social Media on Media Relations Practice” (Public Relations Journal, 8(2), 1-11.) by Dustin W. Supa was exactly what I was looking for. This study was done to find how much impact social media had on the relationships between public relations practitioners and the media, specifically journalists. But just like the job description for the modern day journalist has changed in the digital era, so has that of the PR guru. A total of 69 interviews were conducted over a 9-year time frame either in person, on the phone, through email, whatever was most convenient for the participant. They chose 33 public relations practitioners and 36 journalists for their control group.

When this study started, in 2006, most of us were updating our MySpace profiles and social media was still considered personal and entertaining versus something that would eventually require its own department in huge companies. Facebook was rolled out in September 2006, to put things in perspective. For those watching trends and how they shift, the last decade online has been fast paced and ever changing. In 2010, I went back to school after a 17-year hiatus and one of my classes was specifically designed to teach us how to use Twitter. How embarrassing would it be now if you said you didn’t know how to use Twitter and you wanted to be in Public Relations? Practitioners are taking over on social media. They are developing public, transparent relationships with journalists. The scene is changing rapidly. This article shows that journalists did not really notice social media affecting their jobs in a huge way, more of in an adjustment way. Over the course of the 9-year period, the roles of the practitioners changed significantly because of social media according to this study.


“This study examines the impact of social media on media relations practice through the use of depth interviews with public relations practitioners (n=33) and journalists (n=36) to determine what the impact of social media has been on the practitioner-journalist relationship.”


impact-of-social-media1The thesis of the article is that new ways of communication technologies have changed the way public relations is practiced in certain areas. Let’s remember when this study was started, print journalism was still going strong and Facebook was just rolled out to the public at the end of 2006. Some remember the time before Facebook whereas some of the young practitioners who would have been entering the workforce after 2012 would already have 6 years experience – they would have never experienced a day in high school without it. Then there was the other side of the camp that still woke up every morning to read the newspaper that arrived at their doorstep and watched the 10 pm National every night before bed. It was a clever and interesting time to begin this study and now that we are in 2015, the results give us a clear indication that social media has affected the way the world works, in general.

The main question that was being explored and asked of the participants through personal contact, over the course of 9 years is:


“What impact has social media had on the media relations function of public relations?”

They asked each of the participants to respond to the same questions each year for the past 9 years and have studied the results to their answers. Researchers reached out and spoke to the participants personally for their opinions. When asked if the journalists or public relations practitioners agreed or disagreed that social media tactics were affecting their relationships with each other or how their jobs were conducted, a variety of viewpoint or opinion answers were gathered.

The key findings were that of the 33 public relations practitioners interviewed in this study, only 4 stated social media didn’t change how they did their job. Most said that social media has made it an easier way for them to create personal relationships with journalists, to instil trust through professionalism and transparency. Of the 36 journalists interviewed, only 5 said that social media changed the way they did their work. Social media has allowed journalists to study the practitioners from a bird’s eye view to determine how professional they are and if they want to work with them, whereas, with the release of more and more data, public relations practitioners have free range in who and how they search someone out. A few clicks of the mouse and you can find someone’s phone number, email, their affiliates and a plethora of useful information to tailor a pitch perfectly.

But whom did they interview, from where? Would this affect the answer?


“The demographics of the individual practitioners and journalists varied across the spectrum, with the exception of geographic location, with most respondents primarily practicing in major cities in the Northeast part of the United States, though several of the journalists were located in smaller communities.”


This tells us that this is focusing on North American habit. 39 of the interviews were with females, 20 of which were working in Public Relations. Their experience “varied from less than one year to more than 25 years. Many of the participants had at least some formal (higher education) training in their field, though this varied from as little as one class to graduate degrees on the other end of the spectrum (in fact, several participants held advanced degrees).”

This seems like a very diverse control group (for the time frame) with a broad array of qualifications and experience to bring to the table. Despite it being specific to our habits in North America, this is because it’s important to see how business works in our continent. Cultures work differently and it is becoming more and more apparent that North America is fueled by their fervor for social media.


“Overall, it would seem that the results of this study indicate that the impact of social media on the relationship between public relations practitioners and journalists depends on which profession, and which professional, you ask. For many practitioners, the change has been substantive, but journalists are less enthusiastic about the changes social media has produced.”


It is safe to say this study shows us that for public relations practitioners, their role has changed and it seems commonplace for them to be very active online for social media. It has become part of their job. It’s mandatory that you be versed in social media etiquette and charisma. But journalists aren’t sold on it completely. News is news to them and they will get it where they find it, that doesn’t necessarily come from a PR person. What they did mention, the journalists, is that over the years, it has become easier to look practitioners up to see what their reputation is before working with them. Professionalism was a constant theme and it was said that if a public relations practitioner had it so easy to develop a relationship with a journalist that it was a faux pas to not reach out personally. “It’s so easy for PR professionals to form relationships with me, without so much as a single phone call or in-person meeting, that if they don’t, it comes off as unprofessional at best, undedicated at worst.” (p.7)


“New communication technologies, in this way, do not change the relationship dynamics, but they may highlight their importance because of the speed at which the communication is taking place.”


This case is a valuable tool in studying how we have been changing, as an industry over the past 9 years. I agree with the results of this study, simply based on knowing the roles of the people involved. As public relations representatives, it is our job to search out the best media for our story, the absolute best journalist to pitch to. Our jobs are one of being friendly, open, transparent, accommodating, and this can all be seen through the study of one’s social media page. Once you watch how a person reacts on social media for any length of time, you can decide whether you want to work with them. This though, may be the issue as to why the journalists don’t feel that ssocial_effect_graphic_lgocial media is changing their jobs so much. Yes, it allows them to see who is pitching to them and get to know them on a personal level but in the end, credible news has to come from credible sources and if more PR practitioners are using and finding journalists online, the journalists still get the same amount of content being sent their way. This is where the equilibrium is off, in my opinion, and why the results over the 9 years continue to say the same thing.

Another thing I would change about this study is the location of the participants. I realize that when this was started, those conducting the study had no idea how it would pan out over its course. In this way, we are lucky it was even done for so long in the first place. But this only gives us a small view as to what is happening in the United States and hinders us from knowing if the results translate as well on an international level or not.

What I liked about the method and delivery of this case study is that it was qualitative with real people giving real answers. It is so easy to look online and see that Twitter has overtaken Facebook as far as use as summed up in numbers but we need to care WHY this has happened because this shows a shift in how people are communicating. I agree with the findings for the most part, yes, because as someone who works in the industry, I can attest to it being far easier to tailor a press release if I know where it is going. With a more personal approach, we as public relations practitioners can demonstrate an active interest in what journalists are looking for in their articles and how they want it delivered.

I found this study very beneficial on a personal level because I’ve watched it all happen. Maybe I didn’t always understand what was happening behind the scenes before I got into Public Relations but now more than ever I realize we are shifting as an industry, away from vying for print space and aiming for impressions and click-throughs We are looking to engage the journalists to share our stories through being transparent, professional and approachable.



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