By Leigh Andrews

Certain topics instantly grab the nation’s interest. The Royal Wedding, for example, or the killings of Osama bin-Laden and Anton Hammerl come to mind. Why? Because comments about these topics flooded my social network newsfeeds. You were guaranteed that on the day of each of the aforementioned events , people around the world were hearing about them at different times of day with differing amounts of background information, and contributing so much commentary and questions that each of these topics began trending worldwide.

When news goes beyond the masthead and actually invokes civil unrest, generates commentary from the man on the street or ‘floods’ a network, it’s definitely time to think beyond just ‘the media and the audience’ mass communication model and consider the impact of social networks in not just letting you share your on opinions, feelings, activities and recommendations with friends, but also spreading a message about initiatives and news that the connections in your network may have otherwise missed.

Were it not for the constant comments on my Twitter feed, I wouldn’t have found out about Hammerl’s killing until the next day’s newspaper. As a journalist, it also helps me keep track of story ideas, topics that are gaining popularity or trending around the world, and what exactly elicits a response or retweet from my followers.

Joel Gunter writes on that journalists are increasingly using social media as a news source, based on findings listed in Oriella PR network’s recently published fourth annual Digital Journalism Study. What stood out most for me was that beyond the obvious surge in use of Twitter and Facebook as a way to source and check accuracy of breaking news, public relations is still the dominant source for news story leads.

When you take into consideration the fact that journalists are relying more heavily on press releases and status updates on social networks as leads for breaking news stories, there can be no denying the face of communication is changing, in that the public now has the power to both form part of and be reached by the ‘mass media’. I recently wrote on the COUP blog that communication in the days ‘pre-social network’ involved carefully writing a letter, copying the address onto the envelope from your address book, adding a stamp, placing the complete package in the post box and praying it reaches the intended destination in time – then we would sit back and wait for response in about a week. Today we simply type a message onto the keyboard of our choice, key in ‘@’ and a list of possible recipients magically appears, we click on ‘send’ and within seconds, already have a response, or multiple responses if we’re sending to multiple recipients or tweeting a link.

Ally Cooper, joint-MD of AllyCats PR, explains that the fields of PR and journalism have been similarly affected by the rise in technology, stating: “Gone are the days when as a PR rookie, I used to sit for hours - either in front of the fax machine if a press release had no photographs, or printing out numerous hard copies and writing out courier delivery slips if it did, just to send out one press release. As the labour was so intensive, I did what PR people are trained to do – communicate with the editors and journalists, before sending out the release, to see if they were interested in the story and whether they actually had the space in their publication to print it.”

Compare that to the fast-paced world we live in today, where you simply write a release, get it approved by your client, slot it into the body of an email, add an image attachment, click send and wait for your audience to respond to you.

Cooper clarifies: “If the news angle is right, if you’ve ascertained whether a publication would be interested in printing it, and if you’ve sent it to the right person (who again, you should already know), then more often than not, your contact will either thank you for the release, be honest and say they aren’t interested, or you will see it published.” And if you’re lucky, it will appear almost word for word, and be further spread across the world through link on social networks.

I wrote a year ago that online and social media was a platform often ignored by the PR industry, but I’ve definitely noticed a change to this in the past 12 months. Many PR agencies are now active on social networks, posting links to their latest client news and signing up for online press offices such as MyPressOffice and are now seeing it’s true importance in getting a message across to the ‘masses’. Chances are that you’ve entered the online space and have accepted the typical communication model has changed completely. Agree? Please share your thoughts on our blog.