Online public relations is not that different—crowdsourcing isn’t a feasible strategy
There’s an old adage that decisions by committee really aren’t that effective, particularly as the eventual outputs and outcomes tend to be second rate. Plus no one is truly accountable or assumes an authoritative role and voice.
This tends to be an internal problem, perhaps reflective of a corporate culture lacking in vision and leadership.
Something similar that’s perplexed me for awhile is this nascent concept about recruiting “friends” to assist in online corporate—or, more often, client-based boutique agency or consultancy—public relations.
Primarily this is in regards to social shares and comments about posts on various platforms, regardless of their:
- intrinsic value and how much they relate to the host organization’s offerings or ethos
- originality, objectivity and thoughtfulness
- effectiveness in communicating pertinent information, rather than opinionating
- sense of decorum (a key public relations skill); or
- suitability of audience (particularly when unrelated to known or unknown organizational stakeholders or publics).
In the case of client-based work, sometimes things that are actually proprietary are used as online social fodder without explicit permission, mainly to promote and highlight the agency or consultancy work, rather than the organization paying the bills.
How does crowdsourced PR and marketing happen?
Often the concept revolves around a (cult-like) personality that enchants and encourages others to undertake the social PR or marketing work for free, whether by shares or supportive comments. And by supportive comments I’m referring to those “filter bubbles” of discussions, which tend to be of the “confirmation bias” variety.
Unlike traditional media, it’s rare to see a true debate about current events (usually a perceived company online “crisis”), concepts or ideas taking place in social media platforms such as smaller company blogs or Facebook accounts. That’s because too-often a Lord of the Flies scenario results, with the Ralph/Piggy dissenters being set upon. Rather than suffering “the pain of independence” (a term I learned about in Susan Cain’s thoughtful book, Quiet, which played a big part in my Boring Byte column), most nonconformists (i.e., independent thinkers) retreat from further commenting, at least from “owned” social properties.
Ergo, the person who first offered the information or opinion appears unchallenged. Whether that translates to more clients is up for further evaluation, as debates present an opportunity to re-examine, demonstrate knowledge and expertise and offer proof points.
It’s not unusual to find that many of the acolytes are much younger and, inevitably, less experienced in the public relations discipline.
Alternatively, the players focus on a similar type of practice, so a quid pro quo type of unspoken deal is in place. With platforms that operate on a basis of forming “tribes,” it’s actually rather overt and obvious that a sharing arrangement is in place.
Note that I don’t see many companies/brands participating directly in this type of tribal content sharing; similar to the offline world, corporate employees focus on promoting their own company or their partnerships with others—maybe research or case studies related to the industry or sector—not unaffiliated consultancies or individuals. This type of platform appears to appeal most to North Americans, particularly marketing consultants.
What’s the ROI of time/sharing?
In return for this endorsement, generally the “sharers” and frequent commenters are petted and feted, perhaps thanked, highlighted and/or linked to in later articles or have their online communiqués similarly social shared, i.e., no-cost rewards. Maybe he or she is asked to produce a guest post—again, for free. Sometimes a person even gets hired by a small business CEO who takes a shine to him or her—particularly junior practitioners—or two, like-minded “social” consultancies set up short- or long-term partnerships.
Even if none of the above result, I imagine the hoped-for trade off regarding participating is social profile (i.e., a higher “personal brand”) and a sense of being liked, nay “nurtured” as part of a cohort led by a recognized individual.
That’s the clever part of this paradigm, participants feel like they are part of a community, so they don’t conceive of themselves as being unpaid labour or have a sense of being “used.”
The primary appeal is personal vanity. But if you are employed by an organization of any size, particularly in a public relations or marketing capacity, the question one must ask:
Is this the best way to spend social time, essentially highlighting and promoting another business?
How viable is this social construct?
No matter what country you work and live in, I suspect you’ve witnessed a similar kind of “social” construct and messianic influencers, with only small cultural variances and details, meaning my observations resonate.
I’m sure it is its own form of dedicated—possibly slogging—work, so full credit for the ingenuity and persuasiveness demonstrated by these social PR or marketing “leaders” in inspiring this type of unpaid devotion, particularly for an extended period of time.
My question to middle- to senior-level, in-house or large agency practitioners is whether you’ve had individuals not affiliated with your organization ever doing this kind of ongoing free promotion and persuasion for you in the offline world? (Affiliated individuals would include your communication team and other staff, partner organizations, maybe former employees who left on good terms and remain supportive.)
I don’t mean formal blogger relations.
And this goes beyond the concept of “brand champions,” particularly as most champions aren’t friends employed in various communication fields. The best brand champions are organic, with no affiliation beyond appreciation for a company’s ethos and/or its products or services.
In particular, I’m thinking of when the individuals in question are, to at least some extent, a “competitor” for market and mindshare.
I’m confident the answer is no.
(Another proviso is that this doesn’t relate to PR or communication association work undertaken in a volunteer capacity—or any volunteer work for that matter. The next post on PR Conversations will demonstrate an ”information partnership” between competitor PR agencies. Rather, I’m referring to the competitive marketplace of B2C and occasionally B2B.)
The challenge to organizations and larger agencies
If your organization is committed to including a social media component into its integrated communication and public relations programs, this is what you are coming up against—all of the noise and the distractions, some of it a bit manufactured as described above—in the space regarding devising nutritious content.
I’m sure your C-suite isn’t overly concerned about not having the attention of competing practitioners, but the perception may be that your messages aren’t being heard or shared as much as they should be, compared to others.
That’s because your communication team and you are the ones paid to perform the work and reach out to appropriate stakeholders, not a roving social posse of communication opinionaters. If it is high-quality and appropriate information, specific to your long-term and consistent organizational narrative, hopefully it will be consumed and shared.
There won’t be short cuts and likely there won’t be a coterie of near-automatic sharers and commenters, beyond core constituents or people who find you via search. But remember that it’s the quality of the shares and questions/discussions, not the quantity.
And it’s the outcomes: the business that results, the partnerships that are formed and the reputation that is maintained.
Ergo, I wouldn’t get too discouraged about the quantity of overt online attention, particularly if the aim is long-term memory and organizational narrative credibility, related to reputation, value and relationship building.
How can this social construct be useful?
If you are in public relations/communication hiring (employee, agency or consultancy) or partnering mode, I do think it’s useful to pay attention to this social construct and digital footprints people are leaving. For example, look to potential candidates for the following:
1. Do people offer opposing but on-topic, well-argued and thoughtful views—I like to say “fact-based, rather than opinion-laced”—even in the face of groupthink?
2. Does their discourse and debate always remain civil?
3. Do they make sure to debate ideas, rather than attacking individuals?
4. Can you sense any breaches of trust and privacy, such as publishing or offering information—or an opinion on something—that was obviously off the record and not cleared by the organization or individual in advance?
As counsellors for corporate issues and reputation management, you want assurance that (appropriate) discretion, knowledge and skill set seen online will continue offline within the organization by the new public relations hire.
I’m sure you’ve seen it happen where a bright individual with a high and active online profile gets hired by a large, credible organization. Suddenly he or she is not nearly as active or noticeable online.
The reason for this is because the person understands working for a company means that the corporate brand takes precedence over the personal one.
After all, organizational public relations really can’t be crowdsourced.
Nor should it be.
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