Digital Essays: Edelman - Beyond buzz: adapt or die

Those who fail to stay abreast of the pace of change in today's "conversation society" do so at their own risk.

It is hard to believe that, more than a decade into the internet era, I still find myself spending an inordinate amount of time educating professional communicators about the opportunities and threats posed by new media. When I joined Edelman last year after nine years at General Motors, I failed to realise just how enlightened GM had become. The past year has been a real awakening, as I've encountered dozens of leading organisations that are not prepared to deal with today's communications realities.

But, alas, this is the nature of business: societal change, especially technology-inspired change, typically precedes corporate change. The dilemma for today's communicator is that the pace of change has increased markedly and those who fail to adjust and stay abreast of these changes do so at their own peril.

In addition, the nature of discourse has fundamentally changed. Like-minded individuals and those seeking information about products and services can now connect and share experiences like never before. These conversations used to be limited to the neighbourhood cul-de-sac. Now they are captured in digital form forever.

While most communicators are still coming to terms with web 1.0, society is now hurtling into web 2.0 and the mobile communications era. This is an urgent issue for our industry and our clients. In many instances, we are not on the same playing field as our constituents and the people with whom we need to communicate. Often, companies with thought leaders who have identified the need for change continue to experience inertia because of internecine battles for turf and budget control.

To compound matters, opportunists are using web 2.0 buzzwords, such as user-generated content, co-creation and authenticity, to sell cookie-cutter programmes that are gimmicky and ineffective. Are the creative trades really that devoid of original thinking?

An organisation that wants to succeed in a web 2.0 world needs to be concerned with what I call 'total customer experience'. This considers the importance of each individual interaction from the top of the sales funnel through the entire ownership life cycle. In order to manage this extended and sustained relationship, PR must play important roles at various stages of this life cycle. Herein exists a tremendous opportunity to grow our industry.

While there isn't a universal roadmap that can be charted for diverse businesses, there is a fundamental path to effectiveness in digital communications.

First and foremost, get educated. If you do not have the resources internally, seek outside experts - and choose your consultants wisely. Often, in order to get impartial, sales-pitch-free training, it may make sense to seek an independent third-party. At Edelman, our new and social media practice, the me2revolution, has created a week-long curriculum to prepare our communicators to meet the changing needs of the market. We are beginning to offer the course to our clients in various configurations.

Second, it is time to rethink organisational design. Most companies' marketing, advertising and communications staff are still organised as they were in the pre-internet era. Today, it is imperative we take a holistic approach to communications. Does your organisation have heads of new and emerging media? Better yet, a committed contemporary organisation will feature a stand-alone digital team that straddles both PR and marketing disciplines.

Third, begin to employ low-cost, user-friendly tools to listen and communicate more effectively. You and your staff must understand how to utilise various search tools and how to set up alerts, widgets and dashboards. You should actively follow and participate in blogs, social networks, video-sharing sites and message boards that discuss your company and its products or services.

Fourth, ask yourself, 'Who is telling our story?' and 'What is the narrative?' The days of monolithic message ownership are long gone; the opportunities to participate and influence conversations today are better than ever. Examine your existing communications infrastructure. Do you have a digital and/or social media newsroom? Are your websites RSS-enabled? Do you have blogs serving various constituents? Are you employing digital video? Do you have a search engine optimisation strategy? Do you have an employee-centric social media policy? If your answer to any of these questions is 'no', you are missing opportunities and taking unnecessary risks.

Finally, and most important, be conscientious and human. Avoid gimmicks; be open, honest and transparent, and admit your mistakes, because inevitably the truth will come out.

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