Even in social media age, who you know still matters

Platforms like Facebook and Twitter allow organizations to engage their audiences in ways that were unimaginable even 10 years ago. With all of this technological connectivity, we should be in the heyday of public engagement. But somewhere along the way, we communication experts forgot how to communicate.

As the former social media “czar” at the Pentagon, I am a big believer in the power of new communication platforms. These digital tools enable anyone, anywhere to connect and engage with family, friends, strangers, political leaders, and just about any other audience you can identify.

Platforms like Facebook and Twitter allow organizations to engage their audiences in ways that were unimaginable even 10 years ago. With all of this technological connectivity, we should be in the heyday of public engagement.

But somewhere along the way, we communication experts forgot how to communicate.

Technology cannot be a crutch. It must be a multiplier to help communicators execute the basics. We seem to have forgotten that the foundation of media relations is relationships. We must know and work with reporters who affect the way news is written, broadcast, and spoken. We seem to have forgotten that marketers have to know what their brand is and what it stands for, and what emotion it brings forth when mentioned in a conversation. We seem to have forgotten that advertisers must know who their audience is and how to reach them. (Hint: not everyone turns to Facebook postings for ideas on what to buy).

We all must bring back everything we do to the fundamentals of communication: what is the message?

I say this because I am tired of reading something posted on Twitter or Facebook that, while written by a communications professional, seems more likely to have been generated by a corporate automaton.

Here are some lessons learned from years of doing communications work. (Note that I did not say “digital”).

Know your message. It can be a policy initiative or a product, but you have to have a deep understanding of all its aspects. This is one of the things behind the effort to get comms a seat at the table for all important discussions both in the public and private sector. More heads of communications now report directly to the CEO for a reason.

Know your audience. Who needs to hear the message or buy the product? As a former official at the State Department, I lost count of the times a draft op-ed would come to me with the request to send it to The New York Times for consideration, when the audience was in Ukraine, India, or some other far-flung locale where the Times was not the paper of record.

Reach the audience. This can take some work. You have to know where the people you are trying to reach get their information. Is it via radio, TV, print, online, or social media? While I was at the State Department and then the Pentagon, we spent the first several years of the war trying to reach the people of Afghanistan via radio and TV, until we finally did an analysis and discovered the No. 1 way people received information was via word-of-mouth. Then we had to find out which person in each community was most influential. As I said, this can take some work.

Measure everything. This is the Holy Grail for communicators. Can you show that your message was seen by the intended audience and can you show that it had an impact? Communications professionals have long survived on the myth that we only needed to measure our output – 200 faxes were sent out via blast fax; 1,000 blast emails were sent; I post the press release on my Twitter feed and I have 5,000 followers – with the belief that this alone needed to be measured. Wrong. It is time to bring more science along with our art to the cause. We must be able to show our company or government leadership that we not only reached the intended audience, but that it had an impact, such as that more products were sold or more people know or understand the policy and will support (or not support as the case may be) the cause. The days of simply pressing “send” on the fax, email, or social media platform should be over.

So what do these lessons have to do with all of the new digital tools in our communications arsenal today? Social media is not some sort of pixie dust to be sprinkled over a problem to make it better. We have to do our homework and be open to whatever answer comes our way. In some cases, the answer may be to call a customer on a phone – maybe even a land line. Or it could be an ad in your local paper looking for volunteers for the senior center.

Increasingly, of course, the answer is online and on social media. If so, make sure you already have a presence there and have been engaging in two-way conversation for some time. Don't expect to join social media and have an impact right away. Be yourself. You don't need to share all the intimate details of your life, but it does help to put a bit of yourself out there.

Finally, remember that it is still all about relationships. Who you know – even online – still matters and has impact. Calling a reporter on the phone you have worked with for years is a skill earned. Take the same approach to social media.

Price B. Floyd is VP of digital media strategy at BAE Systems and former principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs.

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