Anthony Silverman, Maitland - Getting the balance right

Firms need to be alert to what is being written about them and the importance of who is writing.

Clients regularly tell me that the impact of the changing nature of the media and the shift towards digital keeps them awake at night. They have lost the certainty of knowing who the journalists are that cover them. They also fear somebody will use social media tools to wreak havoc with their corporate reputation.

The changes wrought by the internet are clearly significant and the take-up of some social media tools has been staggering, but that does not mean that entire comms strategies need to be tossed aside.

Digital media are inarguably important for corporate comms, if for no other reason than the eagerness and (tempered) success with which traditional media outlets have embraced them. Pearson recently announced an increase of 50 per cent in subscriptions for FT.com over the past nine months, demonstrating considerable consumer appetite. Also, the space and tools of the web are well suited to writing about complex and esoteric subjects.

Nonetheless, I am hard pressed to think of any examples in the UK of Andrew Marr's 'socially inadequate ... cauliflower-nosed, young men ... ranting' about the investment case of a company. Nor are there examples of independent business blogs of the type run by Winnie Gekko, Gordon's self-righteous daughter, exposing corporate wrong-doing in Wall Street II.

One might argue that BP is the obvious example of where the social media and investment case have collided. But it is not a good example.

Social media were not the cause of BP's problems, not even the subversive @BPGlobalPR Twitter stream; the real culprit was the 185 million gallon oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico.

Another recent social media cause celebre was Gap's decision to change its logo. A subsequent online campaign forced it to revert to the original. One would assume that all that noise would impact the firm's share-price, but it did not. During the week of the 'crisis', it remained virtually unchanged.

So, how does a company respond to all this noise and uncertainty? There appears to be a school of thought in financial PR that advises sticking one's head in the sand as a digital strategy. Some console themselves that it's just the same old journalists and the same masthead, so nothing's changed. They're wrong.

Primarily, companies need to be more alert to what is being written about them and the importance of who is writing. How a firm interprets and responds to any given post, tweet or article will depend on factors unique to that company. But whatever they do, they need to view their actions through the prism of their wider comms strategy.

Tactically, the first step is to take control of their digital real estate: ensure their own website is up to date; register their Twitter brand; fact-check Wikipedia entries and so on. I am not advocating that every CEO should be Twittering. I do however believe it is essential that companies and their advisers accept that change is afoot and respond accordingly.

At Maitland, we have analysed the new environment closely and concluded that a strategic comms programme can no longer regard digital media as the 'other'. Clients are integrating digital and social media into their comms strategy. It is about getting the balance right, between the hype and the potential.

Just because the spotty ranter has not yet made use of the tools at their disposal is no guarantee of their future action. We cannot forget that while the lone wolf has largely ignored the business world, the professionals most certainly have not and have proved remarkably adaptable to the new environment.

Views in brief

How can in-house PR people encourage people from all departments to get involved with a company's digital strategy?

It is a rare company that can afford for anyone in its business to engage in digital media on behalf of the firm without there being any parameters for their involvement. If you're going to talk about your company, you are an ambassador and need to toe the party line. Therefore, clear guidelines that are widely disseminated are crucial. The Financial Services Authority recently issued guidance on how firms handle sensitive information. One recommendation was that only the corporate comms team be allowed to speak to the press. If this becomes law, it would stymie broad corporate digital media engagement.

Anthony Silverman is a partner at Maitland

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