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5 Questions with Shonali Burke (@shonali), President and CEO of SBC

I first met Shonali in the lobby where the first xPotomac conference was being held in DC (which she co-founded with Geoff Livingston and Patrick Ashamalla). It was a very cool location. Anyway, she was gearing up for her talk on social scoring. I recall being struck by her nervousness. But, she had no reason to be nervous because she owned it!

I remember this because, to me, it was obvious that she cared and was passionate about sharing her knowledge with this group. Well, we have more of that same passion in this interview!

But first, a little bit about Shonali…

Shonali Burke was named to PRWeek’s inaugural top “40 Under 40″ list of US-based PR professionals, considered one of 25 women that rock social media, and is the 2015 recipient of AWC-DC’s Matrix Award. As President & CEO, Shonali Burke Consulting, Inc., she uses measurable social PR to take your business communications from corporate codswallop to community cool™. Shonali teaches at The Johns Hopkins and Rutgers universities, publishes the popular PR and digital media blog, Waxing UnLyrical, and is founder and curator of the #measurePR hashtag and Twitter chat. A foodie who loves shoes, she defies you to dislike Elvis, ABBA or cricket.

And now back to the show…

Question One – Social Scoring

We first met at the xPotomac conference a couple of years back. That closing keynote was interesting. Anyway, at that event, you discussed social scoring. I remember this being a touchy subject and Klout was getting some serious hate in the Twitter stream. But, as you stated, “whether we like it or not, we are being ranked.” Has social scoring gained or decreased in importance since then? Or, is it simply no longer the metric to hate?

Oh yes… I remember *that closing keynote well! Did I ever tell you what happened after?

As far as social scoring itself goes, I think there are a couple of things going on. First, the Bubble Dwellers (i.e. people like you and me) have gotten used to it because, whether we like it or not, it’s a fact of life (as I said two years ago); it just started appearing in the social space, which we weren’t used to.

If you think about it, we’ve always ranked or “scored” media, at least, in our line of work. Social scoring simply ratcheted that up; what made it uncomfortable (and inaccurate, if you went only by that) was the feeling that people were “scored” on what seemed to be primarily an online popularity contest.

Second, just in the last couple of years, the adoption of social media has increased dramatically (I’m not making up numbers, see this report from Pew). People are expressing themselves more online, aligning themselves with causes, and in general being much more active online. So you can’t rely any more only on the Bubble Dwellers aka those “influential in social media” to get your message out, promote your campaign, etc.

You have to actually reach the people who are influential in a particular space – and, in many, many instances, that’s not you or me. Where do you start? Social scoring is one such place, though it’s not the only place. And this is one of the many reasons I’m a huge Traackr fan (disclosure: I was an early tester of the platform and now, after many years of being friends, they are an SBC client).

However, I don’t think you can simply say, “Well, we scored the top influencers for ___, and this is who they are.” So what? Then what? How are you putting that information to work for you?

Question Two – Social PR

You describe your firm as a social PR firm. What is social PR?

Thanks to technology and social networks, we can now literally connect with anyone at the click of a mouse. That means we have an incredible ability to socialize our products, services, brands, and organizations, by starting, and maintaining, conversations with our end-audiences. And that conversation is the first step towards creating a community.

That is the true promise of social media for PR; the ability to create, educate, and motivate people via social networks into forming and/or joining communities. And once you have a really great community, they’ll be more than happy to tell your story for you. So now, the “media” doesn’t just consist of “the media,” but of people like you and me… and many, many others, depending on the niche.

Traditional PR focused primarily on media relations (even though that is not the definition of PR, it has become synonymous with the profession). Social PR keeps community and engagement via social networks at the heart of PR strategy, and works it in tandem with traditional PR, for better business results.

So it’s a lot more than simply tweeting, or Instagramming, or posting to Facebook. It also doesn’t mean everything happens only online; at the end of the day, we need real people to take real actions (some of which can take place online, but many of which need to take place online). It’s a very deliberate shift in mindset, truly bringing integration, engagement, and real-time to the practice of PR.

Question Three – Redefining PR – See Question Two

PR has undergone many makeovers in the last few years. PR pros like yourself, as well as firms like Arment Dietrich and Shift Communications, are redefining what PR is. How would you define Public Relations today vs. 10 years ago?

I think I just did!

Question Four – PR for SMBs

Of course large companies and organizations need to have a PR strategy in place. Especially when you have a very outspoken CEO like some orgs do. But, what about the small-to-medium sized entities? Do they need to have a PR strategy in place or only engage a firm in their time of need?

Not that long ago, an SMB approached my firm. They started the conversation by asking if we could issue some press releases for them, because of ___ (product success). I told them I’d be happy to take their money to write and issue releases, if that was what they wanted, but what would such a release do for them? What was the point?

That is always my first question, when someone asks if they should “start PR.” Actually, I have two (among others, but these are two I ask first): how do you define “PR”? And what do you need “PR” to do for you?

So, whether you’re a Fortune 100, or a small, local business, it’s critical to answer those questions. And it’s not always easy to do that. But if you do, then you start to understand the strategic need for PR (as long as you have good counsel, of course). And frankly, every single organization in the world could do with smart, strategic PR counsel, regardless of size, from the very outset. Because that is how they shape and refine messaging, which is the bedrock of good communications.

Do they always need external support (or a dedicated internal position/team) to execute? Not necessarily. But at some point, if they are being mindful about how PR is supporting business objectives, it will become a question of scale. That’s when they have to get help – either externally, or internally – to execute. Foresighted companies will make sure they have at least the strategy piece in place well in advance.

Question Five – Keep Learning

I love that you teach. I think every marketer should think of themselves as an educator first. Who do you think has the upper hand in today’s marcomm world, the fresh faced students, or industry veterans?

Does it have to be either/or? I think there are assets as well as weaknesses on either side. To me, what sets the women apart from the girls is the  willingness to keep learning; the humility to fail; and the determination to get back up and try it all over again.

Bonus – ABBA or Elvis

If you had to choose – you know Desert Island or something – would you go with Elvis or ABBA?

Man, that’s a tough one! But I’m going with ABBA. I think they’d be a lot more fun, and Frida would be able to show me how to stay in shape!


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