What do digital immigrants really know about social media? Part II

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.

Judy Gombita

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.

  1. Social media from an organisational point of view does not have nearly the across-the-generations stakeholders’ uptake that conventional wisdom would suggest.
  2. 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?

Heather Yaxley

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.

Judy Gombita

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.

Heather Yaxley

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.

Judy Gombita

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?

Heather Yaxley

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.

Judy Gombita

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.

Heather Yaxley

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.

Judy Gombita

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.

Heather Yaxley

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?

Judy Gombita

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!)

Heather Yaxley

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.

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19 Responses to “What do digital immigrants really know about social media? Part II”
  1. Heather and Judy — what an excellent discussion. Would we could all undertake it at some local pub instead of the cold grey light of cyberspace! and, Judy, thanks so much for the shout-out…more on that at the end of this rather lengthy comment… (sorry!)

    There’ve been many times when I’ve wondered (sometimes aloud) whether my own social media use has value beyond personal enjoyment. Certainly, the nearly two years I’ve invested must have had some impact in at least raising my profile. As tempted as I am to declare victory in that regard based on 1600+ followers on Twitter (which I periodically scrub for bots), the more meaningful engagement has been at a much lower volume. I have met several people with whom I’m building a solid professional acquaintanceship through ongoing correspondence.

    I represent no clients in the space, but instead try to connect people with interesting information and other interesting people, as well as shamelessly shill for my pedantic musings.

    When I started this, I wanted to use social media to position myself as an expert and generate leads. I’ve failed at half that — my online brand apparently is good, according to various anecdotes and a couple of metrics that may or may not be accurate or helpful.

    Like Judy, I’ve found value and learning on Twitter chats like #measurepr, #pr20chat, #solopr and #KaizenBlog, though my ability to participate has been inconsistent amid a certain amount of success in gaining client work, my teaching schedule and my own classes at Kent State University. I miss those chats!

    I agree that PR has been dipping a toe in, safely, which has led to treating social media as a mere extension of the PR toolset — and, as Judy said, mostly reflecting support of marketing or customer service efforts rather than more general objectives.

    I’m continuing to look at influence — in the brainstorming phase right now — and remain interested in how organizations match social media intentions with actual behavior. Dr. Julie O’Neil and I wrote a paper for the 2010 International PR Research Conference (and presented at PRSA last fall) starting to examine company blog and Twitter activity. We looked for evidence of two-way, symmetrical activity versus one-way, and didn’t find much of the former. We’re likely to do a bit of revision and make that available later this year.

    Once again, thanks for sharing your stimulating convo…
    Cheers
    Sean
    @commammo

  2. Judy Gombita says:

    I guess the question would be, with the clarity of hindsight, how much you would do differently at the front end (of exploring social media with a public relations and/or marketing focus), Sean. If it was simply a matter of modifying your expected outcomes, do you think your exploratory path would have been any different, in terms of process and/or time invested?

    I am quite certain that we only got to know one another originally through social media, which culminated in a real-life meeting this past June. (Remember I told you I had quoted from you on an earlier PR Conversations blog post…and you were utterly unaware of that fact until you got more social media savvy about searches, etc.?)

    Heather and I are quite pleased that one outcome of this two-part blog post series is that Toni Muzi Falconi is giving Twitter a try for himself: http://twitter.com/tonimuzifalconi

    There’s no going 100 per cent back, so let’s be “pragmatic enthusiasts” moving forward.

    Finally, any chance readers of PR Conversations (and me) can get their hands/reading eyes on a copy of that paper by Dr. Julie O’Neil and you? I’m sure it is quite informative and fascinating…..

  3. Brennan says:

    Hah! I see the Boresquare comments strike again, Judy. =)

    That being said, this was a really good post. I really enjoyed it. I have a lot of thoughts about it, but I think you both covered everything really well.

  4. Kentse Mahape says:

    Very interesting topic on social media and public relations however this is my thinking regarding the stance that we need to take when approaching the social media topics.

    I find that most of the time PR plays it safe when it comes to social media while other disciplines just embark and risk it all. PR seems to be one of last disciplines that always embark on change initiatives and I think that is why it took PR such a long time to create a framework within which we are operating in and having standardised best practices all over the world.

    Usage of social media and the results you want to achieve will solely depend on the choice of social media or platform which will position the organisation’s messages correctly in order to communicate to both its internal and external stakeholders. Bearing in mind that this is all about stakeholder engagement, stakeholder relationship management, and reputation management.

    We need to start using technology to our professional benefit and if we refer back to the Accords which addresses different spheres of which PR is supposed to be making an impact or operating in it becomes very evident that we need to start taking risk that will assist in developing best practices amongst PR.

    • Kentse, Thank you for your comments but there were plenty of PR practitioners who were early adopters and innovators in social media. Indeed we recognised its potential for dialogue and engagement whilst many in marketing were still focused in websites etc. The issue really isn’t one of being pro-risk but in the way different disciplines persuade management to get involved. PR is notoriously bad at selling its value whereas marketing will get bigger budgets by talking about control and other aspects that the early adopters in PR saw as not what social media is about. I still believe the real heart of social media isn’t organisation centred but as ever organisations look for what they can get out of stakeholders regardless of what stakeholders may actually want from social media.

  5. Freda Makoene says:

    Very interesting to highlight that pr is not coming out strongly to influence management and demonstrate the strategic value of social media especially with regard to building relationships with stakeholders and organisational trust. I believe that as gatekeepers in companies and being responsible for controlling and regulating the flow of information we are selling ourselves short. We have an opportunity with the use of social media to play a strategic role in guiding the organisation and effectively managing social media practices. We need therefore, to be able to demonstrate the value of these channels to companies so that they can be seen to add value to the objectives of companies.

    The fact is, social media is here to stay and it is growing by the day, affecting every aspect of our personal and professional lives. It is therefore in our best interest as pr practitioners to take it upon ourselves and to familiarise ourselves with this new way of living and doing business and find a way of integrating both the old with the new.

    Ofcourse social media has opportunities and challenges, but managed effectively by pr practitioners, it can benefit companies strategically by reaching key stakeholders with relevant messages, profiling the company, inviting stakeholders’ feedback, observing conversations about the company by various stakeholders, clear misunderstanding and negative perceptions about the company and also learn customers’ needs and expectations which will inform company product development policies and strategies. It is our role as pr practitioners to ensure that social media is not used to damage company reputations. What is important, is for us to know how to use social media effectively in line with company objectives to ensure that the channels deliver on the company’s investment.

    • Freda – thanks for the comment. I don’t think we can generalise too much about PR’s involvement in social media and any lack of gaining management support probably reflects a wider issue relating to PR within those organizations. Also is it really about demonstrating the value of “channels” to companies which sounds a tactical approach, whilst promoting social media as a way of controlling or regulating information flow seems like PR as a buffer rather than a bridge in gatekeeping terms. Likewise, whether or not social media is enabling organizations to build relationships is a matter for debate in my view. You have an interesting list of opportunities for social media and rightly say this needs to integrate with other means of engagement and communications. That also means that PR has to integrate with other functions as it is over-optimistic to believe that any one function can manage social media presence.

      I would also direct you to Stuart Bruce’s recent post about social media being part of what a PR practitioner rather than being the way we see ourselves: http://stuartbruce.biz/2011/03/who-am-i-pr-public-relations-or-social-media.html

  6. Sabrina H says:

    What a great discussion. I have an invested interest in organizations that are seemingly jumping on the social media PR bandwagon and throwing caution to the wind with regards to how they are being viewed by their public. I am faced with this very decision: Do I follow my competitors and throw my brand on the social media bandwagon on the fly-by? Or do I do my research and err on the side of caution?

    Before continuing, I would like to state that I am a believer (albeit conservative) in social media for PR purposes, however, I’ve been hesitant in going in “blind” and taking it as it comes. Some of my colleagues have cautioned me that not incorporating social media into my PR strategy as soon as possible is a death sentence. Their view is that our competitor’s presence, and the lack of ours, makes for bad PR and could be detrimental, perhaps indirectly resulting in decreased profits.

    After reading the discussion, I feel that my hesitance in jumping onto this social media bandwagon and throwing caution to the wind is well-founded. This discussion (thanks Judy and Heather), together with Brennan’s points in Part I, takes my stance on this matter to a higher level:

    1. Build the reputation, don’t kill it. After following a few organizations’ social media presence, Judy’s statement proves true – some don’t stop to think about how their social media practices can be detrimental to organizational reputation. However, if the organization follows a policy of social media respectability by nominating each and every employee a brand ambassador, and instilling a culture of brand and reputation awareness, would the risk of “bad” social media PR actually be lowered? Perhaps a solution is to appoint one social media representative, while cautioning the other employees on bad social media PR for the organization?
    2. Consistency must be a key focus. As Judy indicates, once you stop, people don’t miss you. The means and measures have to be in place – consistency and the means to be consistent is a must. It creates an expectation from followers, and if broken, the organization’s reputation is broken.
    3. Don’t bombard! As Heather identifies, “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”. It is sometimes not that easy to find that line. A very real solution, as identified by Brennan in Part I, is to promote common interests, not the brand.
    4. Validate – but only where appropriate. As Brennan (in Part I) mentions, we should respond to people who want to engage. As mentioned by Heather, engaging with everyone who comments is not always appropriate. The trick is to be able to identify when to action, and when not to.

    All these matters, along with others I’ve pinpointed in my research, will be addressed and clearly defined in the PR strategy before I commit to social media PR. All in all, social media PR is not something that is to be done on the fly-by or on a whim. It is a deliberated process that has to be strategized, or it may just land up doing the opposite of what was intended. If I was to be gung-ho about it, I truly believe that the ignorance of jumping onto the social media PR bandwagon would be much more detrimental than not having a presence, and would most definitely result in decreased profits and wary stakeholders.

    • Sabrina – this sounds like a very considered approach and perhaps you’d like to update us at some point on your progress. I’m with you about not just jumping in – in many ways I feel the time for that more reckless pioneering approach has passed. Many of the organizations that I work with now are looking at a more strategic, integrated, measured, approach – even if they initially jumped in. In those cases, there’s a lot of unpicking also being done (eg with multiple Twitter accounts from different individuals, teams or functions). Having said that, we are now in a place where a more considered approach can be developed – but the territory is by no means fully explored and there will be many more decisions to be made going forwards.

  7. Jenni M says:

    @ Heather,

    I agree that the various social media platforms must be used strategically in building and maintaining reputation and relationships.
    However, I think that social media is trending more towards tapping into the organizational grapevine, and so cannot be controlled or managed (to a large extent) by the organization.
    Would you agree?

    Social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube represent the simplest form of exchange between all users. And it is this trading of status updates and personal information that has spawned the prominence of social media sites.
    With this new, dynamic form of communication exchange, it has become increasingly important for organizations to consider these fluid media.

    It is possible that social media offers consumers the power to damage, or indeed, destroy an organization’s reputation.

    Collaborative online projects, like Wikipedia, are becoming the primary source of information for Internet users. While the information may be incorrect, more and more users believe this information to be true (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010: 62).

    Social media sites, including blogs and content communities like the photo sharing site, Flickr, give consumers the opportunity to voice their dissatisfaction with an organization. Within seconds, this disappointment or criticism has entered the cyberspace, and is immediately available for any user to view.
    Currently, Facebook boasts over 500 million users, and these users have access to more than 30 billion pieces of content every month. These links provide instant access to news sites, blogs, photo albums and web links.
    A status update, post or blog update on a social media platform taps directly into the Internet grapevine, and just like a traditional grapevine, the information is transmitted to all types of users at lightning speed.

    The grapevine is the informal and unsanctioned information network within the organization (Mishra, 1990:1). The intangible nature of the grapevine makes it a unit that is difficult to contain or manipulate.
    Mishra (1990:1) explains that the grapevine functions beyond the realm of traditional communication: it moves upwards, downwards and diagonally through the organization. This energetic characteristic ensures that the information is passed along quickly and reaches more people than traditional communication channels.

    While the grapevine is a constant exchange of information, it is virtually impossible to contain the information, and the management within the organization is unable to stop the spread of information.

    However, the grapevine operates beyond limitations like Internet access.

    Organizations shouldn’t fear social media.
    Once management understands the basic function and operation of social media sites, these platforms can be used to enhance the organization’s internal and external communication.
    Kaplan and Haenlein (2010:65) suggest that organizations begin viewing social media as arenas for sharing, participation and collaboration, rather than platforms to advertise and sell.

    By integrating a social media presence in both the organization’s internal and external communication strategies, organizations can begin to develop cyberspace stakeholder relationships.
    However, it is important to note that involvement in social media must extend beyond simply responding to negative publicity and defending the organization (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010:66).
    It is about engaging the user as a producer and consumer of the organization’s information.

    Learning to use these platforms and to integrate social media into the organization’s strategies (business, corporate and communication, alike) can help organizations avoid becoming targets of social media bullying.

    Millions of social media users do hold the power to employ revolutionary tactics against organizations.

    But, successfully monitoring and harnessing the information zipping through the grapevine, an organization can identify the needs and concerns of its stakeholders.
    The organization can use this information – positive or negative, rumour or truth – to respond accordingly and act on issues in a timely manner.

    Social Media: a revolutionary communication tactic?

    • Jenni M says:

      While the post is addressed to Heather, I welcome any comments from all contributors. :-)

    • Jenni – you present an interesting argument with one particular scenario forecast. I don’t think that I have ever said that social media in its widest sense can be controlled or managed. Indeed, you won’t find me saying that about traditional media relations either. I’m an advocate of PR being involved in earning engagement.

      What an organization does need however, is expert counsel and management of its own presence in social media. And from that standpoint, I would agree with you about certain aspects of online communications being ‘grapevine’, dynamic and self-perpetuating. Nevertheless, even with the traditional person-to-person grapevine, this isn’t always viewed as trustworthy or accurate. Likewise, I don’t agree that most people believe everything they find online – or come to that, via mainstream media channels. What you often find in organizations is that people turn to unofficial channels when the official ones are either lacking in information or considered to be propaganda.

      I do think that we all need to be aware of what others are saying – but with a sense of perspective. Not everything being said on the grapevine (via social media or personal) is worthy of a response or engagement. Sometimes the best response is to do nothing. One issue with social media is that people often think they have to respond to everything immediately.

      Yes, issues, crisis and reputation management need to be aware of the social media dimension – but I’m an advocate of owning your own territory online and ensuring that accurate, reliable information can be found there. Then, much as with the traditional grapevine, the gossip factor is reduced. Indeed, the grapevine will then pick up on official channels and ideally draw on these for more credibility.

      Finally – social media is evolutionary in my view not revolutionary and not simply a tactic, but part of a strategic perspective.

  8. Anita Rwelamira says:

    Food for thought. If organisations jump on the bandwagon and adopt social media can they really manage their reputations? Social media like facebook and twitter are great for enhancing the an organisation’s brand and reaching masses of people who can communicate almost simutaneously. What happens when they have to manage a serious crisis? Will the organisation be as persuasive with social media? I think even though Gen Y is consumed by the digital age some stakeholders still need good old fashion engagement. Iam still a champion for face to face interactions when it comes to stakeholders. I still think with social media it’s still on a superficial level . Even though it’s a great avenue for organisations to communicate with.

    • Judy Gombita says:

      Anita, I responded to a query on Craig Pearce’s blog post (about my submissions to his free PR e-report) from a Karan about why it’s probably even more crucial to have a corporate blog (and/or Twitter account) during an organizational crisis, using Maple Leaf Foods as an example:

      http://craigpearce.info/public-relations/pr-insights-from-imminent-thought-leadership-report/#comment-163865855

      Thanks for all of the commentary on Parts I & II posts. I promise either Heather or I will respond to the other comments, although probably not today. (I answered Anita’s query because I knew I’d done so already, elsewhere.)

    • Anita – I am with you that there is still merit in ‘good old fashioned engagement’. I think social media can be more than superficial and useful to provide timely information and also monitoring during a crisis. But, ensuring your most critical stakeholders are communicated with using whichever means is most appropriate for them is surely the key strategic response. There’s nothing like picking up the phone even if you can’t get to talk face to face – and a timely letter can also achieve cut through in these times of email and social media overload.

  9. Dawie Bornman says:

    The social media phenomenon has without a doubt affected how we as PR practitioners view our roles as communication experts. Whether social media should be used as a credible communication channel for an organisation is definitely debateable. I am by no means saying that I don’t support social media, its just that I don’t think it should now be used as the only medium for communication. It should rather be used as an alternative solution to stakeholder engagement and interaction, but needs to be managed effectively.

    I read through both of Judy Gombita’s posts (Part I and Part II) and the various viewpoints by various authors highlighted in her discussions. It proved to me that, because social media is still relatively new, there is still a lot of ambiguity and opinions surrounding it. As pointed out by Brennan Sarich, there is a need for social media rules but I feel these guidelines should only apply to organisations who communicate on social media sites. It will be impossible to effectively manage what is being communicated on personal social media accounts and rules or guidelines will only be ignored. The main reason why most people, in my opinion join these social media sites, is because they have freedom of speech to communicate what they want, when they want to.
    I think it is great that some educational institutions, like Kent State University is including aspects of social media in their PR curriculum (as pointed out by Morgan Galloway who attends a course called PR Online Tactics and how it is about using social media to build and maintain meaningful relationships). If educational institutions can help clarify and formulate social media business ethics and best practices, then PR practitioners will know how to effectively communicate with various stakeholders on behalf of organisations. This way all organisational interactions through social media will communicate in the same language and tone. This links closely with what Kentse Mahape discussed and I agree that social media communication should not just be another interaction but should focus on stakeholder engagement, stakeholder relationship management, and reputation management. The King III report (when focused on a social media PR point of view) can assist with this and the various chapters and principles within it can help as a type of framework for effectiveness. If this is realised then social media can help organisations branch out and make meaningful connections that might lead to potential work opportunities and organisational growth.

    I do agree strongly with Heather Yaxley and Freda Makoene (as do the majority of PR practitioners) that PR practitioners should be responsible for an organisation’s social media strategy and communication. What this would mean is that PR practitioners should work closely with top management and also the organisation’s marketing department and communicate strategically. What might jump up as a potential problem however is the choice of social media platform and therefore I propose that organisations have a ‘go-to’ site where stakeholders can interact with each other and also with the organisation. This might mean that organisations should create their own customised type social media site which would focus on their specific organisation. If a ‘go-to’ site is created then it can possibly become the number one source for information and interaction with the organisation. Organisations will then be able to learn, engage and share information with their various stakeholders effectively and continuously. Response rates will just have to be monitored to ensure that replies are well thought through and happen at the right time (not letting comments go unnoticed or responding to late to issues raised).

    For me and the organisation I work for, social media has created many work opportunities and has grown into a key communication channel to interact with various stakeholders. I do feel that even though social media is pin pointed towards a younger generation, it is by no means only suitable for just a young generation and older generation should and can contribute effectively.

    • Dawie – your recommendation for a ‘go to’ site is interesting and I agree that owing a piece of social media territory is essential. That means websites (or a portal/hub whatever you wish to call it) has to be kept up to date and a valuable, credible resource for people. I don’t believe that we can just expect people to come and engage with organizations in such sites however – it is interesting to see how even a body as high profile as the BBC in the UK uses a presence of Facebook (and Twitter of course) to engage with its audiences. We need to both have our own home, but also reach out to where others are as appropriate.

      Also, you won’t find either Judy or myself arguing that social media is just for the younger generation – especially not in the field of PR. The skills that younger practitioners bring are only part of the requirements for ensuring effective engagement in social media – it is the experience and critical thinking that those with more years on the clock can often add to the practical skills which organizations really need to be effective online.

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  1. [...] When it comes to online usage, we’re two women of the same generation (in fact, born the same year). In private conversations we’ve shared some concerns about how our public relations (and marketing) colleagues are making use of the platforms and their online behaviour, organizationally or personally, or a combination thereof. (More on this to come in part II.) [...]

  2. [...] editor, however, I have sourced and worked with guest contributors on this area and did a two-part “conversational” post with Heather Yaxley around [...]



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