In the past, Public Relations and Social Media departments were completely separate entities. Today, it is more than likely that the two departments at least overlap. Despite this fact, many PR departments are not properly trained in social media. There are a number of reasons for this, ranging from lack of time to the assumption that PR professionals should already be social media experts. As for the latter, we know that’s not always the case. There have been too many recent high-profile social media faux-pas to count. These occurrences not only cost a brand profit (and customers), but also time. It can take months to bounce back from a mistake that would have taken seconds to prevent. For example, last year one viral Tweet from a PR executive sent before she boarded a plane to Africa ended with her losing her job and her (former) company having to engage in major damage control. In order to avoid a situation like this and also make social media work for you, follow these three best practices for social media in PR.

  1. Don’t Just Hand the Keys (i.e- passwords) to Anyone

Running a brand’s social accounts is NOT a task that anyone can do. Smaller companies often hand the reigns off to an employee with no prior training, generally due to lack of time or understanding about the importance of social media. Repeat after me: This Is A Mistake. In most cases, there should be one person who has access to an official social account. This isn’t to say that all employees can’t contribute ideas for the account (collaboration is great!) – but all social media activity should be approved by one person before going live. This greatly eliminates the likelihood of a slip.

There are a couple solutions here. One is a password management service such as LastPass. Some of its services are free and allow access to a social media account to be quickly revoked without having to go through the hassle of changing passwords. The second is to use management software such as HootSuite. This allows you to set one person as a manager and have all other employees run potential posts through an approval process. There are many other benefits to using a software like this, including the ability to schedule Tweets, track engagement, and the convenience of keeping track of all your social media accounts in one place.

Let’s take it one step further. Any employee who uses the brand name on social media must go through a basic briefing about your company’s social media policies. In today’s 24 hour news cycle, someone is ALWAYS watching – an undesirable Tweet or photo doesn’t have to come from an official account to cause a crisis. Therefore, any employee who plans on associating themselves with the company online must be aware of the standards they’re expected to uphold. When informed, any employee can be a great asset and advocate for a company on social media.

The key takeaway here is simple. Social Media is just like classic PR: staying on message is absolutely essential to success. Make sure your company is taking the precautionary steps to avoid having to spend valuable time and assets getting back on track.

  1. Build a Personal and Lasting Relationship With Customers Using Social Media

Many companies’ PR departments utilize social media to pitch to journalists, but don’t use it for much else. These brands are missing out on a huge opportunity that social media offers us: the chance to use another communication channel to make a customer connection. Which at its core, is what the art of PR is all about. Some brands use social media very well to handle customer complaints – their accounts respond to customer complaints, usually linking to an email address or phone number where a representative can be reached.  One brand that comes to mind is Starbucks –  if you look at their Twitter feed, it is filled with apologies and links that eventually reward the unsatisfied customer with a voucher for a free beverage or food item.

This is GREAT, but a company can still take it one step further. We’ll use Starbucks again. All of Starbucks’ Tweets are sent out by one of three people- this makes a customer feel valued and adds a level of intimacy.

Furthermore, in 2013, Starbucks began a program called “Tweet a Coffee” that allows customers to Tweet a five dollar gift card to anyone on social media. This drives sales and allows customers to engage with the company while getting their friends involved, too! Starbucks is a wildly successful and popular brand but even the smallest public relations department can utilize these lessons:

Keep it personal – sign your Tweets, reminding customers there’s a real person behind the brand.

Don’t wait for a customer to complain on social media to make a connection, start a conversation with happy customers too! A small effort goes a long way to making people feel like their business really is valued.

Be unique – you might not have the time or resources to start a program like the “Tweet a coffee” program but all brands can creatively use social media to create a conversation with the public.

  1. Gain Your Customers’ Trust Using Social Media

The last best practice is also the simplest. In addition to managing the stream of communication between a company and the public, a PR department should also be responsible for gaining and maintaining credibility and customers’ trust. This essentially means using strategies like the first two best practices to drive a customer to buy your product and satisfy them enough that they either become repeat customers or at least advocate for the brand. Creative content goes a long way in increasing website traffic and in turn leading to higher sales.

Public Relations consists of more than just media outreach – if you’re not aiming your PR and social media efforts towards driving sales, you are missing out on a profitable opportunity for your brand. With the right content, your PR team can engage with and develop a relationship with a customer while also inspiring them to purchase your product and advocate for your brand.