At the PRSA’s massive annual conference this week, thousands of communications professionals gathered in Washington, DC to take a long, hard look at trends in public relations. What’s on their radar? Social media, of course.

Several questions around how PR can dovetail with social media arose repeatedly. Herewith, the seven top FAQs PR professionals are asking about social media – along with the answers.

Q: How can we control conversations?

You can’t “control” anything in social media, so don’t even think in those terms. You can, however anticipate a great deal, plan responses, strategize what direction to lead conversations into, and develop contingency plans for crisis management and addressing complaints or other negativity. This begins with having clear goals and strategies for entering into social media conversations – and even more important, for sustaining a long-term presence in social media channels.

Q: Who owns this? PRs? Ad agencies? SEOs? Where’s a client to turn?

Social media is new and spans many disciplines and practices. It’s a land grab out there among practitioners from all sorts of disciplines and backgrounds who want to “own” the space (and there’s no shortage of shyster carpetbaggers, either). Currently, no one does “own” social media, but communications professionals have a legitimate claim to this turf. So do agencies and SEOs, of course. Depending on the client and the size of the engagement (not to mention the budget), different aspects of social media may be parceled out to a variety of practitioners.

That said, social media is about conversations, telling stories, messaging, public and media relations – all element of any PR professional’s core skill set. PR practitioners not only can, but must, adapt their skills to function in social media channels.

Q: What new skills must we learn?

Right-brained PRs do have to learn a weensy bit of left-brains stuff to effectively translate their skills to social media (this is where I see them start to freeze like so many deer in headlights). Pity, because while they do have to start dabbling in the unfamiliar waters of analytics, data-mining, basic SEO, and perhaps a bit of basic HTML coding, this stuff isn’t rocket science (at least, not to the extent they fear it is). They merely need to be versed in the basics of these skills. Nevertheless, fear of the unknown is holding too many PRs back from spending a few hours or days acquiring skills that could really kick-start them into lucrative new terrain.

Q: Where do we get the data that will help us to plan campaigns, create compelling content and monitor conversations?

It’s not as hard as you think. There are a wealth of free tools out there to play with that can help you monitor buzz, trends, conversations, and influencers; in short, that help you to find an audience and refine a message. Google Alerts, Google Trends, Technorati, Twitter Search, Trends on Twitter. Here’s a list of 20 free buzz monitoring tools.

That’s to say nothing of the commercial solutions. First, get your feet wet by experimenting with the free stuff.

Q: How do we rapidly get communications approved through the company, particularly legal?

By getting everyone onboard with a social media strategy from the get-go. Make legal, compliance, IT and any other relevant stakeholders part of the process from the beginning. Carefully explain the channels and the business case for engaging in social media. Develop procedures for getting quick approval (or for not requiring approval) on specific types of communications in advance of launching a social media engagement. Be prepared to be inclusive and to listen to listen, mediate and negotiate. Enlist their aid and input in creating an organization-wide social media policy so everyone knows the rules of engagement.

Q: How do we create a social media policy? Who are the stakeholders?

The policy depends somewhat on the strategy, but not entirely because the best social media policies apply to everyone within an organization. Whether or not they participate directly in social media engagements driven by marketing, sales or PR, guidelines should be in place so every employee knows what they can and cannot say publicly about their employer and its products or services.

One sound approach is to first, hammer out the framework of a social media policy. Then, bring in stakeholders from legal, HR, marketing, sales, product development, customer support and other relevant parts of the business to give them a voice in creating important guidelines. These are, after all, rules that will apply across the organization.

Bottom line, a social media policy governs public behavior. Education is part of the initiative. At a minimum (often, this is also the maximum), a social media policy informs people that business discussion in social arenas is governed by the same good-conduct guidelines that would apply to any public discussion of business matters.

Q: Isn’t a social media voice inauthentic when it comes from a PR practitioner rather than from someone inside the company who’s more hands-on with the issue?

Ideally, yes. Voices are more authentic when they come straight from the source within the company responsible for whatever’s being discussed: the product, customer service issues, requests for information, whatever. That isn’t to say there’s no place for PRs in this critically important sector of social media communications.

Media coaching has always been part of what good PRs do. They help professionals who aren’t as well versed in the nuances of communications to hone and craft messages, to strike the right tone for the target audience, to develop talking points, and provide background on interlocutors. These skills come into play as much in the social media sphere as they do when your boss or client is being interviewed by a major newspaper or magazine, or appearing on TV.