Social media might represent the greatest social innovation/revolution in the history of communication, fundamentally altering how humans communicate, and the practice of public relations, journalism, advertising, marketing, and business. Dozens of theories and concepts including dialogue, engagement, identification, social presence, uses and gratifications, conversational human voice, and many others inform social media. However, what has commonly taken place in social media contexts and public relations has been the importation and application of other theories and concepts, rather than exploring and clarifying the unique features and capabilities of social media per se. This essay argues that social media represent a new communication paradigm, and this essay takes up the challenge of building social media theory for public relations by identifying features of social media that have emerged from existing research as fundamental to understanding social media, and eventually developing a theory(s) of social media for public relations.
Research on social media theory in the public relations and communication literature is sparse. Ngai, Tao, and Moon (2015), for example, reviewed what they call an “exhaustive” list of theories that have been used in social media research, identifying nearly three dozen theories from an assortment of disciplines, but argue that no specific theories of social media yet exist. Of course, there are a few scholars trying to build social media theory (cf., Dijck & Poell, 2013). However, just as media scholars have various interests depending upon the medium and their professional practices (cf., Bignell, 2013; Goodwin & Whannel, 2013; Pecora, Murray, & Wartella, 2006), so too are public relations scholars studying social media in a variety of unique ways relevant to their own communication context (Dhanesh & Duthler, 2019; du Plessis, 2018; Gesualdi, 2019). However, no one has yet proposed a social media specific theory for public relations. Social media are more than just an interface that offers visual, textual, and aural affordances. Social media have become a way of life for hundreds of millions of global citizens. However, before academics and professionals can begin to maximize the value of social media for public relations, or any other professional context, the field needs to develop useful definitions and theoretical constructs for thinking about communication in mediated environments. What print and online journalists do with social media tools is very different from what advertisers or marketers do, or what the broadcast industry does. Although the features of social media are still the same, their application or reification are not. As one anonymous reviewer of an earlier version of this essay noted, over the last 100 years, there has never been a theory of media for public relations, rather public relations has adapted its practices to take advantage of the unique features of other media. Public relations needs to do the same in the internet age: to develop an understanding of the unique features of social media most useful in public relations, rather than just treating social media as a tool for messaging.