Don’t Forget the Basics

Posted on May 3, 2010. Filed under: Public Relations, Social Media | Tags: , , , , , |

There’s a saying that things happen in three’s, and I recently found that to be the case when it came to a particular piece of communication advice. The message: make sure you provide a reliable space for folks to easily access clear and direct communication.

The first incident was when I attended a PRSA event in New York City in March where Chris Barger, director of social media at General Motors, was providing his keynote address. In sharing his list of lessons learned during the company’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, he stressed how setting up a company website that provided relevant information allowed company representatives to minimize conflicting messages and to easily refer the site to consumers when reaching out through e-mails, blogs, boards, Twitter and the like.

I then ran across an audio interview last week with Dennis Urbaniak, a Vice President at Sanofi-Aventis, who stated that one of the most important things a company could do was establish a place for people to dialogue and receive credible information. This would allow the communications team to set up a regular channel with its consumers and avoid being caught up in a reactive-only cycle to consumer questions and comments coming in 24/7.

My third ‘aha’ moment came via a BBC story reporting research findings on the reliability of medical advice on the internet. Of 500 sites searched, only 39% of sites provided correct information, with governmental sites providing the most reliable advice (100% accurate). Contrary to my expectations, the study found that company sites provided correct and relevant advice only 81% of the time, while news sites were on target only a paltry 55% of the time (researchers suggested that news sites had a potential conflict of interest with the maintenance of controversy, as opposed to outright providing incorrect information).

While it may seem like a basic 101 lesson in communications, I was surprised to find this a lesson many companies are still learning the hard way. Then again, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise given the pressure communications teams have to get on the bandwagon with social media. The priority to maintain a strong foundation could easily be forgotten as teams scramble to ready the company with new tools.

In order to successfully communicate to your audience, you need to establish a reliable source of information proactively; not just to educate consumers and the media or as an effort to react to a crisis situation. It’s not just about pushing out releases to the press, creating innovative YouTube videos, or using various social media sites to repost your press releases.

It’s about creating a dialogue, maintaining consistent messaging regardless of the source, and creating a trusted reference to help manage the misinformation and quick-time reaction generated by the increasing use of online and mobile tools. And so while we all try to keep up with the changing messengers of communication, we ultimately cannot forget the message.  Seem obvious? You’d be surprised how easy it is to forget.

Emi Nakatsugawa is a media consultant in Dow Jones Media Lab based in New York City.

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#social media: changing behaviors in both directions with the “hashtag”

Posted on October 7, 2009. Filed under: Public Relations, Social Media | Tags: , , , , |

Much attention has been paid to the impact of social media on marketing and PR. However, the power that citizens and consumers have to promote change within corporations and governments has also been affected by the changing relationships in the media marketplace.

Traditionally, information traveled in only one direction: corporate world → traditional media → consumers. Today, though, social media has revolutionized the flow of information between companies and their stakeholders.

Today’s consumer/citizen produces his or her own content on the Web quickly, at little or no cost and as part of his/her daily routine. This “non-media” content circulates freely and quickly from one corner of the globe to another.

With the rise of these online networks, the relationship between the citizen consumer and large organizations has become far more democratic and horizontal. The resulting lack of control over content and the growing number of people joining the online conversation can result in uncertainty for businesses and governments.

A few examples below illustrate the way in which the “social relationship” between large organizations and the citizen consumer has changed with the arrival of Web 2.0 and social networks.

For companies to successfully join the social media conversation, they need to understand the rules and conventions of the game. In the Twitter world, hashtags are a community-driven convention for adding additional context and data to one’s tweets, and they help users follow conversations on the site. In addition, a hashtag is a way of notifying users that they can join a tweet to a specific discussion or event.

  • After the Iranian protests broke out, the volume of tweets using the tag #IranElection increased, resulting in thousands of tweets about the protests. Twitter then played a significant role as proxy servers were used to circumvent the government’s efforts to block access to the Internet. Citizens both within and outside Iran used hashtags frequently to inform and update people about the events and to help organize the protests.
  • Habitat, a British furniture retailer, saw its reputation at stake when it used Twitter in a marketing campaign to sell products and add consumers to its marketing database. Habitat used hashtags to promote an offer to win a £1,000 (US$1,900) gift card, but it chose hashtags already in use for other purposes, such as #mousavi, which was also used to protest the Iranian elections. Twitter users accused Habitat of improperly capitalizing on a serious political issue, and its mistakes were heavily retweeted on the microblogging service. As a result, Habitat pulled all the messages and replaced them with standard marketing tweets. It also apologized for its promotional messages on Twitter.

These examples illustrate that new media, such as Twitter, can become hubs of real-time information, and any player in the media marketplace – corporation, government or consumer – can contribute ideas, opinion, news and observations.

But as Habitat’s experience has shown, the properties of Twitter can result in a disadvantage since it is instantaneous and accessible anytime, anywhere, by thousands of “followers,” making mistakes more immediately visible to potential target audiences. The Habitat story also demonstrates that consumers are reluctant to “buy” just any information released by corporations on social media sites. On the contrary, they scrutinize content according to the rules established by the online community.

Consumers and citizens can now produce media content and messages that drive change in the offline world, as much as they receive information that seeks to change their behaviors. We know that the hallmark of excellent public relations is two-way communication. Now that markets are conversations, consumers have as much opportunity to change organizational behaviors as organizations have to change the behaviors of their stakeholders.

Claudia Schoenbohm is a writer and consultant in the Dow Jones Media Lab. This post is an excerpt from her graduate research studies at the London School of Economics.

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