Corporate comms must lead social media visions

It is generally accepted that communications must sit right at the heart of companies and organizations if it is to be effective.

It is generally accepted that communications must sit right at the heart of companies and organizations if it is to be effective.

It is no longer tacked on at the end of a process – it's the glue that binds everything together.

The C-suite and, especially, the CEO increasingly understand and play a pivotal role in the communications process, with the help of their senior communications colleagues.

So why is it that every week there is another example of a corporation or brand getting it wrong and completely misplaying its communications?

Consider the following recent case studies. JetBlue left passengers stranded on the runway at Hartford airport in Connecticut last weekend for up to eight hours when unseasonal bad weather hit the east coast. There was no food or water, the toilet facilities were unusable, babies were crying, and two passengers even started fighting.

But people no longer sit and suffer in silence. Someone was interviewed on television live from the plane. Others were tweeting about their horrible experiences and the captain's pronouncement that the company was doing nothing to help him get his passengers into the airport was soon doing the rounds on social media.

The apology from JetBlue on the Monday after the weekend was simply too little and too late. Airlines must have procedures in place to handle these situations when they occur. They cannot be blamed for the freak snow storm – but they can be blamed for not reacting quickly or appropriately enough.

Let's look at Bank of America. The beleaguered financial institution was set to introduce a $5-per-month debit card fee for customers with a balance of less than $25,000 until a Facebook firestorm blew up and the bank was forced into an embarrassing climb down. Net result: damage to the bank's corporate and brand reputation and its bottom line.

HP was looking forward to a quieter year in 2011 than 2010 after suffering a tumultuous 12 months that ended with the departure of CEO Mark Hurd in more than unfortunate circumstances. But the confused strategy and messaging became even worse under new incumbent Leo Apotheker, ending with the head of the tech behemoth's PC division not knowing whether his division was going to be sold, kept within HP, or restructured – and saying so in an interview in India that quickly went viral online. The company is now onto its third CEO in a year.

And the list goes on: Netflix, RIM/BlackBerry, Pfizer's ChapStick ad debacle, and so on and so on.

The common theme across most of these crises is social media, either as a driver or distributor of the story, or as a factor in the mishandling or lack of response to them.

Everyone says they understand what they should be doing and the fundamental role communications plays in overall business strategy, but the list of companies getting it wrong grows longer and longer.

In PRWeek's recent Corporate Survey, only 27% of those surveyed said corporate communications spearheaded their company's social media vision – with 24% run by a blended team and 22% by marketing.

That 27% figure needs to rise considerably if many of the communications snafus above are to be avoided or handled better in the future.

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