Bluegrass Consulting: Blueblog

Friday: 23 July

Online content helping public relations manage reputation

“Search is the reputation gateway,” said Napoleon Biggs, VP Digital Fleischmann-Hillard Asia at Frocomm’s 2010 New Media Summit. And whilst this claim seems accurate in our web-wound up world, his claims that social media will soon be the primary source of information on organisations, rather than the latter’s corporate site, is not aligned with the views of commentators such as David Meerman Scott.

Yet, as Facebook now ranks as the number one go-to website over Google in the US, there is evidence to suggest Napoleon is on the money. It seems a fair assumption that many of the visits to Facebook will be to seek information (in a social sort of way, of course) on organisations, products and services.

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Napoleon (@webwednesday) mentioned the rather scary notion of 440 million people around the world sharing their opinions on Facebook alone. You can’t blame organisations and brands for quaking a little in their gumboots just a little - all that control they used to have…gone in the click of a mouse!

Communication, engagement…or a ‘listening brief’?

So what should organisations do about this? Engage? Or continue the command-and-control paradigm (or, in the communication context, the broadcast rather than engage model) that may have served them quite well in the past? Or are there alternatives to the reductive black and white scenario?

As much as the contemporary communicator is schooled in the notion of dialogue and engagement above all else, even James Grunig said there is a time and a place for two-way asymmetrical communication (i.e. communication taking place that maintains an organisation’s ‘power’ over its stakeholders or, to put it another way, not communicating, not engaging and probably just listening).

And it may simply be because of the nature of the organisation, or the nature of the issue, that a bunkering down approach is taken. It doesn’t necessarily mean an organisation is seeking to maintain any sort of Machiavellian control.

The march towards dialogue also has ramifications for the marketing element of professional communication. All this talk of engagement has changed the language of marketing, but I doubt very much whether it has changed its essential behaviour or processes.

Marketing is still there to identify a need, turn it into a want and sell the living daylights out of it. Just because there is a conversation around the process doesn’t change its essential intent or objective.

Approaches to professional digital communication

Napoleon’s presentation had a strong focus on China, with an underlying key message being that, as always, professional communicators need to:

  • customise content and messages for different stakeholders or target audiences
  • utilise the communication mechanisms that are most salient for an organisation’s target audiences.

His tips on utilising social media?

  • Digital is raw, live: don’t stand back and vacillate. Get in there and get active
  • Don’t try to fake it - online is a unique environment where mistakes are amplified and permanent
  • Strategic and proactive offence (i.e. communication) is the best defence for an organisation’s reputation…so build relationships by engaging with organisational advocates AND naysayers.

When in a crisis situation, Napoleon said social media needs to be monitored to determine:

  • what/who are the conversation/information sources and how is it spreading?
  • who are the influencers?
  • what is the emotional context?
  • what actions are crisis participants taking?

This information is vital in determining what crisis management responses organisations should take. Fundamentally, however, you should have a game plan prepared, advised Napoleon. And one of the key strategic elements of this game plan is no doubt being flexible.

The online environment is not stable. Left-field is where you can expect your next challenge to come from!

Corporate websites: the digital sanctuary?

One of the interesting elements of what is not being spoken about terribly much in public relations circles (and did not seem to be flagged at all during the New Media Summit - not ‘new’ enough?!) is ‘content’.

Now, the content of an organisation’s website is potentially the element that will attract the most possible eyeballs. And lead to the greatest amount of engagement.

So why aren’t PR pros talking about this? Why aren’t they pitching it to potential clients? What focus is occurring here regarding the strategy and tactical/technical skills to make a difference to organisations and their stakeholders?

This is especially important when Napoleon makes the point that people are using the web for purchasing advice. Don’t organisations want to get in on the action of leveraging, highlighting and/or influencing the advice that is given?

Sure, there will be hesitation and scepticism from many in utilising content provided by organisations, but with the power of SEO and the resources that organisations have at their disposal, it would seem a potent opportunity they have at their fingertips.

And are consumers really so gullible to think that organisation-initiated, sponsored, moderated and, yes, even involved or monitored social media dialogues are completely free of an organisation’s grip?

As the web is a fractured environment full of dissenting voices, most of them small in stature and characterised by inconsistency and a lack of evidence for their assertions, organisational websites are almost like the calm amongst the storm: a digital sanctuary.

Also, organisations should be employing strategic communication approaches such as strategic alliances and thought leadership. Using such approaches gives the organisation 3rd party credibility and content that their stakeholders will value.

This, then, supports their attempts to have their websites (and, by extension, themselves) perceived as being credible.

Corporate websites or social media as an organisation’s communication/engagement hub? Either/or? Is there another paradigm? Command and control…or a blend? Another paradigm? What do you think about Napoleon’s points and this discussion?

A full and comprehensive report on Frocomm’s 2010 New Media Summit, featuring leading Australian marketing, PR and social media pros and can be downloaded at Public relations and managing reputation). The report captures key points made at the summit, provides additional perspectives from the speakers and analyses their thoughts.

Craig Pearce

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