Matt Bright, Open Road: Engaging in a new way

Corporate comms teams must start taking social media more seriously and up their digital game.

Back in 1999, four writers/bloggers/thinkers published the Cluetrain Manifesto. They tried to show how the internet could revolutionise the ways in which companies did business with their customers, pushing the idea of markets as conversations and how the internet could - and should - unlock the ability for business to engage in a new way.

Mass marketing would die and be replaced by conversational marketing.

Companies would talk among themselves and to the rest of the world in an entirely new way.

Eleven years on, has this happened? Up to a point. Social media are now facts of everyday life for billions. Some businesses - even some governments - have upped their game and many can now show real digital expertise.

But not everywhere. How businesses deal with crises determines the ultimate impact on reputation. Yet time and again, corporate teams are too slow off the mark in response or use the wrong tone.

Lumbering corporate comms teams need to start taking social media more seriously and up their digital game. The first step is to understand why corporate comms is so often behind the curve on digital and social media, particularly when digital expertise often exists in different areas of the business.

Corporate comms heads most often give two largely cultural reasons. The first is that digital is often housed outside the corporate comms function, somewhere like marketing or, god forbid, the IT department. The second is a fear of change and risk.

Those barriers have to be tackled. Comms teams should be demanding that digital and social are integrated throughout the business. Firms must have a comms strategy fit for the digital world, not just a digital strategy.

That does not mean creating stacks of new governance, nor does it mean expecting employees to be tweeting their every waking thought. It means giving corporate comms teams a say in what channels to use, how to use them and who can participate. It may also mean taking the risk of letting colleagues talk to the outside world without clearance and accepting that tone might not be perfect and messages might be diluted. That challenges the way generations of comms people have been taught to behave. There are risks. But a new model approach can pay off with big rewards.

What you lose in control you gain in data and amplification. If corporate comms teams get this right and engage with the consumers, bloggers, campaigners and other stakeholders interested in their business, they can fix problems before they hit the media or, better still, head off problems before they have a chance to arise.

Agencies and in-house experts offering advice should also cut out the mind-boggling nonsense-speak that infests digital comms. If you can talk to people in language they understand, then do so. No sane person wants to know about crowdsourced folksonomies or utilising organic conversations: but many comms professionals will be interested in having people label images so they show up higher on Google, or how to talk directly to what is basically a huge focus group.

Many of the basic rules still apply - what are we saying, who should we talk to and where can we do this? Those questions are as relevant to debating with people on Facebook groups and Twitter as they are in a targeted release to specialist correspondents.

If you are in corporate comms, your role is to protect and enhance the brand or company you work for. Conversations about your reputation will already be taking place online. Find them and join them.

Views in brief

What's the best brand PR campaign you've seen on Facebook?

I am generally not that impressed with PR on Facebook, but WWF's EarthHour is well done and the restaurant Hawksmoor's management of its second opening has been good - I booked a table.

What's the key to managing a brand's Twitter feed?

Be human. Let the personality of the person/people writing it come through.

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

Promise to leave them alone to get on with it. Blog posts and tweets are not press releases and most would rather read something in normal language.

Matt Bright is an associate director at Open Road

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