In 1972, David Cassidy apparently had 200,000 members of his official fan club (more than Elvis and the Beatles combined) and received 25,000 letters every week. Almost 40 years later, Lady Gaga has over 8 million Twitter followers whilst Justin Bieber has over 21 million people liking him via Facebook.
Back then, such fans were paying precious pocket money to follow their idol – and taking the time to write and post their messages of love. Today, a tweet or a message can be sent (free of charge) immediately – requiring very little effort to express an adoring sentiment.
At this uber-popular end of celebrity, the role of public relations is little changed. It is all about manufacturing and maintaining an image. Crafting messages is much the same whether it involves producing fan magazines, mass mailed response letters or social media comments that give an illusion of insight into the celebrity’s lifestyle.
For celebrities, social media offers a personal channel for expressing an unmediated opinion to the world including fans – with the fortunate ones being followed back, and, the holy grail of Tweet-followdom, receiving a personal @ communique.
The ability to broadcast without the filter of mainstream journalists guarantees attention (some of those millions, thousands or hundreds of followers must be monitoring – surely). But as traditional journalists pick up and retransmit such ‘news’, the celeb PR operatives need to be on guard. Potentially this shifts their role from offense to defence (proactive to reactive) if the celebrity is actually updating their social media profiles.
But the PR watchdog is not alone in that role – since the legions of followers may also be mobilized as advocates in protecting the reputation of their loved one. They will be retweeting the good stuff and defending against negative comments. An army of unpaid PR agents – potentially more useful than the thousands of screaming fans who followed the real life moves of David Cassidy four decades ago.
Beyond the world of celebrity, there are similar implications for PR practitioners seeking online love for their client brands. Social media provides a route for broadcasting corporate messages – except that unlike Lady G or Justin B, these statements frequently lack even the pretence of being other than a sales pitch. That may not matter to many brand fans who will retweet or defend their favourites.
The one way approach misses the opportunity to make a personal connection. In real life, if you really want someone to love you, there’s a need to give more than you take in a relationship. But in the online world, there may not be much difference between a real fan and an easy-come, easy-go social media follower. Where a fan will be happy with imagining a relationship, a follower may not actually care.
For corporate brands this means social media has to be used to create a relationship of some sorts with fans, or you’ll need to recognise that a follower may not give the answer you want to that other question: Will you still love me tomorrow?