The way forward for company communications

There are a lot of reports flying around highlighting the confusion over how to respond to social media. There is no question that the media landscape is fundamentally altering. Empowered by social media tools, news can be shaped and distributed by billions of potential contributors.

To succeed in this new world of blog posts, tweets, YouTube and Facebook, companies and their communications teams need to develop new skills and an understanding of the new media landscape.

The speed of the new media landscape, and its demand for openness, challenges previous methods of working that were established to meet regular print publication and broadcast transmission deadlines.

From an operational and cultural perspective, it is challenging – no question. One of the key changes that the new media landscape is bringing about is that old style communications used to be a relationship with a few key editors and journalists; now communications in the new media landscape is about having two-way conversations with the many.

Rather than building relations with the key correspondent on a key print publication, companies need to build relations with key bloggers, for example, and be in a position to move at lightning speed to respond to any serious online criticism thatcould spread through Twitter, etc.  Companies must be able to respond in the correct tone of voice: friendly, polite, human and honest. This must all come though from a coherent social media engagement policy based on a good understanding of what works best in this new hugely important field.

In a research report passed to me recently I read that financial PR is hampered by regulation, and that it takes ages for press releases to be signed off. This situation is unsustainable in the long run. Investors are searching online and reading blogs. Therefore financial PR teams need to have social media engagement strategies. They need to be monitoring what is being said online, they need to be responding to factual inaccuracies where appropriate in the right tone of voice, and they need to be developing platforms online through which they can be engaging in the social media sphere.

Faced with a lack of control, the speed of links, and the fact that bad news about organisations can spread like wildfire, it is essential that companies are aware of what is occurring online.

Despite these new threats to companies, social media presents a whole range of rich tools from audio to video which can enable companies to fundamentally alter how they are perceived in creative and powerfully positive ways. Unlike the traditional print/broadcast media, social media presents opportunities to develop richer relationships with key stakeholders. Also, if it is done successfully, companies can successfully create their own media: their own new social media platforms. If they build these up effectively with loyal influential followings, they are in a very powerful position indeed.

From my experience the companies that tend to worry most about social media are those that are not participating. They are the most vulnerable. However, let’s say you have a blog which is followed by your key print and broadcast contacts and also by key bloggers and a whole range of influential online stakeholders, then you are in a strong position. They will listen and read what you have to say. If, for example, Google posts on its blog, it spreads and people pay attention.

The mistake some companies make, as they rush to set up these new platforms, is that they are not careful enough to think through the golden opportunities they have to wield real influence by creating something unique and relevant to their stakeholders. If these new platforms are filled with bland PR-speak they are not going to help anyone, as the real voices of the web will soon cut free and undermine misinformation.

So the challenge is for companies to speak in a more human voice and give their stakeholders something that is going to really interest them.

Furthermore, the amount of time communications teams spend on the phone dealing with print and broadcast media has to change. They need to be in front of terminals, watching blogs and tweets, joining in conversations, working on new videos, developing interesting podcasts, eyeing new opportunities like location-based marketing, and getting involved. This, make no mistake, ladies and gentlemen, is the end of business as usual.

There is no divide between b2b or b2c either. Social Media or the web or digital, or whatever word you want to use to describe the place which is driving communications change, sees no division. It sees no organisational chart. It is unruly and disrespectful to the reputations of companies. It says what it feels and likes, as many companies have discovered as they have tried to impose the traditional corporate responses onto platforms like Facebook, and even Facebook is discovering it cannot control its users in the way that it hoped!

One last point, I know that is must be a real headache for some senior communications directors who have made their way to the top based on a traditional model of media and with little appetite for technology. But it doesn’t matter if you are a slow adopter of technology. Technology is age neutral. It is open to everyone. Whatever stage you are at, it is fine. The developments on the web present opportunities, I think, for all of us to enrich our lives. My mum and dad use Skype to have video conferences with their grand-daughter in Hong Kong. For them, it is a miracle. And for me, I am staggered at how quickly they have embraced a tool which is supposed to only be the exclusive property of so-called digital natives.

How wrong some commentators are. Social Media, the web, digital, is for everyone. We are all learning and it is important to share mistakes and learn from them as well as successes.

If you are a so-called digital immigrant you have plenty to offer. Welcome to the social media shores. We need your abilities and talents. We are all learning. No one knows what is coming next! Twitter, Facebook, all these companies emerged from nowhere in such a short space of time – and might not last. Good luck! And, if you need specialist help – given honestly in a simple way, by people who have worked in the field of technology and communications for some time, you know where to come!!

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