Social media struggles for senior-level implementation

Niki Leondakis, COO of Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants, has been tweeting on behalf of her company since April 2009.

Social media struggles for senior-level implementation
Niki Leondakis, COO of Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants, has been tweeting on behalf of her company since April 2009. Her posts cover everything from her cats to her job.

“Aarrgghhh! Just noticed I have ‘cathead' 2day. Similar 2 ‘hat-head,' but caused by Barbarella sleeping on my head again,” she wrote on September 1.

About 24 hours later, she wrote: “What if u could get permission 2 raid the MiniBar? We now offer InTouch mbrs any 2 items up 2 $10.” And she provided a link to the Kimpton Web site's loyalty program page.

“It's really Niki the human,” says Stacey Ellis, director of hotel PR. “She talks about personal things that align very well with Kimpton's core values.”

Engagement obstacles
Among senior executives, Leondakis' social media use stands out. On the brand level, many companies have successfully found ways to engage audiences via tweeting, blogging, and other online activities. However, C-level online engagement with stakeholders still isn't common. As a result, opportunities are being missed to both build and protect corporate reputations.

“There are people out there who know that if they have a bad hotel experience, they can go to Niki,” says Ellis. “A transparent leader who is willing to roll up her sleeves and get into the thick and thin goes a long way toward painting a picture of trust and loyalty.”

One reason for the lack of senior-level participation is the commitment involved.

“The time resource is a huge factor, especially right now with layoffs and people operating with smaller staffs,” says Tania Condon, SVP in the corporate practice at Allison & Partners, one of Kimpton's PR firms.

Another factor is budget, but Condon foresees more financial resources being devoted to social media at the corporate level.

“Budgets are limited, but there are more resources going toward it in 2010, within our client base for sure,” she notes. “You risk extraordinary damage to your brand and spending way more money if you are not prepared.”

However, corporate executives are dealing with a different set of reputation-management rules.

“At the corporate level, the path to defining reputation isn't exactly the same” as the brand level, says Lex Suvanto, MD with The Abernathy MacGregor Group. “There aren't established models or a clear value proposition for the corporate level to use social media.”

Moreover, social media interaction is a proactive form of communications, Suvanto suggests, though it isn't always how the corporate level operates.

“At the corporate level, the path to defining reputation is not always proactive,” he says. “To counteract or defend, that means a company has to build a presence online that defines it along the lines that it wants to be defined.”

Kelley Joyce, VP in Waggener Edstrom's corporate practice, agrees, adding that being prepared to protect a company's reputation doesn't always involve an active Twitter account like Leondakis'. Joyce suggests having a “dark site,” for example, on YouTube, where a CEO can make and post a video in case of a crisis situation.

“On Twitter, it pays to squat on your Twitter handle, even if you don't use it,” she adds.

Where to begin
Even if corporate executives are willing to accept the need for social media, not knowing where to begin can be a hindrance. Deciding what platforms are best for the individual executive helps. The most important thing is to get in on the conversation.

“Now, it's a two-way dialogue all the time and you need to stay in the realm of the messages,” Joyce says. “The biggest fear is loss of control of the brand. If you're not managing your brand, someone else is.”

Getting the C-level started

Real-time monitoring
It may require budget for a third-party monitoring service, but knowing what is being said when it's said has become a necessity of risk management

Outside perception
To best understand how a company is perceived, research the conversations taking place online and who is influencing them

Picking a platform

Decide which channel works best for individual executives. A person who isn't a prolific writer, for example, might be better suited to Twitter

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