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Chris Cooke on how different social media opportunities and challenges affect different PR people in different ways.
23 November 2011
If there's one thing the interns on the current Taylor Bennett Foundation [http://www.taylorbennettfoundation.org] programme have discovered in their ten weeks of learning, it's that a lot of people in PR are talking about social media a lot. But they've also discovered that across the industry different people are talking about social media in quite different ways.
So, given that they had already heard from some real experts in the field on how they are using social media in their PR work, I thought that when it came to my session with the interns on this subject I'd focus instead on why it is that different PR people are approaching the social media thing in different ways.
The reason for the differences is that social media - that is to say digital tools that make it easier to have a presence, to publish content and to communicate with contacts on the internet - throws up a number of different opportunities and challenges for those involved in managing a company's communications and public relationships.
Which opportunities and challenges are most important will depend on what kind of companies you are communicating for, what kind of stakeholders you have relationships with, and whether digital channels are at the heart of or on the periphery of your work.
Though even for those PRs whose day-to-day work is far removed from all things digital, some of these threats and opportunities will still be relevant, and ever increasingly so, which is why our TBF interns are finding more and more of the communicators they meet are now talking about social media, and the urgency with which companies need to embrace the opportunities and deal with the challenges, even if a Facebook campaign or daily Twitter chat isn't relevant.
I group the various social media opportunities and challenges into eight types.
1. Social media as media.
Thanks to social media platforms, anyone can become journalist, editor and publisher, and while blogging has been around for over a decade, never has the blogosphere been so prolific or influential. Meanwhile, via Twitter especially, celebrities have inadvertently become influential commentators. If you're in the business of online media relations, at what point do you treat bloggers as media? And do you service them in the same way as other online journalists?
2. Social media as a channel to journalists.
Even if you're primarily working with print media, social media, and especially Twitter, are increasingly important. Journalists and editors are, in the main, prolific tweeters, and following and interacted with hacks online is an increasingly good way of building those all important media relationships, as well as keeping up to speed on what reporters, commentators and columnists are focusing on and writing about.
3. Social media as a channel to consumers.
For some brands social media is already a primary channel for talking to customers - with both Twitter and Facebook utlised in this way. This is pretty straight forward if you have a web-savvy consumer base. The challenges, though, are in who should control the Twitter feed and Facebook page - PR, marketing, customer relations? - and what are the rules the employees doing the tweets and Facebook updates should follow?
4. Social media as a channel to other stakeholders.
What other stakeholders can be, or demand to be, communicated to via social media. The political community are increasingly prolific online, though perhaps they see this as a forum for talking to their constituents and not those in public affairs? And what about the investment community? Research suggests this audience is currently less influenced than most by tweets, Facebook alerts and blogs, but is that likely to change?
5. Social media as a consumer recruitment tool.
This is where it gets interesting. Will a social media presence alone recruit new consumers? The realistic answer is "probably not". But that's not to say social media can't be really powerful here. First, for some products and audiences uber-targeted Facebook ads can work, though that's for your colleagues in advertising. On the PR side, where social media can come into its own is that it can help you encourage and enable your existing customers to become brand ambassadors, giving you more control over that all important word-of-mouth marketing we've all spoken about for years. How? Well, that's a content challenge, not a technical one, and perhaps I'll return to that topic one day - or you can come on my social media course and I'll tell you!
6. Social media as a forum for dealing with complaints.
Yes, good use of social media is about listening as well as talking. One more for customer relations than traditional PR perhaps, but some companies are doing great things monitoring complaints being aired on social networks and - where feasible - dealing with those complaints there and then without actually being asked for help by the customer. When it happens, there's still enough novelty to this kind of customer service that the complainer often immediately becomes a brand ambassador. Though, for big companies with big customer bases, there are clearly resource issues here, especially if customers come to expect automatic and immediate responses whenever they complain online.
7. Social media as a forum for monitoring opinion and response.
Similar to six, though perhaps more relevant to those in corporate comms rather than complaints. Can we use social media to spot trends, to lean about attitudes and opinions to us and our competitors, and to spot potential issues or crises in their early stages? And if so, how can use this information for commercial benefit? And how do we learn to ignore the continuous hum of constant but non-dangerous online hate that big and/or controversial companies and brands will find when they go online, without losing the ability to spot real issues? And what are the ethics of listening in this way? This is probably the area where most is still to be learned.
8. Social media as the enemy.
Another challenge for the corporate comms team. Social media is great in the way it equips companies with powerful, easy-to-use and often free communication tools, enabling them to reach a global audience immediately. But, of course, the same tools are open to everyone, giving pressure groups and single-issue-campaigners a more level playing field when it comes to the tools to speak to large and influential audiences. It's one of the greatest things about social media, but for companies it can be terrifying. What's your policy on these groups, do you interact, and if so when and how? Again, lots to be learned, though every time a company goes through a major crisis - and faces a new group of increasingly loud and influential social-media-enabled online critics - we learn some more.
So, lots of food for thought. No wonder so many people are keen to talk to our interns about social media, and no wonder those conversations vary so much!