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Mark Flanagan, Portland - Move with the times

The corporate comms canvas has expanded to include search and social media.

When I worked in Downing Street, we once tried - as a costcutting measure - to end the press cuttings service provided to ministers. The move sparked a revolt. Some ministers said they would prefer to give up their government car than the daily folder of newspaper clippings. This was even though the clippings were often heavily edited by the press office to give a more 'balanced' picture of the department's activities.

A similar obsession with print coverage pervades corporate culture. It trickles down from senior management to press office and agency. We all understand the reward system - deliver the coverage and 'job done'. But that does not mean it is the right approach.

I am not suggesting that newspapers are unimportant or that the key PR skills of story development, content placement and relationship-building no longer matter. My point is that they need to be updated and adapted to respond to how audiences now consume media. It means understanding, as we do at Portland, that today's corporate comms canvas consists of search and social media, as well as print and TV.

In fact, the new and accurate press cuttings file for your brand is Google's first page. It represents what you say about yourself and what others say about you. It matters because 80 per cent of online journeys start with search. It is where everyone - including print journalists - go first to find out about a company.

The principles of search need to be understood and put into practice, so content achieves the best visibility. We must ask ourselves and our clients:

Are there enough 'owned' assets, such as a corporate website and CEO blog, on which to publish releases, opinion pieces and infographics?

Is content being targeted at the third-party sites that rank highly on Google (usually large media ones)?

Are press releases and op-eds optimised to include keywords matching the search terms people type in?

Is content being adapted for social media? Not all channels are the same - Twitter is best for conversations, while Facebook suits rich media such as photos or video.

It is clear that journalists are no longer the main gateway to accessing corporate messages. There are many ways to help audiences discover content and, increasingly, people online expect that content to find them.

The modern-day CEO should not only be listening to social media, but also participating. Yet Sir Richard Branson recently asked on LinkedIn: 'Why aren't more business leaders online?' He quoted IBM research which found that only 16 per cent of CEOs worldwide use social media.

He's right. If you're not on social media, you are dislocated from your markets. You are simply the subject of other people's opinions, whether right or wrong, about your business. If you are, you can help shape the dialogue, demonstrating a willingness to engage and explain, building trust and, crucially, shortening the gap between the institution and the audience.

Not everyone understands the change. The information minister of a foreign government once told me that he prefers TV because 'the audience can't answer back'. The problem is they are answering back, in increasing numbers, on social media. Without this presence, you can't hear what they say, let alone join in the conversation.

Digital tools have given anyone the means to communicate and connect on the same basis as huge corporations or governments. Brands no longer control the message. Your reputation is being shaped in social media and it lives for everyone to see on Google.

Views in brief

Pinterest: the online equivalent of a teenage girl's bedroom wall or useful corporate resource?

Sometimes, it's teenage girls that you're trying to reach, so the two aren't mutually exclusive. For brands, the aim should be to make content so compelling and shareable that other users want to show it on their board. Having said that, I saw one agency use Pinterest to showcase great PR stunts they'd spotted, which was a fun way of using the platform.

How can Facebook likes be turned into pounds?

The point of Facebook is the engagement - it gets the dollars, not you.

Mark Flanagan is partner for digital at Portland. He was head of strategic comms at 10 Downing Street from 2008 to 2010.

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