It's the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)

A year ago, the head of marketing and communications for an iconic American brand told me that the job of communicating with the consumer had changed more in the past three years than it had in the past 30.

A year ago, the head of marketing and communications for an iconic American brand told me that the job of communicating with the consumer had changed more in the past three years than it had in the past 30. The advent of social media had changed the way in which we have to communicate forever. At the time, this was still a nascent idea.

Flash forward to a few weeks ago at South by Southwest in Austin, TX, where some of the most prominent figures in the worlds of marketing, PR, advertising, digital technology, and entertainment echoed a consensus that social media has fundamentally changed the way in which brands must relate to their target audiences. The question was no longer if things had changed; but, rather, what do we do now?

Many of the conversations centered on some basic truths about this new world of PR and marketing. Let's discuss those first.

Digital isn't a channel: It's the age we live in
Because of social media, any consumer can have as much of a say in the brand story as the brand itself. Any brand experience can become social media fodder, and negative ones tend to linger more than positive ones. Before, when a customer had an unsatisfying experience with a brand, he or she could call customer service or rage to a few friends and family. Now he or she can broadcast a picture on Facebook or a video on YouTube that can reach millions of people globally and get picked up by traditional media outlets that reach even more people.

An infamous recent example of this is the “FedEx Guy.” This employee had no idea he was being videotaped when he tossed a package over the fence. Nor, in his worst nightmare, did he anticipate that the video would make it on to YouTube and be seen by millions of people. The fact that the FedEx logo appeared prominently on his uniform and on his van in the background certainly didn't help matters for the brand, especially since this all transpired around the end-of-the-year holidays.

Every experience that a consumer has with a brand at every level can serve to elevate or damage the equity of the brand. Anything can become “viral” via social media and be transmitted instantaneously to millions of people globally.

Don't think about digital as a “channel,” like TV or radio. It's the age in which we live, and almost every experience becomes part of the digital conversation that lives on forever in search.

Brands today aren't owned by corporations: They are shared experiences
Because of the newfound power of the consumer in the story and meaning of brands, the old definitions of what a brand is simply don't apply. The consumer and the folks who influence them have as much of a say in the definition of what a brand is as the brand does.

Don't believe me? Check the cautionary tale of Netflix. Its stock decreased by 75% as a result of several tactical pricing and communications missteps that upset its customers.

A brand is judged by and creates equity through what it does, rather than what it says
The idea that a brand is a promise has never been truer. But, even more importantly, it is a promise kept. Actions by brands that appear to be out-of-sync with their brand promise can cause damage to the brand.

As another case, consider Susan G. Komen for the Cure. The venerable organization induced a massive public outcry when it made the decision to discontinue a grant to Planned Parenthood that supported breast cancer exams. The ferment cost it untold dollar donations and called public attention to the practice of “pink washing,” where products that are marketed as supporting breast cancer research could be viewed as clever marketing ploys, rather than substantive to actually helping find a cure for breast cancer. While the funding decision was ultimately reversed, it did raise doubts in the public mind about the integrity of the organization.

But what does this all mean for today's PR practitioner? How do we need to evolve in this new world? How do we tell the story of our clients and protect their reputations in this new world?

Here are a few suggestions:

Don't resist the change: Lean in
Yes, there is less “control” of the conversation. Media is no longer tightly controlled and social media has handed everyone a bullhorn. Accept the fact that the tactics that may have worked several years ago may not work today.

Listen to what your audiences are saying
The conversation about your brand is going on in digital channels whether you are listening or not. Better to monitor what is going on than to be surprised once the story goes viral and hits every front page, landing page, and primetime news program.

Know that the power of the brand is in its truth: Authenticity and transparency are key
There are too many ways for information to get out and be discovered these days. In the era of WikiLeaks, it's much harder to keep secrets from the public than it used to be. Inconsistencies that are unearthed are broadcast widely and live forever in your search results.

Better to be honest with your customers than to have inauthenticity be discovered. I believe brands that don't align with some higher purpose to which they adhere will become less and less relevant over time.

Your former audiences are now your collaborators: Invite them in to be advocates and co-stewards of the brand story
Welcome your audiences as true collaborators and co-stewards of your brand story. Tell one cohesive, holistic, trans-media brand story throughout all brand touchpoints: live events and experiences, traditional earned media, advertising, social media, mobile, etc. Leave room for your audiences to create the story with you.

Review the entire experience of your brand at every touch point, including point-of-purchase, product or service experience, customer communications, customer service, etc., and work to align those experiences with your brand and, hopefully, your brand's purpose. Remember that any experience can become social media. Make sure that every experience positively supports and reflects your brand.

Engage your audiences. Cultivate and identify advocates who will help shape and tell your brand story.

I have seen the power of an army of advocates when they come to the defense of a brand. It's a wonderful sight to behold. But this must be cultivated over time; it doesn't “just happen.”

I recently had a great experience of this by a brand I love, the New York City pizza chain, Two Boots Pizza. I was in a Two Boots pizzeria having a slice, when Michael Stipe, lead singer of the band REM, sat next to me. What's most interesting about this story happened later, when I tweeted the celebrity sighting. The Two Boots Pizza community manager tweeted back at me, asking me which location I had been in and thanked me for my business. And here I am, telling you about my love for Two Boots Pizza. Well done, Two Boots!

As Mr. Stipe sang in one of his songs: “It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”

David Richeson is managing director and chief digital officer at Kaplow Communications. Find him on Twitter @dricheson.

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