Digital Essays: Weber Shandwick - The end of the beginning

When anyone, anywhere can be an advocate for a brand, agencies must be ready to change their approach.

Social media are no longer the new kids on the block. Digital advocacy is now an accepted part of the public relations product mix. I believe every agency and sizeable PR function should have at least one person dedicated to the creation and development of advocacy online.

A PRO's ability to initiate and maintain conversations online is to be expected. The days of passing off errors of judgement as teething troubles in a new and unpredictable environment are long gone. There is a palpable feeling that we are at the end of the beginning. The PR industry's time has come.

Social media lie at the very heart of advocacy. Their ability to enable anyone to become a publisher or producer means that anyone, anywhere and at any time can become an advocate for a brand. By the same token, those with opposing points of view to those of our clients can also share their opinions.

But giving these advocates and 'badvocates' (individuals with the power to damage a reputation rather than enhance it) a virtual soapbox is only the tip of the social media iceberg. Social media are as much about communication and interaction as they are about publishing.

There are highly active communities around both interests and demographics. Social media are activities as much as they are destinations.

How does one define social media? They are a set of free, open and simple techniques and technologies that let anyone create, repurpose and share content. They are ultimately generated and driven by users.

Successful digital advocacy is about identifying those communities where there are either existing or potential advocates. Then it is about monitoring those communities and tuning our clients' messages based on what is being said and by whom.

The creation of true advocacy is grounded in active participation in those communities and, ultimately, in producing content tailored to their needs and the needs of the brand we represent.

In my view, successful social media engagement is based on six principles:

- Identify
- Monitor
- Tune
- Participate
- Produce
- Measure

Identification is stage one. Here we find the advocates (or badvocates) and the online communities where the target audience for the campaign exists.

Once we have identified where our audience is and who the potential advocates might be, we can begin to monitor what they are saying, how they are saying it, who they are saying it to and where. This ongoing, automated process acts like a live focus group, keeping us appraised of the opinions of our advocates. It constantly informs our communications strategy and content.

In stage three, we use our awareness of the issues and appreciation of subtle communications nuances to ensure we adapt our clients' messaging and activities in the most appropriate manner. This tuning stage is imperative if the next two stages are to succeed.

Once our strategy is finely tuned, we can wholeheartedly and earnestly engage with the relevant communities. Follow social media best practice guidelines. Somebody somewhere knows more than you do - so be transparent, honest and respectful.

The final element of successful social media engagement is the creation of relevant and appropriate content. This content can take many forms and exist in many different environments - from social networks to blogs to sharing sites to multimedia content.

Social media engagement should be viewed as a long-term communications strategy and certainly not a quick fix or a 'turn on/turn off' approach. Therefore effective measurement is absolutely essential to gauge the degree to which advocacy is being generated and distributed online.

There you have it. Not rocket science by any means. But then who ever said it was complicated?

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