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Managing employee engagement, retaining talented employees, aligning formal and informal corporate culture, and protecting corporate reputation are all challenging and costly propositions in public relations today.

In this complex landscape, PR professionals have the opportunity to serve as effective links to external stakeholders by generating and harnessing rich stocks of social capital that will enable them to serve as influential and trustworthy leaders in framing corporate strategy. Here, we will set out to define social capital (and how it differs from social media) and how we can use it in public relations to maximize our position.

Defining social capital

Social capital is a sociological concept that refers to the intangible relational assets that emerge from social interactions. These assets are generated through give and take and activate the “norm of reciprocity,” creating social obligations that connect and bind people and groups. The more social capital is used, the greater the benefits.

The concept of social capital is composed of three distinct but interrelated structural, emotional and behavioral components. They are, respectively, networks, trust and collaborative cultural norms.

In recent years, there has been an increased interest in researching the role of social capital in organizations, nonprofits, health care, community development and families, among other areas. While social scientists are focusing on theory and research tools, I suggest that in our day-to-day life, we can begin to experiment and consciously utilize simple, practical principles of connecting, giving, helping and collaborating to create a generous supply of social capital in order to achieve personal, professional, organizational and community goals.

Incorporating social capital into public relations

Because PR experts handle critical relationships within organizational networks, they are best positioned to expand their roles in generating and managing social capital, especially as it pertains to corporate strategy.

Traditionally, CEOs and organizational leaders have focused predominantly on human capital and financial capital for success. But in my conversations with CEOs, I have observed that several actively acknowledge and display sincere appreciation for appropriately investing in relationships and trust.

There is a growing awareness that social capital can provide significant competitive advantage for firms.

However, CEOs and organizational leaders are often unsure about how to proceed with this idea. I believe that because PR professionals already possess extensive internal and external networks, along with strong communication, relationship and reputation-building expertise, they can confidently utilize their social-capital building skills and serve as influential leaders.

By maximizing their numerous opportunities and skills, PR professionals can produce positive outcomes of goodwill and develop a reputation that will be invaluable to their clients and organizations.

Additionally, they can take a lead role in identifying new forms and channels for generating social capital and begin to explicitly highlight the return on investment for their organizations.

Differentiating social capital and social media

Social capital is not social media. However, social media provides effective channels through which social capital can be generated or destroyed. Additionally, by educating internal stakeholders about these new social media channels — serving as interdepartmental bridges and highlighting the positive success stories of different groups — PR experts can harness the power of social capital to become influential at all levels in their organizations.

Increasingly, organizations are seeking to transform their cultures and create stronger bonds with their diverse customers, employees and stakeholders, while also exploring new business models, such as B-corporations, matrix, holacracy and lean organizations.

As formal structures dissolve, the need for nurturing and leveraging relationships to prevent rigid organizational silos will become even more critical. I believe that the demand for talented leaders who can connect multiple stakeholders and manage appropriate investments in community engagement, relationships and trust will significantly increase.

I hope that PR professionals will be well prepared to maximize these opportunities and assume their rightful seat at the corporate decision-making table. I urge PR professionals to focus on how social capital is created and destroyed and raise awareness about its role as a key competitive advantage. This will benefit them personally, as well as their organizations and society.