This blog post summarizes research published in the latest issue of the PR Journal.

Social media drastically impacts the world of public relations, influencing the perceptions key stakeholders have of organizations (Kim & Brown, 2015).  For decades, before the rise of social media, organizations had almost complete control over their message and how it was presented to their key audiences. With social media, however, the power structure and dynamic of communication has changed dramatically. A new specialized role and area within public relations and social media emerged, called social care (or sometimes referred to as social customer service). Social care focuses on providing key insights into trends and issues that may arise, using social media as the channel. For social care to be effectively leveraged, organizations must first be willing to listen and make sense of the information they are receiving from stakeholders. There has been little research to explore the nature of social care from an ethical and public relations perspective, which this study wanted to address. In order to explore this, a multi-phase approach was taken with a case study (focusing on the work General Motors was doing in this area with 10 interviews with GM employees working on the team), interviews with social media marketing experts (N=15), and a national survey with Cint, a partner with Survey Monkey with 703 participants.

Based on the findings from these three phases of the research study, the researchers determined the following ethical and decision making characteristics that are needed to be successful in social care:

  • Transparency: Brands who engage in social care should do so with the intention of serving the client, rather than ultimately for motives about profit or personal gain. In other words, the intention of social care should be authentically focused on the stakeholder’s needs.
  • Respectfulness and empathy: Brands should recognize the innate value of each individual by communicating in a manner that humanizes individuals through social media and cultivates an inviting environment online.
  • Immediacy: Social care should bridge the gap between key stakeholders and a brand by bolstering the perceptions of proximity, closeness and relationship.
  • Privacy: Social care representatives should safeguard the information of people interacting via social media, ensuring that their personal information is only used for the purposes of the individual need or that complete disclosure is provided if the person’s information will be stored or used in other ways as a result of interacting via social media.
  • Responsiveness: Responsiveness is the timeframe in which a brand responds to a stakeholder’s interaction via social media. Given the emphasis on care and dignity, social care teams should value a rapid response (no longer than 24 hours) to be effective.
  • Public-centric: The social care process should be designed with the stakeholder or individual in mind, rather than develop from an organizational structure. In other words, social care teams should be able to handle all the inquiries and network throughout the organization with other colleagues to resolve issues without sending the individual from one person to another person in order to address questions.

In summary, social care is a delicate yet strategic area within the social media profession, and it is closely aligned with the growing list of expectations and duties public relations professionals incorporate into daily activities. Like all areas of public relations, social care rests on the foundation of ethical and professional guidelines, rooted in a commitment to human dignity and honesty. More research and discussion is needed to determine the rising challenges, opportunities, and practices in ethical and effective decision making involving social care.

Carolyn Mae Kim, Ph.D., APR is an award winning scholar, educator and public relations (PR) professional. She currently serves as an assistant professor at Biola University and she has a background working with global charities and national non-profits, developing creative PR and marketing campaigns. Her research interests include credibility, digital strategy, social media and PR education.

Karen Freberg, Ph.D. Associate Professor in Strategic Communications at the University of Louisville .Professor Freberg is also a research consultant in social media and crisis communications and has worked with several organizations and agencies such as Firestorm Solutions, Hootsuite, Kentucky Derby Festival, IMC Agency, DHS, and the CDC. 


Kim, C. and Brown, W.  (2015). Conceptualizing Credibility in Social Media Spaces of Public Relations. Public Relations Journal, 9(4), 1-17.

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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