How Twitter saved public relations from PR

"GE has a strong set of global businesses in infrastructure, finance and media aligned to meet today's needs, including the demand for global infrastructure; growing and changing demographics that need access to healthcare, finance, and information and entertainment; and environmental technologies."

"GE has a strong set of global businesses in infrastructure, finance and media aligned to meet today's needs, including the demand for global infrastructure; growing and changing demographics that need access to healthcare, finance, and information and entertainment; and environmental technologies."

Who talks that way?

This quote, pulled straight from GE's main Web site, illustrates just how disconnected and ineffective some PR speak has become.

Top executives for decades have delegated the essential task of communicating to PR professionals. I don't know if it's the fault of the PR people, the lawyers, or the management, but the voice of many corporations has lost its humanity. Few people respond well to the carefully-crafted and jargon-packed messages they receive from corporations, especially during a time like this when once seemingly stable brands can collapse overnight.

The human touch is needed again in business to build trust with customers and shareholders. In conducting research with over a dozen major brands for the Shorty Report (a 160-page research report on how businesses are being effective on Twitter) we found that Twitter allows, if not forces, businesses to act human again.

Twitter is a service that lets anyone send a public status message in 140 characters or less. It can be compared to a blog, except it has a few key differences aside from the limited message length. It takes less than a minute to set up a Twitter account, and Twitter's easy input doesn't leave much opportunity for third party review. Because of this, as we discovered while preparing the Shorty Report, employees are springing up from all over companies to communicate.

Just recently, the big story about Comcast was the ComcastMustDie.com Web site that listed Comcast's customer service abuses. Now, Comcast is being heralded for its innovative use of Twitter to connect with customers to solve their problems. Was this the work of a master publicist? Not at all. The Comcast Twitter account is run by Frank Eliason who is in the customer service department. His tweets are not edited or approved by PR. How could they be? He responds publicly to users on Twitter within seconds.

"Had breakfast mtg w/ Zappos board member. Neither of us are morning people. Naptime now (at least for me, I don't track his sleeping habits)" is a recent tweet from Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos which is now a billion-dollar-a-year online retailer. Is it professional? No. Is it human? Yes.

To be fair, most of Tony's tweets have much more substance but share the same style. He responds to customers, announces news about his company, and comments on the industry. He's earning customers' trust by acting like a real person. As you might guess, none of his tweets sound like something you'd read in a press release.

Twitter might sound like a small communications side project, but the stakes are high. Its userbase, already in the millions, is growing quickly, and even people who haven't signed up for Twitter can easily read a Twitter feed. Many if not most journalists and bloggers are lurking on Twitter. Twitter has a powerful echo effect -- even if your target audience is not on Twitter, those who reach them are. Twitter is becoming a one-line wire service.

If you have a crisis, you can pump out a tweet for the record much faster than a press release. Or if you're not monitoring Twitter, an unhappy customer can spread a rumor unchecked at lightening speed.

While many PR professionals are on Twitter, their role in how companies use Twitter is still undefined. As everyone in a company starts doing public relations, it will be up to PR people to lead or become irrelevant.

Greg Galant, CEO of Sawhorse Media and coauthor of the Shorty Report

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