Reputation Byte: 3 Taxing Areas Beyond Control in Social Public Relations

I’m convinced the way forward includes social media as an important part of integrated communication, particularly in regards to public relations for business.

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And yet. And yet. A few things have happened in recent weeks that have left me a bit troubled, regarding a rising tide of skepticism about just how transparent and authentic is the social face of many businesses and their practices when it comes to reputation, value and relationship building.

First scenario

When I expanded the concept of corporate media—instead of brand journalism or content marketing—in a post on PR Conversations, there was decided push back from some individuals in terms of:

  •  how objective-and-unvarnished “truthful” such media could be
  •  whether there were legal implications—this from a trackbacked post and comments by an associate dean of law at a university, particularly in regards to USA First Amendment rights; and
  • (worst of all) a tweeted rejoinder that this was a gussied-up, fancy phrase for an endless stream of corporate advertorials, not a news channel (he characterized it as “new bottle, old wine”)

And then I saw a journalist’s blog post that conflated brand journalism with native content and advertising in his title!

Ah yes, the old bugaboo about public relations comprising a promotional form of marketing relations and not much else.

On the other hand…even I’m getting tired of the endless barrage of content, videos (long- or short-Vined), Instagrams and other photos, pins, engagement tactics and contests and on and on, from numerous companies, large and small.

I suspect the amount of marketing being pushed in the social faces of stakeholders is unprecedented.

I’m infomercial-dazed and click-weary.

It reminds me of the big coffee-table books of yesteryear—I might admire the cover design and pick it up and leaf through its gorgeous glossiness for a bit, but I’m not going to make use of it for a good night’s read, to do research or to form an opinion of substance.

I found most of those books too big and slick, with way too many pages of text and photos to “consume.”

Those books were strategically placed on coffee tables for show, not true information.

Second scenario

If you are like me, in recent years the bulk of your professional development has been oriented towards conferences, events, webinars, etc., either focused on social media or with a large component dedicated towards it.

Earlier this summer, I received word the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW) was holding its annual Toronto business journalism workshop, with this year’s agenda focused on investigative reporting. I thought it would be good to get out of my usual habit and comfort zone, and registered to attend.

It was an excellent day of presentations by smart journalists who welcomed incisive questions and debate. Something notable was that it was entirely social-media free, except for one pertinent investigative fact that I will detail soon.

I had made no effort to hide my area of practice, so it was a bit unsettling to hear much “business communication” deemed marketing, spin and/or subterfuge.

Particularly when it came to the copy included with the financial statements in corporate annual reports. (Side note: just like was suggested in the episode of The Good Wife, by the number-crunching bank trustee Clarke Hayden played by Nathan Lane, pay particular attention to footnotes found in financial statements to find the most useful and revealing corporate information.)

Or the Canadian mining company whose proposed mine spanned two countries and its business impact on the environment and native cultures—the contacts/influencers given to the investigative journalist by the company, yes, did provide praise for the corporate social responsibility initiatives, but they were also aware of and honest about more negative impacts.

It made me wonder if the bulk of “social media influencers” are similarly forthright and objective…or is a recommendation compromised if the person receives some form of recognition or compensation for marketing?

I’m sure most journalists think so.

Three social constructs impacting reputation and beyond corporate public relations “control”

One: Sourcing informants

In my Access Byte column I spoke about companies that didn’t make evident any contact points or people, forcing journalists and other stakeholders to work harder to get information or turning people off and away.

But that was in regards to benign requests for information.

Do you know what platform investigative reporters, increasingly, are going to get more company information, according to the SABEW workshop and elsewhere?

They are flocking to LinkedIn in droves.

But not for current employees….rather they are searching the platform to find former employees, particularly ones whom might be prepared to spill the beans.

What if that former employee was fired, laid off or left by choice because of a toxic culture or deceptive business practices and financial malfeasance? How can you have any control over what he or she will say to a journalist doing a deep-dive probe into business matters?

And once a journalist has former employee names in possession, an online search likely will reveal a multitude of contact points in social.

That’s pretty much beyond the control of the lead PR person, unless there was an air-tight, legally binding clause for silence or there remains a personal, healthy relationship with the no-longer employee.

Two: Crowdsourced finger-wagging—activist websites and petitions

It used to be that Avaaz and Change.org focused their attention and crowdsourced petitions and advocacy on political and environmental causes. But increasingly this is changing. A recent email from Avaaz named active (and successful) work being done against H&M and GAP (via their Facebook pages) regarding the Bangladesh garment factory collapse and against Bayer in the move to get the EU to ban bee-killing pesticides.

A Change.org petition that I signed was: Disney: Say No to the Merida Makeover, Keep Our Hero Brave!

I suspect it’s near-impossible to get a petition removed from either site.

Although the opinion and context may not be shared by all, the reach and virility of these platforms can’t be ignored. If the issue is sufficiently serious and the outrage loud enough, companies and governments are frequently shamed into modifying or revoking a decision.

From a social public relations perspective, it’s best to reverse a decision fast, before the petition–and your organization’s bad reputation–gets even more exposure and traction.

Three: Getting on the reputational wrong side of a Twitter hashtag

A company can be proactive in creating a hashtag of its own and hope that it “takes,” although unless you are a near-universal known and loved entity like #ibm or #starbucks, likely it won’t get much traction by anyone not employed by the organization.

Another strategy is to have a company representatives participate in Twitter chats related to business subjects, who demonstrate company smarts.

What is beyond control is Twitter (and increasingly Google+ and Facebook) users creating new hashtags, almost-always revolving around a negative company issue or disaster that is impacting reputation (and financial value).

Alternatively, liberal use made of a regular and very popular hashtag to discuss companies and issues of importance.

For example, in Canada one of the most-popular hashtags is #cdnpoli. Although the hashtag is most-frequently affixed to information and debate around the Canadian political landscape and elected officials, it will also get appended to other issues, regulatory bodies for example; sometimes alone, other times in addition to a more-focused business issue and hashtag(s).

A recent hashtag case study is the horrific Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA) runaway, non-staffed train tragedy in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. Supposedly securely “parked” for the night (with the sole engineer asleep in a motel), during the witching hour, the train carrying crude oil rolled down the incline into the town, and within seconds of going off the track and colliding into several buildings (including the popular the Musi-Cafe), half of the downtown was obliterated and it is suspected up to 47 innocent townspeople incinerated on impact, due to multiple explosions caused by the the MMA train’s cargo. (At the time of writing this column, the remains of 42 people had been painstakingly identified amongst the ashes, with five still listed as “missing.”)

The #megantic hashtag sprang alive quickly, where MMA and its chairman, Edward Burkhardt, were excoriated mercilessly. When American Burkhardt held his media conference five days after the incident in the Quebec town that looked like a war zone—speaking only English—and provided personally frank and seemingly insensitive answers to journalists and townspeople, the #megantic hashtag similarly lit on fire.

When a company and issue is known to be at the centre of the controversy, they doesn’t even need to be named for criticisms to be voiced and understood by thousands monitoring a dedicated hashtag.

For example, the Canadian Press journalist who gave public relations a rare compliment on #megantic, by tweet-indicating he now appreciated the value of employing a crisis communication expert….

In your public relations role you can be monitoring social media for mentions of a company name and/or related employees, but the task is magnified immensely when attached to popular hashtags and/or the organization’s name isn’t always used. Definitely this is not an area that can be controlled, particularly with “spin” or marketing collateral.

Instead of simply monitoring by company name, an added responsibility should be monitoring hashtags that are trending around issues.

What to do to mitigate reputation impact in social channels mainly beyond control

The easy answer is to Do No Harm, the first Survival Principle in the Masters of Disaster: The Ten Commandments of Damage Control book.

But often harm is unintentional, as in the case of #megantic. Review all of the Principles and Commandments I provided in the Extraction Byte column for the most honest ways to mitigate impact through regular monitoring and strategic interactions for social public relations.

The other piece of advice must be done in advance of a crisis: establishing your social channels as being trustworthy for real news, not only the good but the bad.

Namely, a true corporate media “news” channel that is trusted by journalists and other stakeholders and publics, related to business communication that are not always transactional in nature.

But if your efforts are already deemed a relentless, ongoing advertorial, you can hardly switch communication gears in the middle of a crisis.

Would it really be that taxing to focus on more business communication and less marketing?

On balance, I think it can only improve your social capital value and reputation.

As my public relations colleague and friend Sean Williams recently tweeted: Marketing is based on exchange relationships. Social is better suited to communal relationships; marketers too often don’t understand that.”

Question: What other platforms and tactics do you know about that serve to harm, rather than enhance, social public relations corporate reputation efforts?

About the Author:

Judy Gombita

This monthly Social Media and Public Relations column is contributed by Judy Gombita. Judy is a Toronto-based public relations and communication management specialist, with more than 20 years of employment and executive-level volunteer board experience, primarily in the financial and lifelong learning nonprofit sectors. She is the co-editor and Canadian contributor (since 2007) to the international, collaborative blog, PR Conversations. +Judy Gombita

Judy Gombita
This monthly Social Media and Public Relations column is contributed by Judy Gombita. Judy is a Toronto-based public relations and communication management specialist, with more than 20 years of employment and executive-level volunteer board experience, primarily in the financial and lifelong learning nonprofit sectors. She is the co-editor and Canadian contributor (since 2007) to the international, collaborative blog, PR Conversations. +Judy Gombita
Judy Gombita

@jgombita

Sr/hybrid (social) public relations & communication management strategist. Mindful curation @PRConversations. Heart: travel, film, theatre, opera, books & food.
@Jon_Ferrara yep. Don't knife people you made promises to (& give someone else something that was promised). Fatal "social" flaw. #bizheroes - 19 mins ago
Judy Gombita
Social Fresh West

Comments

  1. says

    Judy – thanks for the column (and the shout-out). Social tools aren’t a panacea for all one’s ills, nor do they obviate mainstream media, subject-matter experts with demonstrated qualifications, or the chance that some horrible accident will engender righteous anger. Crowds are often mobs rather than happy people, and different factions will have contradictory and conflicting interests. Dr. Brad Rawlins’ gold standard paper on prioritizing stakeholders gives several ways to separate the mere gadfly from legitimate dissent. Sometimes, an organization’s right path is to stay on it — getting a reputation for blowing with the Twitter wind can be damaging for a host of reasons.

    I agree that monitoring and engagement has of necessity become more complex — which is why I, like you, believe the public relations practitioner (of the most enlightened variety only) is the correct steward of organizational social tools.

    • says

      I don’t disagree, Sean, and in a lot of my Extraction Byte column I indicated the need to focus on the core audiences/stakeholders during a crisis….but the above column is about WHERE and HOW on social media platforms the issue or true crisis can begin or get exacerbated.

      So far most have been gobsmacked about LinkedIn being a huge resource for investigative journalists regarding “past employees.” (And the Saturday Toronto Star also made mention of a Toronto staffer of our “colourful” mayor appearing to have gone AWOL (following a couple of incidents, including one where he made a homophobic slur), and that “emails to his City Hall account AND LinkedIn mail have gone unacknowledged.”

      Probably the most concern, though, was about a company landing on a newly created hashtag like #megantic. You know how fast-flowing is that medium and how much it can influence the court of public opinion, particularly when people have died or been hurt.

      The activist websites appear to have been of less concern, but perhaps that’s because most don’t envision their companies appearing on them. But I wonder if H&M, The Gap, Bayer and Disney thought they would….?

      And thank YOU for always providing such quote-worthy tweets and comments….even though you have no idea I’ll be making use of them.

      Would you be able to send me either a link of a copy of Brad Rawlins’ paper for the Institute of Public Relations? I would like to read it.

  2. toni muzi falconni says

    Judy, a very thoughtful and useful article for all those who are having a hard time in coping with loss of content and channel control (one of the ten conslidated shattering/red paradigms of public relations that have come about in these last 10 years).

    If I may suggest you might wish to take the argument one step further.

    When you say:
    Would it really be that taxing to focus on more business communication and less marketing? ,
    I wonder if correlating your intelligent remarks with the ongoing process of a globally acceptable framework towards organizations deciding for a strategic policy of ongoing, integrated, multichannel and multistakeholder reporting would not be a chierent and substantial argument.

    I do not wish to underestimane the highly relevant role of marketing contents that would be an integral component of that policy.
    To the contrary, all those in marketing (and there are many…and they are increasing…) who are struggling to move the needle of communicative persuasion to the level of stakeholder relationship development, would greatly benefit from the current accelleration of the integrated reporting fraamework (see http://www.theiirc.org).

    Most stakeholders not only understand, but also admire and are often sensitive to intelligent marketing communication just as much as they are alert and often despise lip service and overhyped corporate, csr or what-have-you efforts.

    By adopting a sweeping ongoing integrated multichannel and multistakeholder reporting process, the whole dusty concept of the report as an outcome rather than being alwayson with your diverse stakeholder in a dialogue through a multiplicity of channels overcomes potentially damaging contradictions,

    • says

      Sorry for the delayed response, Toni,

      Definitely marketing communications plays a role in integrated, multi-channel and multi-stakeholder reporting. My commentary is to demonstrate that there is other communication beyond marketing—particularly when it comes to issues and reputation management—that should be taken into consideration in a thoughtful fashion when determining a strategy for corporate media content management.

      I think integrated reporting is the way forward, on a global basis. I’ve heard its short form to be “people, product, planet,” with marketing communication mainly comprising the product portion of it. People would primarily be employees, which I know is a long-time focus and interest of yours.

      Interestingly, at the SABEW workshop the first session talked about the differences between USA Generally Accepted Accounting Standards (GAAP) versus what most of the rest of the world uses, International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), also known as “principles-based” accounting.
      I asked the presenter, David Milstead (who is a dual Canadian/American citizen) if he found one method superior over the other, strictly in terms of uncovering anomalies for financial investors and investigative reporting purposes.

      He indicated both had their strengths and weaknesses—principles-based accounting relied on the thoughtfulness and transparency of the accountants and/or firm and of course human decisions are fallible. Rules-based accounting (GAAP) might allow for less wiggle-room, but can also come down to within the guidelines, as opposed to in the spirit of full financial accountability (i.e., a clever accountant can be legally within means, but still circumventing what is in the best interests of all stakeholders beyond shareholders or the C-Suite regarding compensation). The USA sub-prime mortgage rules, which was the primary factor in the 2008-09 global financial meltdown, is a perfect example of being within the spirit of the law and accounting guidlines.

      I’m really quite pleased that the Global Alliance is participating in http://www.theiirc.org. Thank you for sharing its website, I’ve now had a look around and think it is a great resource for communicators. And I know that the GA has taken its cue from the innovative integrated reporting work done in South Africa, as a result of its groundbreaking King III Report, of which communicators have played an acknowledged and significant role in developing.

      Corporate media can also play an integrated role in giving marketers an opportunity to explain the rationale behind decisions. For example, I would love to hear from Disney a rationale on why it felt the need to give its Brave princess a makeover when it comes to merchandise…..

  3. says

    Judy – another illuminating post. I would think that the Brad Rawlins’ paper is: http://www.instituteforpr.org/topics/prioritizing-stakeholders/

    You highlight a number of challenges for PR practitioners in engaging with social media, particularly at a corporate level, which go beyond the popular view of seeing these as channels for content distribution primarily.

    Yet, as you I feel a bit perturbed by recent developments – for me, because there’s nothing new in what is being advocated rather than what is being practised.

    As Christopher Locke wrote in the Cluetrain Manifesto (which arguably was one of the initial catalysts for change) in relation to his own experiences in PR:

    As soon as I stopped strategizing how to “get ink” for the company that was paying my salary, as soon as I stopped seeing journalists as a source of free advertising for my employer, I started having genuine conversations with genuinely interesting people.

    I’d call up editors and reporters without a thought in my head — no agenda, no objective — and we’d talk. We talked about manufacturing and how it evolved, about shop rats and managers, command and control. We talked about language and literature, about literacy. We talked about software too of course — what it could and couldn’t do. We talked about the foibles of the industry itself, laughed about empty buzzwords and pompous posturing, swapped war stories about trade shows and writing on deadline. We talked about our own work. But these conversations weren’t work. They were interesting and engaging. They were exciting. They were fun. I couldn’t wait to get back to work on Monday morning.

    Then something even more amazing happened. The company started “getting ink.” Lots of it. And not in the lowly trade rags it had been used to, but in places like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and Business Week. One day the CEO called the VP of Marketing into my office.

    “What has Chris been doing for you lately?” the CEO asked him.

    “I’m glad you brought that up,” said the marketing veep. “In the whole time he’s been here, he hasn’t done a single thing I’ve asked him to.”

    “Well…” said the CEO looking down at his shoes — here it comes, I thought, this is what it feels like to get sacked — “whatever it is he’s doing, leave him alone. From now on, he reports to me.”

    However, his conclusion was “That’s how I discovered PR doesn’t work and that markets are conversations”. Of course, we would argue that what he was doing WAS public relations, just not as many people erroneously practice it in terms of marketing AT people rather than engaging WITH them.

    • says

      Heather, thank you for the pointer to the Brad Rawlins paper; the Institute for Public Relations produces great, research-based and thoughtful work. Have you seen its new (free) Dictionary of Public Relations Measurement and Research, which includes “social media” terms? http://www.instituteforpr.org/topics/dictionary-of-public-relations-measurement-and-research/

      It’s interesting how much the Cluetrain Manifesto continues to resonate, even if the conclusions reached aren’t always on point with what PR practitioners feel is the truth.

      I have my own conversational story about getting profile and ink without deliberately setting out to do so.

      The organization for which I worked for many years was the proud sponsor of a “Graduate” award from the New Pioneers program, given to a professional who had successfully emigrated to Canada and embarked on a second career making use of the training and skills learned in his or her country of origin, contributing not only to the person’s new place of employment but Canadian society at large.

      The logistics and cash award fell under the marketing department’s budget. For many years my role revolved around doing a profile of the award-winner in various communication vehicles. The final year I worked at this organization, the marketing manager—a really smart man from whom I learned a lot and had a first-rate working relationship, as we knew both our own and one another’s strengths—invited me to attend the media launch of that year’s awards. Although it was his obligation to attend, he was an introvert by nature and also felt I could better report on the winner if I met him in person, rather than simply by phone and email.

      That year’s winner was a lovely, gentle, extremely smart Iranian-Canadian engineer. We made a point of finding him at the reception, introducing ourselves and then chatting. I asked him about his history, how he had become involved with the sponsoring organization—Skills for Change—how he enjoyed living in Canada, what he missed in Iran, and so on. In return he inquired about our roles at our organization.
      There was zero marketing done during our conversations, i.e., no hard sell. It was strictly three people getting to know one another better and having some enjoyable, unforced conversations.

      A “public relations” outcome of this casual, reception “conversation”?

      Each award winner (I think there were eight awards, sponsored by different organizations) had a chance to speak in front of the media. Our lovely Iranian-Canadian engineer was the ONLY one who thanked the sponsor of the award—with correct identification—in addition to the Skills for Change organization. And he looked over at the two of us and smiled as he gave his heartfelt thanks.

      Some, particularly in social, continue to limit public relations to influencers and third-party validation. To me what transpired at this awards reception and media launch spoke to the power of genuine engagement and relationship building for its own sake, with the media profile simply being the icing on the cake. Similar, I’m sure, to Christopher Locke’s experience of getting ink.

      In social media I like to do the same things—recognize individuals who are great company representatives all of the time, not just when they think they might be given some “ink” attention. Even if it hasn’t been articulated as such, they are already using social as a corporate media news channel. For example, Marina Arnaout from Steam Whistle (https://twitter.com/SteamWhistle), who spends just as much time sharing the company’s well-developed community outreach programs and affiliations with artists and musicians, as she does engaging with the company’s beer fans. Interestingly, I learned a few months ago that her earlier career was in entertainment media, in a variety of roles….

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