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