The Accidental Expert Connects with PRSA on Social Media

    At the beginning of his presentation to a crowded room of PR folks, Brendan O'Hallarn, public relations specialist at Old Dominion University, had one important message:

    “Warning: Social Media Expert”

    It was a good warning and PRSA Hampton Roads members and guests paid close attention as over the next half-hour he then proceeded to help us get a handle on the reality of social media, especially Twitter, from an academic perspective. 

    To start, Brendan gave some examples of social media disasters that were sure to scare any PR professional. Like when Coca-Cola's Twitter account began pushing out passages of Mein Kampf, or when an apparel company put up a July 4th Fireworks picture that was actually a shot of the Challenger disaster. There were other examples from pizza, apparel and sports companies that made the audience shudder with visions of crisis management in our heads.

    The good news, according to Brendan?

    “We live in a world where everyone is furious all of the time but we also have short attention spans,” he says. “You don’t have to go a week without a major faux pas on social media.”

    Calling himself an “accidental expert” when it comes to social media, Brendan knows the business. Canadian by birth and a sports fan by blood, it was several sports-related Twitter experiences that attracted him to studying social media phenomenon.  He published an academic paper on the impact of Twitter furor that united so many people in anger over NBC’s Olympics coverage (#NBCFail). As part of his doctoral work, at ODU Brendan did an analysis of sports social media practices for the school that is now evolving into a how-to manual of sorts and will be presented this Summer to the North American Symposium for Sports Management.

    His research presents a five point social strategy he calls STEAM (“Because I’m clever.”)

    Steal – What are your competitors doing?
    Team – Make content convey consistent branding.
    Engage – Answer questions. Go the extra mile.
    Analytics – There are tools out there.
    Mavens – Inspire fans to evangelize.

    We thank Brendan for his time and insights. Here are some thoughts and tips from our academic “accidental expert” from today’s presentation:

    - Twitter has more than 300 million users. Many are just “listeners,” those who don’t tweet themselves. “It’s an a la carte experience, the ultimate choose-your-own adventure.”
    - As a user, Twitter is what you make of it. But don’t get overwhelmed. “Think of Twitter like a river. Look at what’s happening right now and ignore what’s already downstream.”
    - Analyze and harness the power of your network but do it right. “Social media is meant to be a conversation, not marketing. Your friends, followers and supporters are predisposed to like what you are telling them.  Use that.”
    - Not sure how to make it work for you?  You are not alone. “Nobody has the business model for social media figured out. For years, advocates have oversold the benefit to the bottom line of social media in terms of direct impact on marketing and sales.”
    - Use Twitter as a connecting tool with reporters. “You don’t want to be obnoxious about it but if you have a good story, Twitter is a great way to get that out.”
    - Left Shark. “Trying to predict what will go viral is like trying to win the lottery.”
    - On Twitter’s ad sales efforts: “Promoted Tweets haven’t ruined the experience for users, but I feel they are playing with fire.”
    - On other outlets: “Among my students, Instagram is very popular. Nineteen and 20-year-olds want to SHOW people what they are doing.”

    Finally, Brendan tells us there is a fight going on in the academic community over social media.

    “It used to be only about content and now people want to know what it means,” he says. “I want to study why we’re doing this beyond just what’s happening. What does it mean?”

    That’s a question we all would like answered. Good luck Brendan.

    Seen at the PRSAHR Luncheon on May 20, 2015:


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