Embracing a brave new world: tips from a social-media virgin

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Rhéal LeBlanc, communication programme manager at the Universal Postal Union

Are you a newbie to social media, too? (There are more of us than the early adopters would have you believe.)

Approaching this new world bravely is a bit like bungee-jumping; while the anticipation is exhilarating, will the outcome be similar? A recent conference, Lac Leman Communications Forum, on navigating the social media jungle, held in Lausanne, Switzerland, provided valuable food for thought on how to use social media to improve internal and external communication and stakeholder relations.

Keynote speaker, Paul Argenti, a professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College (USA), said communication today is about creating constituencies rather than controlling them. He convincingly demonstrated how social media is making the work of communicators ever more challenging as audiences morph and overlap and controlling the message gets more difficult.

Here are few things I learned and will consider as I work to integrate social media into our public relations and communication organizational strategy.

Be sure to have a strategy

Before opening a Facebook page or a Twitter account, determine what you want to achieve using these social media platforms. As Argenti said, communicators still have to think strategically and choose the right new channel(s) to achieve objectives. What audience do you want to reach? What messages do you want to convey? How do these outlets fit in with your overall communication strategy? For example, will you create a blog or account for the organization itself or for specific issues?

Experts at Google, for example, manage more than 100 blogs and a sizeable number of Twitter accounts, all focusing on different products or issues. (At the same time, more is not necessarily better, as keeping messages coherent then becomes an issue.)

Learn all you can about social media

Do you know how to set your privacy settings on Facebook? Any idea what is a Retweet (RT)? Experiment with social media networks on a personal basis to learn how they work. Appreciate their potential and limitations, plus get a sense of what might happen to the information you share on them.

Define a policy for the organization

A communication colleague once said: “control is very 20th century.” And he was right.

Social media opens the floodgates to information sharing. It facilitates conversations, and dialogue and exchanges, both positive and negative. This should be encouraged. The days of absolute control over content may be over, but corporate communicators can still (and should) set out guidelines on the use of social media.

For example, employees must be conscious that when they post comments about their organization, even in the personal sphere, they remain organizational representatives. Everyone talks about their workplace, and not always in the nicest way, but these comments normally disappear into thin air after they’ve been mouthed. Posted comments, however, have a shelf life and can be read by anyone, including influential stakeholders.

If your organization has a communication policy and a code of conduct in place, then it’s time to re-examine it to ensure inclusion of sections about how staff is expected to approach social media outlets when using them in professional and personal settings. Not only to include the information, but to ensure that each staff member has read and understands all of these policies. Perhaps even signs a social media “contract.”

Educate senior management and staff

While some CEOs have clearly discovered the value of social media (did you know Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez is twittering?), others need more convincing.

Communicators are well positioned to explain how the business and communication environment has changed dramatically over the past few months. They need to demonstrate that participating in conversations about the organization or company, using social media, allows them to reach new communities and build trust and credibility among followers—using honest and transparent communication.

That’s difficult to do if your head is (still) in the sand.

Obviously, there are risks, but my conference colleagues were abuzz with agreement about how the risks of not participating in this communication revolution outweighed maintaining the status quo. And now there are trailblazers and case studies to examine: benchmark other companies and organizations already engaged in active and varied online programs; let management know what they are doing, including how their CEOs are viewing or using social media.

Start slowly

Dip your big toe into social media, progressively.

As you learn about the various outlets available, the social media landscape will become less daunting. At the Universal Postal Union, we are still exploring the range of social media platforms out there, but we have created a YouTube channel to showcase some of the organization’s key activities. For example, we placed on YouTube our December 2009 media conference announcing the attribution of .post to the UPU by ICANN, plus a short animated film on a new RFID-based measurement system (that we want Posts around the world to use in order to improve their quality of service). Visit our YouTube channel. This channel is helping us get the message out in a more engaging, short audio-visual format.

Our economist also set up a blog on postal financial inclusion. As a key subject expert, he maintains the blog and regularly creates original content (with the help of other colleagues). We advised him on the blog’s key navigation and formatting features at the front end, but he’s now its hands-on manager. Better yet, it’s getting good attention (hits and comments)!

Heads and hands

Jumping on the bandwagon is one thing, but conference attendees agreed it’s vital to have the necessary resources to manage social media properly. The research so far on how much time is needed to create, develop and maintain social media vehicles varies greatly.

For example:

  • what platforms or outlets used
  • how many of each
  • how visible or controversial is your organization

will all have an impact on your human and financial resources.

The World Economic Forum, known for its annual event in Davos, employs two, full-time staff to tweet and maintain its Facebook page.

Create links

This sounds obvious, but it remains worth emphasizing. When you implement social media platforms, remember to link your other communication vehicles to them. Tell your audiences where they can follow or engage with your organization, by advertising social media options on your corporate or organizational website, your online magazine, etc. Toyota’s newsroom prominently displays its Twitter and Facebook accounts, plus its YouTube channel, enticing visitors to access easily recognizable icons, which link to the automobile giant’s social media tools.

LinkedIn, mySpace, Facebook, YouTube, MyBlogLog, slideshare, friendfeed…the list of “brave new world” options keeps growing.

While social media’s options seem overwhelming, several platforms or channels are clearly proving more popular than others; many argue those are the ones we simply cannot afford to ignore. The good thing is that lots of PR and communication practitioners are using social media to talk about social media. It’s easy enough to find information and to form opinions about specific platforms, learn about their pros and cons, and exchange ideas about how to use them properly and strategically. This, in addition, to in-person conferences with subject-experts and case studies, like the invaluable one I attended.

See you on Twitter…one day (soon)!

A native of Canada, Rhéal LeBlanc is the communication programme manager at the Universal Postal Union, the specialized agency of the United Nations for international postal services, based in Berne, Switzerland. His career in postal affairs and corporate communication spans 22 years. Contact Rhéal LeBlanc by email.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Great to see my dear friend and colleague contributing such a useful article. Thanks Rhéal. And kudos to PR Conversations for the new and very appealing format!

    • Thanks Kathryn. While I’m convinced social media are important new channels in the communication toolbox, I am still researching how to use these outlets effectively and strategically, and for the right purpose. It’s not evident, but it is exciting to think of the possibilities out there. I’m sure the new PR Conversations will be a valuable platform for exchanging on this topic and others. Also kudos to its creators and editors.

  2. Rhéal – thanks for the contribution, and to both you and Kathryn for the nice words. On the topic of learning about social media, aren’t we all! Even after several years, I find there are new tools, ideas and approaches to discover all the time. That is one of the great things about it – and one of the challenges. We will bring some insight into technology and such developments via the PR Techster tab. What I hope we can also do is integrate those who are new to PR & social media and those with more experience – since it is important that people who’ve been around a while don’t patronise the newcomers. But newbies should also look to learn from what has gone before and not present themselves as immediate gurus – just because they feel there is a market to be had by such a label. You are delightfully open and sharing in your experience and that’s what I love to read and support.

  3. Heather-apologies for not responding sooner to your message, but I’ve been traveling and stuff. Totally agree with you that one has to remain open about the various approaches and tools out there to help us communicate better and more effectively. With social media, the outlets are evolving extremely fast and understanding just how to use them effectively over time to achieve goals and objectives is challenging, as the audiences using these outlets are likely very different from the audiences you reach using traditional vehicles. It is exciting to think that social media can help you reach new constituencies, as Argenti says, and that could be important as a commercial entity seeking new markets. For entities that don’t sell products but promote ideas and vision and seek support for activities, the challenge seems just as great but I see great opportunities. It will be interesting to see how organizations succeed with social media over time. Nice work on the blog and I like coming to it for insight and ideas.

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