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Social Media: Shaping Public Relations Since 1970

Posted At: October 10, 2012 8:25 P.M.
by Kristin Nelson

In 1971, the first email was sent. The two computers were sitting right next to each other.

Today, we can talk to someone on the opposite side of the globe, face to face, via our cell phones.

The Internet and all its perks have greatly affected the way we distribute information and communicate with others. While nearly every individual takes advantage of the Internet’s vast utility, it is especially important in the field of public relations because of one specific aspect: social media.

There is no question as to the value of social media in our industry. However, the question we must consider is this:

Are social media platforms still considered just valuable communication tools or have they redefined our industry as a whole?

To consider this question, let’s look at the history of social media. While short, it is packed with innovation and originality.


1970: The first online forums for communication were Bulletin Board Systems, or BBS, which emerged in the late 1970s. They operated over phone lines and the system was incredibly slow. The conversation remained mostly local because long-distance rates did apply.

Usenets and CompuServ were also systems developed in the ’70s that were similar to social networking sites today. Usenets was primarily used for news updates, which were the beginnings of RRS feeds today. It was unique because it was community-operated with no central administrator. CompuServ was a business-oriented site that provided a forum for news, communication and email. It had a chat feature and was popular, although expensive.

1980: The 1980s welcomed America Online, which revolutionized the Internet on home computers across the world. AOL made the Internet more accessible and greatly increased its ease of use. Socially, it offered the ability to create member profiles and search for friends.

1990: was founded in 1995 and allowed users to locate former classmates, but not create their own profiles. In 1997, combined the best social technologies available. A person could create a profile, join a group, invite friends and read others’ profiles. was popular until the push to invite more people became overwhelming and members decided to discontinue using the site.

The 1990s also brought about niche-driven social networks like, and In 1997, AOL introduced instant messaging to the world. Blogger was created in 1998 and increased the ease of blogging and following. LiveJournal, founded in 1999, was a blog-based community that allowed constant updates.

2000: In 2002, Friendster launched and paved the way for social media as we know it. Within one year, the site had millions of users and investors lining up at the door. It uniquely displayed the connective web between friends and was the most popular social site since

The love affair was short-lived, however, because MySpace came along in 2003 and stole the market. MySpace was targeted toward a younger audience with its trendy atmosphere. MySpace listened to its users and responded to their requests, which Friendster failed to do. It also allowed users to personalize the appearance of their profiles.

LinkedIn was also created in 2003 and targeted business professionals. It was the first highly successful business networking site. It referred to friends as “connections” and showed the web of connectivity, like Friendster.

Facebook was launched in 2004 and, as far as influential websites go, it takes the cake. Although nothing specifically new was offered, Facebook had greater ease of use, it was highly targeted to the young-adult age group. It had an exclusive feel because of its original college-students-only intentions.

Twitter was created in 2006 and brought about a user fascination with following and tweeting to high-profile celebrities. It is also innovative because of its tracking power and the ability to monitor conversation.

Google+ was created in 2011 as a supplement to the entire Google package. It added live video chats to its repertoire, which Facebook quickly incorporated into its program.

Other types of sites have found their way through the maze of social networking, such as media sharing sites, blogs, online dating pages and more. YouTube, Tumblr, Reddit, Digg and Flickr are sites that could be included in the timeline. The number of social sites now is too numerous to count.

Impact on public relations

Social media sites are relatively young, yet they have strongly influenced the public relations profession. But have they fundamentally changed the industry?

Thom Canalichio, media outreach director at Newswise, believes they have.

“Social media has changed the industry because professionals are gearing news releases and strategies toward having a social media element – they are thinking of that from step 1,” Canalichio said.

On the other hand, many things have not changed throughout the evolution of social networking, and some argue that PR still maintains its fundamental purposes.

Craig Butterworth, professional communications consultant, put it this way: “It is interesting to think of the unlimited potential of social media as it relates to communications, but the one thing it doesn’t have is the human element. As long as the human component is involved, the potential for drastic change will be there, but it just won’t completely change the industry.”

Canalichio also feels that some things never change, no matter how information is distributed.

“While social media has certainly influenced how we consume and deliver information, it hasn’t changed what people fundamentally find interesting. News is still driven by good stories,” Canalichio said.

Through its short but rich history, social media has impacted the distribution and gathering of information. But some things remain unchanged: people want good news and they want personal interaction. Public relations professionals can better their practices if they learn to capitalize on these constants.

What do you think? Has social media fundamentally changed the field of public relations?

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  1. Post comment

    I also find it interesting that social media is so new and fresh yet has already begun to hold such a hard and long lasting impact on large and small corporations today!

    Twitter is truly to blame for our instantaneous lifestyles and terrible habits of texting and overusing of technology at the dinner table!

  2. Post comment

    Great article, Kristen. I found it extremely interesting. The world of social media has changed and shaped our lives in recent years more than anyone had ever imagined. In the field of public relations I find that social media has truly redefined the industry as a whole. I think the first outlet companies want to use is Twitter or Facebook, and the first thing an employer might ask is if you are on LinkedIn. This change that social media has made not only has made it easier for people to communicate globally, but it also gave us a means to get right to the point. I find that social media has been an extreme benefit to our society; however, Craig Butterworth, professional communication consultant, makes a great point: “As long as the human component is involved, the potential for drastic change will be there, but it just won’t completely change the industry.” Some things will always remain the same: people want good news and they want interaction with a fellow human being. Although social media has taken over, we as public relations professionals must remember that no matter the times humans want to speak and hear from other humans.

  3. Post comment

    This was a great and informative article on the history of an aspect of PR that is vastly growing into a primary outlet of our profession. It is amazing to see how social media has become such an important part of every individual’s life in such a short period of time. Social media started off as a way for individuals to connect to each other and has now evolved into a vital tool for organizations to personally reach their customers. Most large corporations or organizations now have at least one form of social media and hire a young individual whose primary job is to fully run the account and personally touch base with all customers. I believe a corporation’s social media will eventually evolve into its own department, complete with an overseer of every single type of social media and assistants for content and image generation.

  4. Post comment

    Social media has fundamentally changed the field of public relations. Almost every company is visible on at least one social media site. The sites also have unique features that would attract certain kinds of companies to use them. Facebook, for example, is great for a casual, friendly feel of communication. Pinterest offers thousands of photos for users to scroll through. This option gives companies the chance to put up a visual that could be used as free advertising. Another site that could be beneficial to companies is LinkedIn. This site could be used as a recruiting tool for companies to gain new clients and employees. This video is a great explanation for why social media really is needed in the field of public relations.

  5. Post comment

    Social media’s relativity to the changing field of public relations is an interesting and timely topic. The history is very condensed yet has had a significant impact on society as a whole, as mentioned in the post. Something I feel you failed to mention in the post is the speed of news traveling via social networks. Good publicity as well as bad publicity can be transmitted throughout the world instantaneously with the click of a mouse. This alone fundamentally changes the public relations field. Public relations professionals must be constantly “on call” and prepared to respond to any information society obtains and distributes. Different time zones across the world mean that information is being distributed non-stop.


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