A binary system is any system that allows only two choices, such as a switch in an electronic system [i.e., on or off] or a simple true or false test. –Wikipedia
Evolving into a social business holds so much promise and opportunity from an integrated communications and public relations perspective. The innovative, two-phase (digital and integrated advertising) campaign I share at the end of this column is one such example.
That’s why overall, from my standpoint, it’s rather unfortunate that things are becoming a bit askew and devolving. As the public relations lead—ideally with the full support of your CEO and other C-suite members—it’s time to reclaim your role as the primary custodian of the reputation, value and relationship building of your social business, including the strategic why and what in its manifestation and hues.
Regarding organizational public relations, it’s mystifying as to when and from where did the amorphous online “general” public get the idea it was in charge in a black-and-white (or binary) imperative sense? I mean of everything related to a business, social or bricks-and-mortar. This is regardless of whether people have an existing relationship, formal or informal, whether they have purchased a product or service, whether the organization is even based in their community or on the other side of the world.
Filter bubbles exist in the online world with people believing they are judge and jury of the business world, regardless of whether they have any senior-level corporate training, skills and experience. It’s a self-appointed role, often officious in tone and heavily weighted to fast opinionating over researched facts and thoughtfulness. What comes across are imperatives of this is the way you must do things in order for us to Like and champion you, rather than disparage you online.
In this Binary Byte I’m recommending a judicious approach to all of this sought-out-or-not “engagement” or inputs regarding the online manifestation of your brand. Monitor yes, but also manage expectations as to the weight and influence opinions—especially of the binary variety—will be given. Businesses are not all alike; it’s the shadings that sometimes differentiate perceptions between stellar and inferior ones. Social business is no different.
After all, your communication team and you are the one paid to do the reputation, value and relationship-building work. Your employer or client has invested in your management and judgment skills to determine and shade online organizational public relations.
First wave binary imperatives
In the first wave of binary social business imperatives, words like “transparency” and “authenticity” were thrown around a lot.
Having worked in the financial and not-for-profits sectors for many years, I’m always a bit amused at what online pundits consider need-to-have transparency. Basically it comes down to black-and-white injunctions to show and tell anything and everything asked.
Necessary financial transparency is clearly articulated in the jurisdictions in which an organization operates. The same goes for labour laws, environmental protection, community relations and so on.
From an online perspective, transparency has evolved in areas like advertising and blogger relations, whereby it’s being mandated to make evident when payment or freebies are part of the equation, in order to protect consumers from being unduly influenced by what could be seen as a subjective viewpoint, rather than an independent review.
But transparency does not relate to things of a competitive intelligence nature, the need to detail every aspect of (legal and ethical) business relationships or even why decisions were made (think Susan G. Komen, a private cancer research foundation, announcing it would be discontinuing funding to an NGO), etc.
Knowing and authenticity
Wanting to know things is not the same thing as needing to know things, i.e., an imperative to be 100 per cent transparent on demand.
Yes, public opinion can have an impact, but who the person is and what past, existing or future relationship the individual has with an organization impacts the weight and influence in this equation regarding influence. That’s why when the media comes calling with queries, smart public relations reps don’t say, “No comment.”
The valued public relations lead, through online monitoring and research, can provide counsel to leadership as to who and which opinions are worthy of further examination. After all, critics can sometimes expose flaws of which you were unaware or demonstrate a groundswell of change in thought, which is deserving of business-decision accommodation.
Authenticity is a trickier proposition, especially in a social environment where it’s somewhat dependent upon the experience and calibre of employees participating on the platforms.
From an organic perspective, I point you to a post by Stephen Abbott (whom I met through business-related Twitter chats like #innochat, #usguyschat, #brandchat, #hbrchat and #kaizenbiz), Authenticity is. He sums up the concept of shading your organization’s authenticity from a brand perspective in this paragraph and later sentence:
“Each time people experience your organization (through product experiences, advertising, word-of-mouth…everything) a consistent story is communicated, a little bit at a time. The more experiences, the richer your story becomes. With each experience, your story—what people believe about your organization—continues to evolve into a concise promise. This is where people discover authenticity. This is your brand.
… Authenticity is a result, not an intent.”
This beautifully written post by Abbott gently disabuses binary, conventional wisdom, which declares that, “Companies no longer own their brands.” Brands are definitely the result of multiple stakeholder inputs and touch points with a product or service—the interactions, the impressions formed, the organic championing, the expectations and even informal social engagement—but the primary custodian about how the brand is shaded and manifested, including long-term decision making from a public relations perspective, remains the organization in question.
His next sentence about “authenticity’s result” reads, “Consider the implications of this when recruiting employees, communicating with stakeholders, selecting vendors and engaging in the community.” The opportunity in online is making evident the right choices, through acknowledgment or participation.
Second wave binary imperatives
It’s in the second wave that I believe things have become a bit askew and are devolving. Its movement appears to be from the general transparency and authenticity injunctions to specific, binary imperatives. Often it’s the online “experts” declaring you should dump traditional tactics and move to online only—that is, an either/or perspective. Black and white imperatives, such as:
- Don’t bother with traditional, mainstream media relations—go online only, or go home.
- You must issue a Social Media News Release.
- Throw out news releases in favour of tweets.
- If you screw up in social media, your business is going to suffer.
- Hire Gen Y because they live, breathe and understand social better than Gen X and Boomers.
- One stupid tweet will be remembered forever.
- Google+ is boring and a waste of your time.
- Did you do something on Facebook to which the online world objects? Apologize immediately. Promise you’ll never do it again. Identify, out and fire the culprit(s) in question.
- Your CEO must tweet if you want your social business to be taken seriously.
Will your business stop operating or lose shareholder value and mind share if you don’t pay attention to these binary imperatives? Do you want to throw out your social PR decisions to virtual strangers who don’t really understand or care that much about your business? This isn’t a black and white framework, there’s plenty of room for smart evaluation and thoughtful shadings.
Remember, the more important word is business in a “social business”
As enthusiastic as we might be about all of the exciting things that comprise social, it would be misguided to put more weight on the social than on the business part of the equation.
Recently I came across a great post, Social Media Crises Aren’t Crises, by Augie Ray (director of social media at Prudential). It complements my November 2011 Crisis Byte column quite well. Not only does Ray hold a similar viewpoint about online “crises” mainly being hyperbole (i.e., blogging fodder and a bid for attention by pundits), but he’s suggested a more reasonable, alternative word: event.
“We should stop using the term “Social Media Crisis”: Merriam-Webster defines crisis as a crucial time with “the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome.” Social media “crises” are simply not resulting in “highly undesirable outcomes,” at least as measured by important financial measures. Our use of the term “crisis” does not reflect well on our profession; it connotes panic when what we need to convey is assurance and capability. I have begun to change my language, using the word “event” instead of “crisis” or “disaster.” An event is something we handle; a crisis is something we suffer. An event is something that can be planned for and prevented; a disaster is something we are powerless to foresee or affect.”
The other great aspect to Ray’s post is that he dissects the long-term financial impact of these so-called crises, using several case studies. I wasn’t surprised to discover the financial impact was not negative…but what was startling was how in some of the organizations he tracked, shareholder value actually went up post “social media event.”
Generally it’s not because of the way the crisis was handled. Rather it’s because the social “event” was a single, relatively small component of the way the business operates in general, including its management and how much its ongoing services are needed or desired, regarding convenience and price point. Alternatively, the overall reputation and value of the business remained strong.
Regarding my “shading” hypothesis, I’m recruiting Ray to play quarterback–handing over the argument to him for the goal:
“…our social media PR events are serious–they take us off message, weaken relationships, increase costs, distract leaders and may result in short-term loss of sales–but our attitude should be similar to how doctors react to broken bones: Professional, capable, experienced and calm. That is the approach our bosses want and expect of us–not calling a “code” and pulling out a crash cart every time we receive a couple of angry tweets.”
A “shading” case study in the making
I’m pleased to be registered to hear Joel Yashinsky, chief marketing officer and SVP of marketing and consumer business insights, McDonald’s of Canada, speak in November 2012 at the Rotman School of Management. The exact topic is TBA, but my hope is that it will be about the fast food restaurant chain’s innovative campaign that began in June. Phase one was a digital-only project asking people to pose their questions to the company through Facebook and Twitter, as well as a new website. It is now in phase two, completing a four-week integrated advertising campaign, Our Food, Your Questions.
The premise is simple:
“Ever wanted to ask us about the food in our Canadian restaurants? Now’s your chance! We’ll answer any questions about our food.”
The Globe and Mail’s marketing reporter, Susan Krashinsky wrote a great column about it, From Twitter to TV, McDonald’s offers answers (she researched beyond the information contained in the conventional media releases). I also found the FAQs pages McDonald’s Canada developed quite interesting.
This five-month program appears to be a Canada-specific one. And I’m pretty certain McDonald’s of Canada’s marketing PR initiative was self-orchestrated, as opposed to reacting to external, binary injunctions. (Unlike the USA, the “pink slime” accusation has not been levelled in Canada. Nor can I recall there ever being a similar food inspection “event,” beyond the usual concerns about the “nutritional” value of fast food.)
It’s a wonderful example of voluntarily “opening-the-transparency” kimono to whatever questions are asked by anyone. And because it was self-determined in conception—rather than a government, media or societal imperative—this means McDonald’s is shading its own authentic story, with the help of engagement on social media.
If I get a chance, I’m going to ask Joel Yashinsky what were the primary reasons or inspirations for this transparency initiative and hands-on engagement. Maybe about how much social media assisted in enhancing and expanding the initiative when it moved to the integrated advertising phase–i.e., the TV ads and subway stations papered with posters, highlighting questions asked by consumers through social media.
I’d appreciate receiving your feedback on any of the following–or a comment of your own devising.
1. If you had the opportunity, what would you ask Joel Yashinsky?
2. Have you felt the pressure of binary imperatives in your social PR, either from your leadership team or more outspoken online colleagues?
3. Do you push back? If yes, what persuasive arguments do you use?
4. Can you relate to the concept of being the primary caretaker and determining the “shading” of your online organizational public relations efforts?