Tim Furlong wore an expression of frustration as he struggled to free his camera tripod from a tangle of school chairs in one of Wilmington’s East Side Charter School classrooms on April 9, 2014. It was a big day for Delaware’s education community—U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was visiting in recognition of the state’s progress since winning the federal Race to the Top grant in 2010. Furlong, the Delaware correspondent for NBC Channel 10 in Philadelphia, was there to cover the visit along with other state outlets.
Also in attendance were Delaware Governor Jack Markell, Wilmington Mayor Dennis Williams and Delaware Secretary of Education Mark Murphy. I was there as a public relations consultant for the Delaware Charter Schools Network.
As Duncan and other officials interacted with children, PR reps crowded around taking pictures. I stepped forward to help Furlong free his camera. He thanked me and said with a pointed look, “All I need is two minutes but I can’t get a clear shot because everyone’s communications people are taking pictures for their social media sites. I’ve got 10 million viewers, you know?”
What he was not saying outright but which I understood is that social media is not a replacement for traditional media. Is it critical if you want to be relevant? Of course. Can it enhance traditional media? Certainly. Does it render traditional media unnecessary? Absolutely not. And to some extent, social media has made people lazy. After all, it is very easy to post your own pictures and narrate the story the way you want it told in your newsletter, on your Facebook page, or in your Twitter feed. What is not easy is to earn media coverage by convincing a reporter or editor that your story is worth covering.
Effective public relations begins with the audience. I divide audience into two categories—“captive” and “non-captive.” Your captive audience are those who are already on board with whatever it is that you are doing. Your non-captive audience includes your detractors, decision-makers and those unfamiliar with your company or cause. There is crossover of course, but generally speaking, your captive audience is your base and your non-captive audience represents those who you are looking to influence, attract or gain.
First, the captive audience. Companies and organizations invest a lot of time and capacity building social media profiles, but many fall prey to the tendency to prioritize quantity over quality. In other words, the goal is to increase the number of followers, likes and shares, while less attention is paid to exactly who is following, liking and sharing. Knowing the audience is key in order to reach them in a meaningful way.
Second, the non-captive audience. While there are exceptions, the majority of a non-captive audience cannot be reached effectively through social media because of its enormous volume. Sure, maybe a potential new customer or client might see their friend’s “like” of your company or organization, but you have a much better chance of reaching them through The News Journal for example, because most everyone in the state reads it. The bottom line is this—your company or organization will remain in neutral rather than in drive if you rely too much on your base. If you want to move the needle, you have to get the attention of your non-captive audience and engaging traditional media is the way to do it.
Tim Furlong ended up getting his shot that day and his report aired that night on the evening news. Meanwhile, a single mother of two returns home in between shifts at a minimum wage job to check on her two sons, both of whom struggle in a city school. She’s heard about charter schools but she thinks they may be private. She doesn’t follow Arne Duncan or the governor on Twitter, she doesn’t “like” the State Department of Education Facebook page and she doesn’t read newsletters from advocacy groups—she doesn’t have the interest or the time. What she does have is a few minutes to eat dinner, so she turns on Channel 10 and sees a report about a tuition-free school, just down the street, that is beating state proficiency averages. She thinks she might give them a call.