Listening has always played a critical role in PR, but no longer can it be confined to a once-per-day media monitoring schedule. Communications is now a real-time sport that requires quick reflexes.
The story that can hurt a company's reputation or provide an opportunity for it to garner widespread attention can come from a variety of sources. The key is to know where and how to listen.
Twitter and YouTube have become news streams for breaking stories. Look at the Hudson River landing of US Airways Flight 1549 where a guy with a penchant for social media posted the first photo, or how people learned about and documented the Iranian elections. Today, you can even micro-target on Twitter and focus on those closest to an event. For example, last week when the shootings occurred at Fort Hood Army Base, a Twitter feed titled “ft hood 15 mi” was established for followers to track remarks of those within a 15-mile radius.
One customer service complaint can now trigger a brand reputation crisis. Why should customers yell at the person behind the desk when they can use the Internet pulpit to reach a corporation's top executives? The mishandling of one person's guitar on United Airlines led to a YouTube video with nearly 6 million views and a resulting PR nightmare.
If we agree that social media is often a first responder, then the next question is, are you listening to what it has to say? If not, a few aggregators to check out are Google Reader (or iGoogle), Net Vibes, or a Twitter monitoring tool like Monitter.
The key today is to start with listening but to then be prepared to act in real time. The news cycle is immediate, and if you don't tell your story, someone else will quickly fill in the blanks.
Barri Rafferty, senior partner and director, Ketchum New York