The practice of public relations has dramatically changed in recent years. It is imperative that organizations change the way they communicate and resist the forces that encourage you to continue the way you have always done things because it is the way you have always done things.

I read the newspaper every morning. The majority of people who are younger than me (and there are a lot more of them every day) did not acquire this habit. Not only do they not consume their information through these traditional media, they don’t particularly trust or respect traditional media resources. In fact, studies have found that most people apply higher credibility to information that comes from other people than from news media.

Quips on Facebook now carry more weight than an implied endorsement from the local TV anchor. And like face-to-face and other grassroots communications, social media offers the ability not only to deliver information but to truly connect and interact. It is an amplified version of one-on-one communication that enables and encourages the community to create and report the information with or without PR serving as a catalyst.

None of this is news in the PR community. We have been scrambling to keep up for much of the past decade. But the pace of change has accelerated with the increased influence of social media channels such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

For instance, this weekend, our client, Saint Arnold Brewing Company, will compete at the Great American Beer Festival. It is THE big brewing event of the year from craft brewers and winning a medal is a source of enormous pride can increase visibility and accelerate sales. I hope I don’t jinx them by writing about this.

In the past, when the brewery has won, we have gathered the pertinent information and issued an announcement on the Monday or Tuesday following the Saturday evening awards ceremony. The weekend is not when you want to be pitching journalists. The Sunday paper is typically completed on Friday night and the weekend TV crew isn’t interested in feature stories. They are all about the latest drive-by shootings. Besides, it’s not like the Texas-based writers would have a clue about the outcomes of the awards in Denver. We controlled the information and could dictate the timing.

This year is the dawning of a different era. During the past year, Saint Arnold has attracted a large following on Twitter and has more than 3,000 Facebook fans. There are about a dozen very passionate and active beer bloggers in Texas – including some mainstream media journalists -- who frequently write about the brewery and the social media denizens of Houston have embraced the brewery as one of their own. And there are social networking communities such as Beer Advocate and Rate Beer devoted to craft beer where people regularly share information and ideas.

Moreover, the awards ceremony is streaming live for the first time on The Brewing Netork. In short, there is a communications infrastructure in place that will disseminate the information as it happens and deliver it to just about anyone who cares about it. If there is a positive result, it will be Tweeted and commented on Saturday. On Sunday, people will offer their congratulations and enterprising retailers will recognize the win with a small sign or a ribbon on the products.

So what is PR’s role in this changed landscape? Overall, we view social media as just another batch of potential avenues through which we can target and reach our publics. We never just look at any single discreet media vehicle to deliver our message – we use whatever combination of vehicles we believe will cost effectively deliver the greatest impact for the client. Recognizing that social media tools can be extremely cost effective, they are being integrated into more PR initiatives and for some, such as Saint Arnold, social media provides the foundation for marketing and branding.

But as stated earlier, social media provides the opportunity to do more than just reach someone. It enables true engagement. I view it similar to what invariably happens after an executive delivers a presentation. Everything is beautifully choreographed and performed and then afterward a swarm of people surrounds the executive with comments and questions. Social media is the same as that swarm. You want the executive to make a powerful and positive impression in those personal interactions – whether in person or virtually.

This is why we on a number of occasions have helped clients – especially those experiencing difficulties – create platforms that enable their customers and communities to publicly express their concerns and ask questions. It can help the organization quickly learn what is wrong and start the process of fixing it, all the while positioning the company as a caring and compassionate member of the community interested in problem solving.

Public relations counselors also work to make sure there is a strategic underpinning to all the activities – both social media and more traditional efforts. Engaging via social media channels such as Twitter can be time consuming low-impact if not specifically tied to a desired end result. Therefore, it is important to make sure that the efforts support whatever the organization’s objectives are and the efforts are focused and consistent.

These are just a few thoughts, many of which are fundamental. We know enough to know that we don’t know everything, but we are being aggressive about integrating these techniques into our client communication activities and have been pleased with the outcomes. We are creating and cultivating customer communities. We are shooting, editing and producing online videos. We are encouraging client blogs, tweets and Facebook pages. And we are tracking what the communities are saying and doing in order to assess our progress and adjust course if necessary.  

We are also interested in what you have to say, so fire away.