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Who owns social media

Survey: Who owns social media?

by Frank Strong

Ownership is getting a bad rap. Some of the most epic battles in history were fought, (and are still being fought) over rights to land, water, even air space. The battlefield may be a poor analogy for the corner office, but when it comes to “ownership” of social media, the dialogue has certainly heated up.

A recent Vocus survey on integrated communications found that the most contentious question centered on social media. Forty-three percent of those identifying as PR professionals said they own social media, while 34 percent of marketers put the same stake in the ground. A sense for how deeply divided these two groups were was evident in the open-ended responses. “Condescension” was the word Jennifer Kane used to describe those from PR pros in her assessment in a blog post.

Mark W. Schaefer was equally sharp, in my view, when he wrote this post explaining why he thinks Marketing should lead organizational social media efforts: “I have an anti-ridiculous-strategy-bias. And to claim that PR should lead customer-facing activities is ridiculous,” he said.

Ouch, Mark!

Mark wishes the debate would end, a sentiment echoed by Jeremy Porter in this blog post Journalistics. “While I think it’s the wrong question, it’s clear that the issue is important among survey respondents.” Porter later continued, “That said, the ‘turf wars’ aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.” Indeed the debate is not going away because as social media becomes more pervasive as a channel — for communications, marketing or otherwise — so too will the question of ownership.

The notion of “ownership” in social media is seeped in irony. As Adam Vincenzini wrote to me from London, “Anything that potentially involves additional revenue can be classed as a ‘turf war’. What is ironic about this example is that the very medium in question is built around sharing and collaboration.”

Viewpoints on the question of ownership are as varied as they are compelling. Wanting to collaborate a bit for this post, I turned to a logical resource for more answers: social media. I posed the ownership question to a handful of marketing and PR professionals I follow — and respect — on Twitter. Most responded on Twitter, however a couple responded by email.

In some cases, I have made minor edits for clarity — especially for those comments offered in 140 characters or less — but to the best of my ability, I have kept to the veracity of their words. There comments are as follows:

  • @PaulDunay: I believe one person should own it (don’t care from where) but prefer that over a decentralized approach which I see often.
  • @KentHuffman: Marketing (with buy-in from HR and legal).
  • @dbreakenridge: I don’t think anyone “owns” it. Different groups play different roles and we all have to work together for SM to be successful.
  • @eliz2shea: I think marketing should own the framework, but it has to be part of all functions: customer service, sales, operations, etc.
  • @dmscott: Who should own the telephone? SM is a way to communicate just like the phone.
  • @beastoftraal: Wrote that ideally an internal and external team would collaborate on social media. Since many internal teams are pressed for time, a long-term external communications partner is a good complement. Long term was emphasized to avoid short-term thinking.
  • @azquad6: The PR or communications function should own social media. Great social media comes from great content and communicators create content.
  • @davefleet: A good question indeed, from many angles: PR/marketing/customer service? Agency/client? Consumers/corporate?
  • @surekhapillai: In India, social marketing agencies [are preferred] as most PR firms [in India] are clueless about social media. In an ideal environment, [where PR is proficient with SM] my vote goes to PR. Having said that, I also think CEOs or senior management with Twitter accounts should be managed internally by the company with guidance as opposed to being outsourced to a PR agency.
  • @AdamVincenzini: I think all disciplines have a role to play in social media. However, the only discipline that has a track record of consistently producing content that is shared by third parties is PR. Someone has to be the glue that binds all this stuff together, and if PR people, using their skills in developing relationships can play this role as well, it will be in the driver’s seat.
  • @dkasrel: Beyond the obvious choices — marketing and PR — social media can be a useful tool for customer service, R&D, sales, HR, production. It may be embraced throughout an organization. Wherever there’s a need to communicate to, engage with, and/or obtain feedback from clients/customers/the public, there’s a use for social media. That said, I do think it’s a good idea to have a social media policy in place, so that everyone is on the same page in terms of how to properly engage in this environment. It’s not meant to be a free for all — there are do’s and don’ts, proper etiquette, confidentiality concerns and such. Some people may not be well-suited to being in such a public forum on behalf of a business. But otherwise, social media need not be relegated to, or owned by any one specific department.

My viewpoint?

PR should lead social media efforts. Leadership is different in my mind than “ownership.” PR should champion the cause and shepherd the efforts. PR should have an inclusive philosophy with respect to social media: ceding ground often, be willing to experiment, compromise and allow those with a contribution to speak in their unique voice.


1. When “everyone” is responsible, no one is responsible. Someone needs to be held accountable and be granted the authority to effect change. Finding the right person, or people, is the key element. No one “owns” the telephone, but then, sales people don’t make calls without product training and scripts. Marketing doesn’t “own” email, but then few marketers initiate direct email campaigns without checks and balances.

2. Social media rejects commercialization. If all you do is Tweet your own stuff no one will follow you. If the only thing you blog about is your latest Webinar, few readers will subscribe. PR people inherently understand this concept: they’ve earned a living working with editorial contacts and decision makers who reject solicitations in editorial content. The category of content PR people have produced for years — the unseen media pitches and contributed articles — is well-suited for social media. In a social media world, everyone is an editor.

3. PR reports (or should report) to marketing. The CMO bears the responsibility for the corporation’s reputation, brand, lead generation and shares responsibility for revenue. There are a variety of tools in the CMO tool kit and each has benefits and drawbacks: you can’t build a house with just a hammer, yet you also cannot build a house without a hammer; you will also need a saw, a screw driver and a tape measure, let alone plans, permits and architecture. PR is a special tool and the CMO’s job is to draw up the plans and ensure the right tool is used for the right job. PR is the right “tool” for social media, but ultimately, in my mind, that means if anyone “owns” social media, it’s the CMO.

[Disclosure: I am employed by Vocus, though the views in this post are my own, and not necessarily representative of the company’s perspective. Jeremy Porter and Jennifer Kane worked along with Kary Delaria, to analyze the results of the survey, but again, the views I expressed here, are not necessarily representative of theirs].

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11 Responses


    Although your conclusion is completely different than mine, strangely I believe we are saying the same thing! If PR reports to marketing, marketing owns the strategy, and SM efforts support that strategy, we are saying the same thing: social web tactics support a marekting strategy. Great. Case closed.

    One other point — PR folks can be just as likely as anybody else to mis-use the social media tools. Just because they can do a a "pitch" or a news release doesn't mean they understand the new channel any better than somebody in marketing. We are all learning.

    Great post, Frank. Thanks for adding to the dialogue.

  2. Davina K. Brewer

    Frank, I agree that leadership is different than ownership, and someone as to take the reins and execute. Siding with Mark in favor of integration, which speaks to point 3: PR reporting to Marketing. PR is a part of marketing, and as much as it's a communications function it's also a business one. A PR campaign that generates tons of favorable press and exposures and web visits is great, but meaningless if it's not tied into the overall marketing (and business) strategy to support the business, customer service, develop leads, drive sales.

    Social media is a power tool to be sure. I think social media ownership, depending on the size of the organization is probably best shared by the CMO and the Chief Communications Officer. FWIW.

  3. Paul Roetzer


    Enjoyed the post. I am a big believer that putting social media strategy and campaigns in the hands of marketing and/or sales can be a very dangerous choice. If the sole focus is on ROI and immediate results, which is often the case in marketing, then they will fail, and possibly do more damage than good to the brand.

    In theory, PR people (this assumes we are talking about competent, social-media savvy PR pros) are better suited to lead social media efforts.

    Social media participation is nothing more than relationships and communications through online channels. That’s what PR pros do — build relationships and enhance communications with audiences (employees, media, customers, prospects, vendors, partners). These efforts support the long-term growth of the organization and strength of the brand (i.e. generate leads and build loyalty).

    With that being said, it brings us back to your 3rd point – and Mark's argument in his post – PR is a marketing function. So, at the end of the day, marketing "owns" it, but hopefully PR and communications pros are guiding the strategy and efforts.

  4. Dominic Litten

    The ubiquitous nature of social media means everyone is delving in (and achieving results): big marketing firms, PR firms, ad agencies, boutique firms and social media-only firms. All are doing it, some are succeeding and some aren't. Whichever type of firm/department it ultimately is does not determine the success/failure of said initiative, it's the planning and execution.

    The only constant I've come across is smart, tech-savvy and creative folks.

  5. Karen Albritton

    I recently interviewed a handful of clients on this topic. They all said no one person or department can own social media, but some found felt it helpful to have one group initially lead the process of establishing guidelines and setting up enterprise-wide monitoring tools.

    Let's not forget customer service in this discussion as much of the social media chatter starts as a result of a customer experience — not a pr or marketing message.

  6. Frank Strong, MA, MBA

    Wow! Thank you all for the comments and this discussion — it's given me much to think about.

    Mark: I'd agree that marketing "owns" the strategy to the extent that marketing includes the SEO guru, the media buyer, the direct marketer, the creative desiner, the graphic artist, and the PR pro. Since I started with the battlefield analogy perhaps it's fitting to say it's up to the general to marshall his archers, chariots and infantry for maximum. I tend to equate marketing with indirect fire. Precise, but high angle.

    Davina: I concur — one of the best principles is this: "Impressions are interesting, clicks are better, sales are best." I couldn't agree more.

    Dominic: I liked your point and think it's well said. Each discipline has a role to play, it takes leadership, respect and teamwork to make it happen.

    Karen: Certainly social media has had a profound impact (for the better) on customer service. Whether one fills that role, on in marketing or one in PR, I think we can all add the word "problem solver" to our resumes.

    Walter: Indeed that is suprising. If social media starts with "listening" it's ironic given I've always felt that company was tone deaf to it's customers. That said, I did a little digging and learned that Mich Matthews, the senior executive in Microsoft's Central Marketing Group, joined Microsoft in 1993 to lead it's Public Relations department. That fits with the AdAge's article cited on this blog in multiple posts about the trend for PR heads increasigly heading up marketing deparments. Here's her bio: https://bit.ly/aIpiqo

  7. relationshipsellingbuffs

    I have to agree with @dbreakenridge: I don't think anyone "owns" it. Different groups play different roles and we all have to work together for SM to be successful. To me no real clear owner hear much more of a team effort and a variety of roles to make it work

  8. Frank Strong, MA, MBA

    Thanks for stopping by! While I respect Dierdre immensely and appreciate your perspective, I have a hard time with that one: when no one is accountable, no one is accountable. Certainly it's a shared effort, but someone or some department needs to be the driving force, IMHO.

  9. Walter Adamson

    Frank, interesting about Mich Matthews, I have no idea how common it is that PR or Marketing people move between roles. Still, coming back to your opening question it seems that this Microsoft example supports the case that neither Marketing nor PR "own social media. Certainly in Mich Matthews' case she has virtually zero social media profile that I can find with a quick search, so I doubt she "leads" any of that effort.

  10. Frank Strong, MA, MBA

    Hi, Walter, indeed, I see what you are saying and ou raise an interesting point, can you lead social media efforts if you aren't on social media?

    According to this article in B2B which quotes Mich as the source, Microsoft's marketing department was "experimenting" with social media as far back as 2007, which was pretty forward thinking relatively speaking. Something more recent, like this post by Marketing Pilgrim quotes Mich giving advice on Facebook.

    You are right, she is hard to spot on Twitter or LinkedIn, but then, I know a lot of high profile executives that keep low profiles on social media. Since she was giving advice on Facebook, I did a search there to see what I could find; though this is locked up tight, this profile sure does look like her's and has a badge for Microsoft's store front and center to boot: https://www.facebook.com/mich.mathews

    Thanks for dropping by and continuing the conversation.

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