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Public Relations Review 41 (2015) 170–177

Contents lists available at ScienceDirect

Public Relations Review

Is using social media “good” for the public relations


profession? A critical reflection
Chiara Valentini ∗
Department of Business Communication, School of Business and Social Sciences, Aarhus University, Denmark

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Article history: Scholarship in public relations seems to be overly positive about social media. The dominant
Received 29 July 2014 discourse in public relations is that using social media is “good”, because social media can
Received in revised form help organizations in developing dialogs and relationships with publics and in engaging
14 November 2014
with them. Yet empirical evidence in public relations is mostly case-dependent and limited
Accepted 20 November 2014
to the realm of understanding current organizational practices, with limited understanding
of the concrete value for organizations or for publics. In this paper I question the utility of
Keywords:
social media for publics, organizations and public relations, and I argue that the positive
Public relations
view of social media held by the majority of public relations scholars is grounded on the
Identity
Social media profession’s need to reconcile the two sides of public relations identity—the rhetorical and
Interpersonal relations the relational. A discussion of whether current public relations practices in social media
Rhetoric reflect these two main identities is offered, as well as a discussion of the implications of
Critique uncritical use of social media for the public relations profession.
© 2014 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction

There is a commonly accepted assumption that the information and communication technologies (ICTs) that have
emerged in the past twenty years have contributed to the development of societies (Castells, 1996, 2004). These technolo-
gies have been welcomed for their interactive and dialogic nature and for the possibilities they seem to offer for connecting
people to one another (Benkler, 2007; Lessig, 2004). Judging by the volume of publications devoted to research in this
field, the literature across the various communication disciplines, including public relations, tends to be rather enthusiastic
about digital technologies (van Osch & Coursaris, 2014). Social media in particular are considered to be fast, cheap and
interactive channels for reaching targeted audiences. In public relations, social media—those conversational platforms that
allow for asynchronic conversations and the sharing of user-generated material using the Web 2.0 environment (Valentini
& Kruckeberg, 2012)—have been warmly welcomed because they make it possible to communicate directly with public
groups, bypassing the filtering processes of journalists and other gatekeepers (Kent, 2013).
Along with the increasing professional use, scholarly interest in social media has also grown exponentially in the past
ten years (Ye & Ki, 2012). Yet public relations research seems—with the exception of a few scholars (c.f. Kent, 2008, 2013,
2014; Valentini & Kruckeberg, 2015)—to be rather dominated by a positive assessment of social media use in and for public
relations. A number of merits and opportunities in the use of social media for public relations have been asserted, yet the
empirical evidence is mostly case-dependent and limited to the realm of understanding current practice. So why is public

∗ Tel.: +45 87165118.


E-mail address: c.valentini@bcom.au.dk

http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2014.11.009
0363-8111/© 2014 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
C. Valentini / Public Relations Review 41 (2015) 170–177 171

relations research so enthusiastic about social media? Does the prominence of social media really offer concrete benefits to
the public relations profession as well as the organizations and publics that it serves? To answer these questions, this paper
explores three major themes: (1) the perceived value of social media for public relations; (2) the alleged benefits of social
media for publics and for organizations; and (3) the possible implications of current social media use for public relations.
The subject is approached through critical analysis of the existing studies in the field, accompanied by examples of uses,
misuses and abuses of digital technologies. The overarching argument proposed in the paper is that digital technologies and
specifically social media do not always represent opportunities for individuals and organizations, but can sometimes pose
risks and contribute to failures in social relations. The argument is built upon existing research on the use of social media by
publics and organizations. If the public relations function is to serve both organizations and publics, and if public relations
scholarship is to “become even more intellectually expansive” (Heath, 2006, p. 95), social media should not be embraced
uncritically. In what follows, I have tried to emphasize that the use of social media, though relevant, may be problematic, and
that rather than being “good” or “bad” in themselves, it is their use and the purpose of their use that connotes social media as
positive, negative or simply neutral. Based on this discussion, I provide a different explanation for the positivist view of social
media held by a large group of public relations scholars—an explanation grounded on the profession’s need to reconcile two
different sides of the public relations identity, the rhetorical and the relational. I then conclude with a discussion of whether
current public relations practice in social media reflects these two main identities, and of the implications of an uncritical
use of social media for the public relations profession.

2. “Using social media is good” as the dominant public relations discourse

Among the various digital technologies, social media have gained a particular relevance in the field of public relations
as the “new” channels, not only for communicating to and with publics and stakeholders, but for nourishing relationships
with them (Verhoeven, Tench, Zerfass, Moreno, & Verčič, 2012). At a time of professional identity crisis (Edwards, 2012;
Smith, 2012), the advent of social media was warmly welcomed by the profession. Solis and Breakenridge (2009) are among
those public relations professionals who argue that social media have brought increased legitimacy to the public relations
profession, since many professionals are today tasked with handling several digital platforms on behalf of a company or
individual (Macnamara & Zerfass, 2012; Taylor & Kent, 2010; Wright & Hinson, 2014). Research on social media in public
relations has emerged as one of the most important areas of inquiry of the last ten years (Duhé, 2012; Kent, 2013; Ye &
Ki, 2012). The dominant discourse is that using social media is “good” for the public relations profession because social
media allow organizations to achieve a number of valuable objectives, for example: to communicate directly with their
stakeholders and publics by circumventing the gatekeeping role of news media (Kent, 2013; Linke & Zerfass, 2013; Valentini
& Kruckeberg, 2012; Wright & Hinson, 2014); to develop dialogs and relationships with stakeholders and publics (Kelleher,
2009; Macnamara & Zerfass, 2012); to increase organizational visibility and image (Gilpin, 2010; Yang & Kent, 2014); and
to influence customer opinion on brands (Mangold & Faulds, 2009; Men & Tsai, 2013). Social media have been praised for
their capacity to enable more symmetrical, two-way communications between organizations and their publics (Coombs
& Holladay, 2014; Kelleher, 2009; Macnamara & Zerfass, 2012), and symmetrical, two-way communications are seen as
essential to building mutual and beneficial relationships. Yet in the online environment, two-way communications exist
only if there is a flow of conversations between organizations—not as abstract entities, but as assemblages of recognizable
individuals—and publics. Neither conversations, nor two-way communications, can take place if individuals do not create
and share contents, or do not respond to already created contents with comments. The act of posting contents on an online
digital platform is not a sufficient ground to argue that such a platform has dialogic outcomes that matter for building
or maintaining organization–public relationships. When organizations use social media to post contents with the purpose
of enhancing dialogs and conversations with their publics, this does not mean that those contents created conversations
among the followers of organizations’ social media, or that organizations have a dialog or, still less, a relationship with their
followers. What differentiates social media from other digital media is, indeed, the presence of interactions and conversations
between and by individuals (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010). Collaborations are possible if individuals recognize and accept others.
In social media, meeting others is a virtual activity, enabled through the exchange of communications. That is why dialog in
social media requires the presence of interactions among social media users and the exchange of two-way communications
(Kent & Taylor, 2002).
Particularly in the last five years, the social media environment has been increasingly populated by organizations seek-
ing their own direct access to communicate to, rather than with, publics (Wright & Hinson, 2014). Research indicates that
organizations, and the public relations professionals who deploy social media on their behalf, employ them as additional
channels for disseminating corporate information, rather than collaborative platforms for fostering dialogs and collabora-
tions and contributing to relationship building (Avidar, Ariel, Malka, & Levy, 2013; DiStaso, McCorkindale, & Wright, 2011;
McCorkindale, 2010; Verhoeven et al., 2012; Wright & Hinson, 2014). Public relations research on the contribution of social
media use for achieving organizational objectives is inadequate, and there are still too many gaps between professional
social media use and the normative use recommended by scholars (Coombs & Holladay, 2014; Wright & Hinson, 2014).
Empirical findings in the public relations literature give scant confirmation of positive social media effects. Too often
research studies show only organizations’ perceived, rather than real, benefits of social media use (DiStaso et al., 2011;
Verhoeven et al., 2012; Wright & Hinson, 2014). Very little is known about whether publics perceive organizational social
media use as beneficial (Friedl & Verčič, 2011; Men & Tsai, 2013; Verčič & Verčič, 2013), and some scholars, such as Kent
172 C. Valentini / Public Relations Review 41 (2015) 170–177

and Saffer (2014) and Coombs and Holladay (2014), have questioned whether all organizations should maintain a presence
in social media, and whether such a presence really contributes to nurturing relationships with publics. We may further
wonder whether a corporate social media presence is considered intrusive by social media users themselves. After all, one
of the main reasons for using social media is seeking human connectedness, rather than product or company relations
(van Dijck, 2013). Public relations scholarship seems overly positive about social media, without necessarily assessing their
real benefits or reflecting on who gains most from their use (Kent, 2013, 2014). If public relations is to be understood as a
profession that serves the interests of society, publics and organizations alike (Edwards, 2012; Ihlen & Verhoeven, 2012),
then an in-depth reflection of the impact on publics of digital technology and social media use, of how organizations use
and benefit from social media activities, and finally of the role of public relations in the interplay between public use and
organizational use is required.

3. The impact of digital technologies and social media on publics

Digital technologies, social media and the Internet environment in general have been praised for their democratizing
influence in society, which seemingly allows anyone to participate and freely contribute to the online environment. This
influence is seen as driving new social and cultural transformations. These technologies can also enhance learning and
knowledge-sharing at very low cost. By extending public services such as e-voting, e-medicine, or e-courses to dispersed,
low-density areas, they are seen to boost efficiency (cf. for example Benkler, 2007; Castells, 1996, 2004; Lessig, 2004). Yet
this technological determinism is not without risk. Critics argue that it has promoted a society of isolation, of warped com-
munications, and of disintegrating communities (Harkaway, 2012; Turkle, 2011), and that it could promote what Formenti
(2011) calls a new form of capitalism, the “digital capitalism” characterized by organizations’ exploitation of the creativity
of individuals through online co-creational processes.
From the point of view of interpersonal communications and relations, there is no doubt that digital technologies and
social media have contributed to a major alteration in people’s interpersonal communications and relational practices. Inter-
personal communications have substantially altered, at least in Western and developed countries, as a result of the culture
of increased connectivity that has emerged from social media’s engineering sociality (van Dijck, 2013), which allows anyone
to be online and to connect to others. Physical presence is no longer a precondition for interpersonal communication. Tradi-
tional public spaces such as train stations, airports, and public squares have lost their function as sites of social interaction
because in these sites people are now frequently alone, yet connected to others virtually. Turkle (2011) argues that “being
alone can start to seem like a precondition for being together because it is easier to communicate if you can focus, without
interruption, on your screen” (Turkle, 2011, p. 155). The very essence of digital technologies is to make it easier to form online
human relations, but at the same time to limit direct human-to-human relations. Digital technologies have thus fostered a
“networked individualism” (Wellman et al., 2003), which, through the use of a network site, liberates individuals from being
part of a collectivity.
People use social media for diverse purposes, though overall they are likely “to emphasize human connectedness when
explaining a platform’s value in their lives” (van Dijck, 2013, p. 12). Social media tools allow users to see what a friend is
watching, listening to, reading and buying, with the simplicity of a click. They encourage the ideology of globalized market
economies and of self-expression, but at the same time they promote “braggadocian behaviors,” behaviors in which the
subject shows off (Qualman, 2009). They offer users a sense of free space in which they can do what they want and present
an identity—often a fantasy of who they want to be—as well as engaging in interactions with limited or no commitment
toward others they encounter on social media (Turkle, 2011). Braggadocian behaviors can be necessary in order to define a
user’s own identity, and such behaviors can consequently become the means through which individuals define their identity
and are recognized as part of a group or community, albeit virtual. The Internet and social media can fulfill one of the most
basic human desires: the desire to feel accepted, to fit in and to belong to a group. The “selfie,” a photograph one has taken of
oneself with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to social media (Oxford Dictionaries, 2014), has become the latest trend
in social media interactions. Yet “selfie-ing” practices in social media can promote narcissism, and increased narcissism can
ultimately develop into an obsession with one’s appearance and even mental illness (Aldridge & Harden, 2014, March 23). In
their search for self-expression and identification, individuals using social media become obsessed with sharing with their
network any moment of their lives, as if everything they do is worth posting.
As we become more and more dependent on digital technologies and social media and expect more from them, we
expect less and less from one another. Digital technologies and social media have substantially changed how we experience
intimacy, develop interpersonal relations and live social experiences (cf. Turkle, 2011). The Pew Research Center (Smith &
Duggan, 2013, October 21) indicates that one in every ten American adults has used an online dating site or mobile dating
app to seek a partner, and that in the last eight years the proportion of Americans who say that they met their current
partner online has doubled. Another study conducted by the same organization (Lenhart & Duggan, 2014, February 11)
shows that 25% of married or partnered adults who text, have texted their partner while they were both home together, that
21% of cell-phone owners or internet users in a committed relationship have felt closer to their spouse or partner because of
exchanges they had online or via text message. Another 9% of adults have resolved online or by text message an argument
with their partner that they were having difficulty resolving person to person (Lenhart & Duggan, 2014, February 11). These
results indicate that digital technologies are not simply tools that facilitate communications: they have a substantial impact
on the way humans interact and relate to one another. In other words, they affect the dynamics of interpersonal relations
C. Valentini / Public Relations Review 41 (2015) 170–177 173

and communications. Distorted uses, or abuses, can lead to a sense of alienation, a loss of sociality, an overall distrust of
others. How might these possible changes in interpersonal relations and communications affect the way organizations and
publics interact? Will there be consequences for organization–public relationships? These are questions that public relations
scholarship needs to tackle if the profession is to remain viable and valuable. We should thus exercise caution in concluding
that digital technologies and social media provide great benefits for society at large: examples of abuse and misuse occur
more often than has so far been documented by research in the field.

4. Organizations’ use of social media and the public relations role

Two billion people (1.97 billion) are currently active in social media, a figure that is expected to reach 2.55 billion by
2017 (eMarketer, 2013, June 18). People are turning to social media in search of entertainment, information, social contact,
and social status (Avidar et al., 2013; Lee & Ma, 2012). Content is a central element of social media existence, as it is
of individuals’ decisions to join or follow a social network site. In the last five years, content production in social media
has become increasingly professionalized, following on from increased demand for relevant contents in these platforms
by a large part of society (Verhoeven et al., 2012). A review of recent organizational practices in social media indicates
three major trends that have little to do with the much-vaunted nurturing of organization–public relationships through
social media use (cf. Carim & Warwick, 2013; Wright & Hinson, 2014; Yang & Kent, 2014). These trends are, first, the
dissemination of tailored messages to potential or current customers, consumers and other stakeholders; second, the offering
of entertainment and online experiences (Kent, 2013); and third, the gathering of valuable information on public opinion
about the organization and its products or services. Digital technologies and apps allow contents received daily by social
media users to be personalized based on previous search activities and posts. Moreover, well-prepared content can boost a
word-of-mouth (WOM) effect on a social network site. WOM has been considered an important strategy for increasing brand
visibility and awareness (Ferguson, 2008). It has been used by public relations professionals to widen conversations in social
media, to convey appealing organizational messages, and to attract brand fans to share ideas and content with one another.
Because the simple provision of informational or promotional messages does not guarantee public engagement or discussion,
emotional appeals have been increasingly used in online contents. Organizations are creating online experiences by offering
funny or engaging videos on YouTube, involving social media publics in discussions on specific topics, and creating new and
alternative content around brand products (Men & Tsai, 2013). Organizations are also using social media for market/public
opinion research. As previously discussed, increasingly braggadocian behaviors among some social media users have made
it possible to gather information about what various publics and the friends, colleagues and acquaintances of individuals find
relevant, spend time researching, purchase, and comment on. Paradoxically, if not for braggadocian behavior it would not be
possible to gain information about the lives of the people we care for, admire or simply share interests with (van Dijck, 2013).
By searching and tracking conversations in social media, organizations can identify not merely their various stakeholders’
concerns, needs and preferences, but also the influencers (Sedereviciute & Valentini, 2011) who can potentially be engaged to
provide free publicity and endorsements for their products and services, even to act as defenders of organization interests, as
in the case of brand community, in which brand community members protect the brand from outsider attacks, defamations,
and even intrusions (Kozinets, de Valck, Wojnicki, & Wilner, 2010).
There is little empirical evidence on whether these three most common social media uses actually help to build more
engaged publics, stronger relations with publics, and/or increased brand loyalty. Social media measurement research cannot
yet provide concrete answers about the added value contributed by social media to securing organizations’ objectives,
because this kind of research is still too focused on quantifying visibility and awareness by counting “likes” and “shares”
rather than looking more closely at the effects on public behaviors and attitudes (cf. DiStaso et al., 2011; McCorkindale, 2010).
In view of public relations’ robust interest in social media and technological–deterministic approach, we might have expected
some research to have investigated the factors that strengthen or harm organizational objectives and publics’ interests when
social media are used for organizational purposes. Hitherto, social media research confirming the validity of public relations
constructs has so far often been an inductive exercise. There is a common understanding that because social media are
dialogic and collaborative platforms, the measurement of dialogic interactions correlates with the quality of relationships
between an organization and its publics (Kelleher, 2009). But as Coombs and Holladay (2014) have warned, there is a danger
in connecting a particular study’s results to other specific desired outcomes with the purpose of reinforcing the value of
one’s own construct. This inductive exercise reduces complexity, and increases the risk of building a representation of social
networked relations that is a simplification of reality.
While the benefits of using social media to achieve organizational goals have not yet been empirically proved, several
real-life examples show how using social media can potentially harm organizational objectives, especially when unethi-
cal practices are employed (Gallicano, Brett, & Hopp, 2013). Companies such as Walmart, Sony (James, 2007) and L’Oreal
(Macnamara, 2010) have been caught practicing forms of ghost-writing to lure consumers toward a positive corporate image.
Also, in the name of attracting public attention, organizations are producing content that can cause more harm than benefit,
especially if it is considered inappropriate or offensive. In 2014 the Danish parliament’s YouTube video and KLM’s tweet
were examples of this problem. In spring 2014 the Danish parliament created and posted a YouTube video intended to
attract younger Danish voters who had not previously been active in politics to vote in the European Parliament elections.
The video generated much discussion and criticism and had to be removed shortly afterwards because it was considered
sexist and violent (The Guardian, 2014, May 14). Similarly, the Dutch airline KLM was criticized when in the name of “fun,” it
174 C. Valentini / Public Relations Review 41 (2015) 170–177

posted on its corporate Twitter account a tweet mocking Mexico’s exit from the World Cup after losing against Holland. The
tweet “Adios Amigos! #NEDMEX” was perceived by some of KLM’s followers as in poor taste (Bleaney, June 30, 2014). Other
examples of problematic organizational use of social media relate to organizations’ abuse of power in monitoring social
media contents: notable examples here were Edward Snowden’s allegations in 2013 that the US National Security Agency’s
data-collection programs had been used to spy on American citizens and allies (Greenwald, 2013, June 6), Facebook’s selling
of private user-data to corporations (Bates, 2012, October 3), and recent Facebook manipulation to see how positive and neg-
ative emotions spread across the site (The Independent, July 4, 2014). Again, monitoring and data collection have increased
levels of skepticism among publics, and it is hard to engage with and build relationships with skeptical publics. The Pew
Research Internet Project reports that 86% of internet users have tried to remove or mask their digital identities, while 55%
have tried to avoid observations by specific people, organizations, or governments (Rainie, Kiesler, Kang, & Madden, 2013,
September 5).
Without doubt, digital technologies have provoked changes in the way people interact and communicate. As people
have become more and more dependent on digital technologies in their daily lives, the demand for content has grown
exponentially, and this demand has been matched by an increased supply of content created by different sources and even
by own public production. This situation has turned the Web 2.0 environment into a “jungle” in which both good and bad,
both true and untrue, both self-serving and altruistic contents are available and shared. Public relations professionals, on
behalf of the organizations they work for, have contributed to this content supply–demand process by creating and spreading
content that may or may not meet the information needs of publics. Given the consensus in the field about the role for public
relations in social media communications, one may wonder whether public relations professionals are aware that many
of their social media practices, rather than producing the desired positive behavioral and attitudinal effects, may simply
make the social media environment polluted. The fact that the majority of public relations practices in social media are one-
way communications, often for promotional and marketing purposes (Avidar et al., 2013; Carim & Warwick, 2013; DiStaso
et al., 2011; McCorkindale, 2010) not only diminishes the credibility of public relations as a managerial function helping
organizations to establish mutual and beneficial relationships with key publics (Ledingham, 2003), but also undermines
other, non-social media related initiatives that are more effective in nurturing relationships. As Kent (2013) indicates, today
there is too much information circulating in the web, a surplus that overwhelms publics. The web, in other words, has
become polluted, and public relations professionals have not adequately reflected on the consequences of such pollution, or
on the impact of their created and shared contents on the profession, publics and the organizations they represent.

5. Reconciling public relations functions via social media use

As previously discussed, using social media and other technologies from a public perspective can provide opportunities,
as advocated by technological–determinist scholars (for example Benkler, 2007; Castells, 1996, 2004; Lessig, 2004) but
there are also risks in using social media, and these relate to dysfunctional alterations of human relations and of how
social relations form (Formenti, 2011; Harkaway, 2012; Turkle, 2011; van Dijck, 2013). Accompanying increased social
media use there has been a corresponding rise in public concern about privacy loss, and overall a lack of trust has emerged
alongside the awareness that digital technologies and social media are not always beneficial for publics. Using social media
for business and organizational purposes has yet to be proved effective (Kent, 2013), and public relations research on dialog,
online engagement and relationships depicts a situation in which, rather than exploiting the potential of these technologies,
organizations are using them according to a linear, transmission model of communication (Bortree and Seltzer, 2009; Carim
& Warwick, 2013; O’Neil, 2014; Yang & Kent, 2014). Similarly, little is known about how stakeholders and publics value
social media use by organizations (cf. Friedl & Verčič, 2011; Men & Tsai, 2013; Valentini & Kruckeberg, 2015; Verčič & Verčič,
2013). Why, therefore, have public relations professionals and scholars been such enthusiasts for using social media?
I argue that these positive views have served as a discursive process to legitimize the public relations profession. The
value of the “using social media is good” discourse has been projected onto the capacity to act, as a mechanism to legitimate
two major traditions in public relations identity: the rhetorical and the relational (cf. Heath, 2001, 2006, 2013; Ledingham,
2003). Social media have become an important area of interest for scholars, as they seem to reconcile these two different
traditions of seeing and discussing the core functions of public relations: the rhetorical tradition, which sees the main
function of public relations as content crafting and messaging, storytelling, and framing communications (Heath, 2001,
2006), and the relational tradition, which posits that the main function of public relations is to help an organization to
build and maintain mutual and beneficial relationships with its publics (Broom, Casey, & Ritchey, 1997; Ferguson, 1984;
Ledingham & Bruning, 1998; Ledingham, 2003). The use of social media by public relations professionals has reconciled
these two traditions, since content creation is an important component of social media conversations, and social media
conversations generate interactions among publics and between publics and organizations. Social media are conversational
media, and as such they require users’ interactions and active participation in order to remain “alive.” Conversations emerge
as a result of sharing information about something that arouses an interest in someone, but also from the presentation of
contents that stimulate individuals’ interests and curiosity, or that simply respond to information-seeking needs. Content
in social media may take the form of visual, textual, or audio contents, and public relations professionals can contribute to
content creation by providing newer and newer feeds, which in turn can boost conversations and interactions.
Content production and sharing are important elements of interactions and conversations, and it is these interactions
and conversations that constitute the emergence of online dialogs. Dialog is a vital element for developing relationships
C. Valentini / Public Relations Review 41 (2015) 170–177 175

between organizations and stakeholders (Hon & Grunig, 1999; Macnamara & Zerfass, 2012). Through content production
and sharing, dialog can develop and impact the creation of some form of online relationships (cf. Kelleher, 2009), albeit
differently than referred to in the public relations literature (cf. Coombs & Holladay, 2014).
While I maintain that such inductive conclusion may be problematic, I posit that such discursive thinking does have an
indirect value. That value consists in the capacity to offer an argument that supports the assumption that the presence of
public interactions and conversations—as a result of producing and sharing contents—can help the formation of relationships
among publics, among organizations, and between publics and organizations. Accordingly, in the social media environment,
public relations can express both the rhetorical (content production) and relational (relationship management) functions
of the profession. Because using social media justifies the simultaneous existence of these two functions, public relations
practice and scholarship have claimed—although this could be contested by other disciplines—their “ownership” of social
media practicing and theorizing within organizational contexts. Yet studies of social media use by and for organizations
depict a slightly different scenario—one in which the rhetorical tradition prevails over the relational one.
The sheer volume of both the use (and abuse) of social media, both by organizations and by those who perpetuate social
media use on their behalf—the public relations professionals—is creating a number of potential issues. First, the level of con-
sumer and, in general, public skepticism toward organizations is increasing. Publics are more and more concerned about the
information they share in the online environment, and the possible implications on the level of online trust and the level of
information-processing capacity (Rainie et al., 2013, September 5). In other words, publics will likely become more and more
aware of organizations’ hidden messages, and are likely to immunize themselves against persuasive online messages and
social media contents in ways similar to that described by McGuire’s inoculation theory (1961). The more resistant people
become, the more organizations will have to find new approaches to gain public trust and overcome attitudinal resistance.
Because the online environment is already polluted by an increasing volume of online contents (Kent, 2013), gaining atten-
tion to a soon-to-be-resistant public may rapidly become a challenge for public relations professionals. Recurring cases of
company misconduct show that organizations are trying to gain the attention of publics with non-transparent practices, for
example by distributing online contents without disclosing a professional identity and/or an affiliation with the organization
(Gallicano et al., 2013), or by developing content that is highly controversial and can counterproductively enhance negative
attitudes among publics. Such attitudes have implications for whether organizations achieve their core objectives, but also
for the professional identity of public relations. Unethical practices corroborate the idea that public relations is all about
protecting the image and reputation of an organization by any means possible.

6. Conclusions

This article began by questioning the usefulness of social media for publics, for organizations, and for public relations.
Public relations scholarship seems to be overly positive on the subject of social media. The dominant discourse in public
relations is that “using social media is good” because social media help organizations to develop dialogs and relationships
with publics and thereby to engage them. Yet social media were created to enhance social capital, and to enable more human
connectedness, rather than to promote organizational business interests (van Dijck, 2013). Social media exist because of
interactions and exchanges of opinions among users (Valentini & Kruckeberg, 2012); thus previous scholarly research seems
to agree that the existence of some sort of exchange and conversation can facilitate the formation of relationships among
individuals, among organizations, and between individuals and organizations.
I began by critically discussing the pervasiveness of the “using social media is good” discourse in public relations, by
showing that the use of social media is not necessarily as beneficial to either organizations or publics as has been depicted.
Risks exist that can undermine relations, both among publics and between publics and organizations. Existing studies can
at best only offer a case-based understanding of current social media uses by organizations and publics, and generalizability
is thus problematic (cf. van Osch & Coursaris, 2014). Social media measurements, which assess the extent to which social
media activities support organizational objectives, are also underdeveloped (DiStaso et al., 2011). Hence the conclusion
that using social media is good for organizations and for publics is questionable. Despite this, public relations scholars and
professionals cling to their technological–deterministic perspective on the value of social media. Without a solid body of
research confirming that social media use is good beyond professionals’ own considerations, one may wonder why public
relations scholars and professionals are so enthusiastic. I argued that an explanation for this can be tracked back to the
discussion of public relations identity. I posit that the dominant “using social media is good” discourse acts as a mechanism
to reconcile two distinct traditions of public relations function in organizations: the rhetorical and the relational. The “using
social media is good” discourse provides a ground for accepting these two different perspectives. Yet studies of social
media use indicate that the rhetorical tradition is still dominant in the field, and often is not as transparent as it should be.
There is a lack of critical reflection on the implications of this for the public relations profession, for the organizations that
public relations professionals often represent, and for publics. The public relations profession can serve organizations and
publics better by reflecting critically on the consequences and effects of their direct and indirect actions—also in relation
to social media—on both publics and society at large. Such reflection requires an understanding, first and foremost, of the
impact of digital technologies and social media in interpersonal communications and relations. By understanding better
how technologies are changing public behaviors, professionals will be able to assess the nature of their social media actions
so as to be able to provide ethical, responsible advice to their organizations.
176 C. Valentini / Public Relations Review 41 (2015) 170–177

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