This second part of a conversation about the role of social media in PR moves on to reflect on the practices of organisations and their representatives in this ever changing terrain. Heather Yaxley and Judy Gombita share their views and offer some cautionary advice.
The previous post referenced the Pew Internet “Generations Online” report; this time let’s look at the Edelman Trust Barometer 2011. From the Edelman January 25, 2011, news release, “Skepticism has increased as a result of the systemic impact of corporate and government crises, causing a transformation in the framework of trust,” said Richard Edelman, president and CEO, Edelman. “Trust in business may have stabilized globally, but it is different and conditional, premised on what a company does and how it communicates.”
Although much of corporate trust revolves around current events and the recent global recession, what is quite telling is the section asking, “Where do you generally go first for news about a company? Then where do you go?” At the bottom of the list of trusted sources is social media. As a first choice for information (globally) it ranked at only 5 per cent; as a second choice it rises to a mere 7 per cent. (See page 20 of the Executive Findings.)
Given that “trust” in corporations is inextricably linked to perceptions of reputation and value (traditionally part of public relation’s remit), in this cautionary conversation about social media what does this mean, particularly in regards to public relations? It could translate to two things.
- Social media from an organisational point of view does not have nearly the across-the-generations stakeholders’ uptake that conventional wisdom would suggest.
- The way most organisations (and their in-house or agency PR and marketing practitioners) are using social media is not being overly well received.
That’s my take. What say you, Heather? Do you think organizations recognise social media (as per the Edelman Trust Barometer) as a credible communications channel – and if so, how are they allocating responsibility for its management?
Up to now, involvement seems to have been largely experimental, with PR pioneers enjoying the frontier nature of social media rather than thinking about reputational impact, building trust, delivering return on investment or strategic responsibility for social media.
What’s different in 2011 is that newer arrivals appear to be seeking a level of comfort and control. That means they tend to opt to broadcast information via Twitter, or in setting up Facebook groups and Youtube channels. This is a ‘safe’ strategy and echoes a paid-for approach to the media rather than the earned approach which is traditionally how PR operates.
But seeing social media as a publicity channel leads to confusion – for example, when you look at Twitter accounts where companies are promoting themselves in one tweet and responding to customer complaints in the next. It hardly seems to reflect a strategy intended to engender trust.
The expectation that the Twitter or Facebook accounts represent the public face of the organisation and yet are required to spend significant real estate space on one-off customer service ‘complaints’ (especially if the overall problems are systemic and/or long-term) is one that makes me crazy. I’ve offered up several times that having the (public relations-focused) Twitter account dealing with complaints is akin to having PR practitioners physically sitting in the HQ’s call centre. If handled publicly, it would be akin to streaming the phone call(s). Valeria Maltoni did her usual superb job in exploring the concept of ‘fair’ versus ‘special’ customer service treatment in social media on her blog; I recommend a read. Of course public relations can (and should) monitor social media for complaints (or compliments!) and figure out if the dots connect to systemic problems that need to be solved or championing that can be made use of in other ways.
According to Website-Monitoring.com product compliments and complaints accounted for four per cent of Tweets – that’s about 4 million every day. Engaging with everyone who comments about your organisation is not necessarily appropriate – indeed, some users find this attention akin to ‘brand stalking’. You can also escalate a minor issue by engaging with it – and it takes human judgement to make such decisions rather than looking to automate responses. I suppose the real issue is that if you’ve got bad customer relations then you’ll get a bad rep online too. Brands who get it right in real life, should find more advocates than critics online too.
Moving away from a marketing-approach, how do you feel PR practitioners are using social media? I notice a lot seem overly personal using this public medium to chat with ‘chums’ (often existing media contacts), without reflecting on the fact that anyone can read their tweets.
The way the PR person acts in social media channels reflects on the brands they represent, but this seems to be forgotten. Mind you, they are not alone as recent high-profile cases, and anecdotally, we hear of those on Twitter who are surprised when others pick up on what they’ve said. As I’ve already said, some people don’t like brands following or contacting them, even if they’ve said something specific – a criticism or compliment.
I am definitely finding that my opinion of organisations (in particular vendors and agencies) is being impacted by the way its representatives are ‘operating’ in social media. Even if the account is supposed to be a personal one, if the individual includes the company he or she works for in a bio line or references the employer in updates, the separation is impossible (no matter what rider clause line you include).
One of the practices that I find particularly obnoxious is syndicating geo-location updates into one’s Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn accounts. I simply cannot see the value-add to your stream, particularly if followers don’t even live in your city or town. I don’t care if you are experimenting with it ‘on behalf of a client” or for your own agency or organization. I have zero interest. (Why not simply use Twitter’s geo-location option that includes your location at the bottom of each tweet?)
Yet when I privately express my unhappiness with the practice (usually including a link to that guest post from January 2010), more often than not I get a truculent response, and/or am immediately unfollowed or even blocked. I’ve been taken off of ‘PR’ Twitter lists as punishment! (I’m crushed.)
Quite frankly, I find it disturbing when those who claim to work in PR (or vendor representatives) don’t stop to think how their social media practices can impact organisational reputation. If I’m asked to recommend an agency (or consultant) or I’m considering investing in an industry-related service (e.g., newswire, measurement or monitoring), first I am going to consider how its employers themselves are making use of social media, particularly in their regular practices and in ‘relating’ or engaging with me. Even non-agency people (i.e., in-house) who are working on a special event or for an NGO: if you are pushing updates into your stream, I am far less interested to take an interest in your cause, let alone you. One further word of caution: I’ve found once I’ve stopped following someone on Twitter (due to behaviour), I stop missing him or her quite quickly. That’s on an individual basis, but if you are tweeting on behalf of an organisation (or you represent it), how many other stakeholders are you losing, other than me?
On the other hand, there are a few people to whom I’m now connected and engage with regularly on social media platforms that I originally had negative or ambivalent feelings about. Through their smarts and/or generosity, they helped me undo my original Blink impression!
In general, Heather, do you think PR practitioners qualified to take on the management of their organization’s strategic use of social media?
Potentially PR should be one of the key players in developing and managing an organisation’s social media strategy. But the function needs to be clear about what it delivers in the mix. We don’t generally understand the technical aspects and are reluctant to fully engage with measurement. PR practitioners tend to distance themselves from the marketing aspects we’ve already touched upon – so what does that leave? Engaging with digital influencers or traditional media contacts online, developing PR campaigns using social media, issuing public statements or handling crisis scenarios? I’m not sure the PR role has totally been thought through. We don’t have to own the territory, but why should we be in the vanguard?
It is interesting to see how many PR practitioners have taken on the mantle of ‘head of social media’ – but often only seem to be engaged in tweeting. Those who have a high profile in PR circles based on tweeting aren’t necessarily great role models though – as others may either think this tactical approach is all there is to social media, or they’re put off by the trivial and inane nature of a lot of the activity.
What I find amusing is the supposed ‘talent drain’ from public relations to advertising agencies; it’s not actually public relations that should be concerned, it’s marketing! Generally, both marketers and advertisers simply are making use of online platforms to sell products and services, even if it’s disguised with contests, special offers or ‘brand championing’ Likes, etc. None of these things are related (at least not overly much) to reputation and stakeholder management, let alone crisis communication. Can you image investing your online presence in an advertising agency, then having it being the frontline presence (at least initially) for an organizational crisis? Of course that’s a rhetorical question.
But you are missing a critical point. Advertising agencies have traditionally persuaded clients (especially those with household names) that they are best-placed to position the brand. They have access at the top of organisations and have always been masters at securing big budgets and the lead on communication campaigns. We may scoff at their role in crisis management – but let’s not forget the willingness of organizations to take out adverts to apologise (often a crass and ineffective tactic). They will undoubtedly advise clients that a paid-for approach can be applied online too. And we know that bloggers, celebrities and others can be bought alongside the potential to throw money at SEO and maximising online presence.
Okay organizations won’t earn respect in this way – but whose to say that money can’t overcome public criticism online going forwards. Can’t you envisage a 1984 style world where history can be rewritten if you have enough money and power?
Advertising has also been pretty good historically at securing client budgets for evaluation – even though the old adage of half of their work being unsuccessful probably remains true. What do you think of the current options and validity of the monitoring and measurement currently being conducted in social media?
Much of the ‘measurement’ seems flawed and biased to me. There are oodles of surveys and infographics from different organisations, lots of aggregating and transmitting of a ‘mythology of measurement’. But original and accurate data is hard to find and understand. I see lots of vested interests busy promoting social media and using spurious measures to justify their cause.
I do believe in the potential to monitor online discussion as formative and evaluative research. But all measures need a large pinch of pragmatism – particularly if their use is not to be reduced to a return per tweet or value per follower measure. That would be like applying a similar measure to the postal service, using the telephone or email. Having said that, the overload of emails means organisations really should be evaluating the huge amount of time and effort many employees devote to emailing each other.
Agreed. Part of the problem is that so much of the ‘measurement’ is aimed at supporting and proving marketing (or advertising) goals and objectives through social media. (Start with the intended outcomes and then design a survey that will support the hypothesis in the results…plus help to sell our ‘social media services.’) Besides the aforementioned Edelman Trust Barometer, I am pleased to see PR Conversation’s guest contributor and friend, Sean Williams, undertaking a series of posts on his own blog related to his ‘learnings’ about influence and social media. (I believe the posts are related to his research and volunteer work for the Institute of Public Relations.) Check them out.
Maybe we should all start closer to home. I’m wondering how the average PR practitioner measures their personal involvement in social media channels – particularly the time spent.
I’ve never sought to determine a return on my own online activity. Initially I was just keen to be involved. I began to blog and enjoyed being able to think through my perspective on different topics. Consequently, the reward was engaging with others who seem to like my writing or wished to debate what I’ve said. I’m not a huge participant in Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn and don’t find the time to follow others as much as I’d like. But I do lurk whenever I can – a smartphone is great for that – and find Twitter useful as an RSS substitute for coming across interesting posts, etc.
It is annoying to see newbies setting themselves up as experts in social media – and also to be told by those who only got into Twitter recently how this is how all PR will be in the future. But I suppose it was my choice not to seek my fame and fortune as an early adopter.
I do remain rather cynical about social media overall though. So maybe I’m an early adopter now on the curve for ‘it’s not all that, you know!’ The truth is that most of the public will use social media for personal purposes – and increasingly try to avoid the brand messages bombarding them.
My real secret confession is that I’m like many of these users. I watch Twitter alongside trash television (from American Idol to Big Fat Gipsy Wedding) – and find it hilarious reading other people’s tweets. However, I couldn’t possible think how to measure that involvement any more than justifying watching these programmes in the first place!
What about you, Judy?
On that guest post about geo-location updates, I wrote (about Twitter):
“My account is a personal one. My main incentives and goals are to widen my (international) network, source and exchange information, monitor trends (in the public relations, communication management and social media industries), and to debate ideas and events, particularly those related to current affairs. My secondary incentive and goals are to be amused…and (hopefully) to amuse.”
I remain quite satisfied with my goals and objectives and feel, for the most part, I have been successful. I would add that I find the dedicated Twitter chats to be immensely gratifying and useful, from both an educational and network-growing point of view. Lately I’ve been shifting the bulk of my time and focus from industry-oriented chats to more business-oriented ones (e.g., #kaizenblog, #brandchat, #hbrchat). Besides the boundary-spanning knowledge, sometimes I am one of only a handful of PR practitioners. Occasionally I’m the only one. It’s great to offer a PR perspective to non-practitioners and have it both respected and valued. How do I measure success? Convincing some marketers (better yet, CEOs!) in these cross-functional chats that PR should work side-by-side on mutually decided goals and objectives, instead of under marketing. I consider this a huge achievement!
Another measure of success, I think, was being asked by my Californian Twitter and LinkedIn (and #VX Toronto Tweetup) mate, Neal Schaffer, to curate a Twitter list for him, focusing on PR and social media. (It’s a work in progress.) Neal really does want to learn more about public relations; apparently he will argue in an upcoming Vocus webinar that public relations is best suited, strategically, to guide an organization’s social media channels.
Finally, anyone who tells me (off or online), very sincerely, that he or she find the information I source or the opinions offered to be of value, is gratifying. Or that I make them think or laugh. These are the same things I hope to achieve in my offline relationships. (A quick plug for one of my submissions to Craig Pearce’s upcoming e-report, “PR primer for (social) networking,” where I explore these concepts further. Look for an interview with Craig about the Public relations 2011: issues, insights and ideas e-report here on PR Conversations within the next two weeks. How did I ‘meet’ Craig…through social media networking!)
I suppose the big challenge is that public relations has an opportunity to use social media strategically to build relationships, manage reputations and reflect a value-driven approach.
Whilst we’re sharing plugs, I’ve written a chapter on digital PR in Alison Theaker’s forthcoming 4th edition of The Public Relations Handbook. In it, I quote Hutton (a marketer) in saying PR is caught between the ‘aggressive, competitive, hyperbolic, selling mind-set’ of marketing and a ‘more conciliatory, peacemaking approach’.
My conclusion recognizes that overlap between PR and marketing is increasingly evident. Optimistically I believe there is potential for PR practitioners to lead a hybrid strategic function which manages paid, earned and owned/created media communications both online and offline. I see the fast moving nature of the digital world as both an evolution and a revolution for PR. It is something that cannot be ignored, but at the same time, does not signal an end to everything we have ever known about working in this fascinating field.