Has PR Become An Unsustainable 24/7 Profession: Do We Really Need Social Media Mission Control Centers?

I’ve been thinking a lot about how social media affects our professional lives. One particular development has been in the back of my mind since I saw a keynote presentation at the WVU IMC INTEGRATE conference that has particular relevance to the Public Relations profession. Fred Cook, CEO, of PR firm GolinHarris spoke about the many changes in the industry and how his firm has adjusted to the digital revolution. In particular, he talked about a new 24 hour, 7 days a week social media monitoring lab they built to listen and respond to live consumer chat on behalf of their clients. I’ve kept thinking about how they staff the room. Like marketing and advertising, PR has not traditionally been an hourly, shift working profession. And GolinHarris is not alone in reacting this way to the 24 hour news cycle and 24 hour consumer chatter. London based Chapel PR  recently launched their own 24/7 rapid response social media listening lab for client Thomas Cook to monitor their 60+ global brands.

How is this changing the human side of the profession? In a Social Media Today interview, PR pro Bernice Burnside of Bvisible says, “The ‘Golden 24 hours’ within which a company needed and was expected to respond to issues has become the ‘Golden Hour.’” This 24/7, 1 hour response time expectation does raise the issue of possible overwork. Occasional all nighters is one thing, but marketing and communications departments and firms are not built like a customer service or operations department used to functioning at this level. An extreme case is the death of a 24-year-old Ogilvy PR employee in Beijing, who died of a heart attack at his desk. Ad Age reports there are rumors that the cause was overwork, but nothing has been confirmed.

And how much does all this around the clock listening cost anyway? PR Newswire did some calculations in this area. They estimated that is takes a typical PR Pro 8 hours a day to manually monitor social media and compile a clipbook including scanning sites, collecting clips, generating a data spreadsheet, plus analyzing and reporting. With the average PR Pro wage, this could cost $80,000 a year just for one employee for 1/3 of the day. Dave Folkens from TopRank Blog observes that when one upset customer on Facebook or an angry blogger can send a brand into a crisis mode, PR is in an “always on” mode. Certainly, PR has always had to deal with “on call” issues, but social media has expanded the potential complaints and the public visibility of these issues. Has it gone so far that “on call” has now become 24/7 shift work at the office?

Of course, not all of these 24 hour listening labs are being built-in PR firms. Some marketers have chosen to invest in their own internal social media monitoring centers with branded design and important names like “Mission Central.” For example, Gatorade has built a Mission Control room in the middle of their marketing department to monitor the brand in real-time across social media. Gatorade has used it to leverage a popular song in one of their commercials that was getting a lot of buzz, optimize landing pages to increase engagement and host live events such as a nutritionist answering consumer questions.

Still, does all this activity justify an elaborate, branded lab that is staffed 24/7? Gatorade admits that all the real-time data reported in Mission Control is also available to employees on their laptops. Perhaps deep down inside all of us, there is a childhood dream to work on something as critical as Mission Control at NASA. Or perhaps we all have seen Apollo 13 way too many times.