The sub-prime mortgage mess—which threatens to become a more widespread mortgage mess; the overnight evaporation of Bear Stearns, one of the great names in investment banking; plummeting consumer confidence; a media debate about whether the United States economy is in or merely heading for recession—all of these would ordinarily be making public relations agency professionals nervous.
But most of those responsible for leading the giant public relations firms appear surprisingly serene about the industry’s prospects. They cite the continued expansion of global markets (China, India, the Middle East, Eastern Europe); the heightened expectations of consumers and citizens that will compel corporations to behave better and communicate more; and the mounting body of evidence that earned media coverage provides superior return on investment to other communications activities.
But mostly they cite the growing contribution of digital and social media work to their top and bottom lines. New media work now accounts for about 10 percent of revenues at most of the major multinational agencies, and often considerably more in terms of profits, as clients demonstrate a willingness to pay premium prices for smart digital strategies.
That’s good news for public relations consultants obviously. The PR agency business is not going to repeat the mistakes of the late 90s, when firms conceded leadership in the Internet arena to advertising agencies and specialist digital shops. The PR agencies are currently winning at least their fair share of Web 2.0 business and making a strong case that PR—with its heritage in dialogue and engagement—should be playing a leading role in digital and social media.
That’s important, because the next few years are likely to see a major shift in the traditional balance of power between companies and consumers, and the emergence of new media channels that circumvent and subvert the traditional communications channels. Companies will no longer be able to pretend that their brand is defined by their advertising, marketing, and communications department; they will be forced to acknowledge that their brand is in fact controlled by consumers and other stakeholders.
The good news for public relations people is that there is every indication that agency professionals understand that shift and are well positioned to take advantage. The bad news is that in many cases, corporate professionals have been far slower to act. Indeed, some in-house public relations executives are stuck in reactive mode, responding to the perceived threats posed by digital and social media, but only rarely seizing the initiative and creating new channels for dialogue and interaction and engagement with key stakeholders. Curiously, the digital practices at PR agencies report that the largest share of their business is driven by marketing, and not corporate communications, departments.
That’s curious because while marketers have traditionally relied on command-and-control messaging—the most obvious form being paid advertising—public relations and corporate communications professionals have always been required to engage in dialogue, to accept that they cannot control the ultimate message to consumers (and indeed, that they should not even strive for control, since controlled messages are inherently less credible than those delivered by independent third parties).
And it’s curious because digital and social media provide a valuable medium for engaging with a wide range of stakeholders, not only consumers. Those other stakeholders—employees, communities, NGOs, and more—are outside the purview of the traditional marketing department, but should be a fundamental focus of many corporate communications units.
Discussions with PR agencies, and with some leading corporate communications professionals, it becomes apparent that communications professionals fall into three or four distinct camps when it comes to the deployment of Web 2.0 products and services to expand their current activities.
The first camp, shrinking but still surprisingly active, regards digital and social media as a fad. Professionals in this camp—most of whom are part of the older generation—pay little attention to blogs, dismissing bloggers as “not legitimate” and convincing themselves that blogs have little influence beyond an eccentric “fringe” of consumers. They look at podcasts and YouTube videos and other new media tools as frivolous, self-indulgent, and ineffective compared to the mass communications tools with which they are more familiar.
The second camp falls at the other extreme of the digital continuum, and has never seen a new media tool it didn’t like. Professionals in this camp—most of them are marketers—want to try everything: viral campaigns, word-of-mouth online and off, company blogs, podcasts, YouTube videos. It sometimes appears as though they are at least as interested in bragging to their peers about their cutting-edge campaigns as they are in creating authentic new communications channels. Unfortunately, they tend to employ these tools indiscriminately, often without regard for the ethics or etiquette involved. They might use paid actors to spread word-of-mouth, or create blogs that appear to be independent but are actually run by company insiders, and when discovered provoke the anger and contempt of the very groups they are trying to engage.
The third camp falls somewhere in between. Professionals in this camp—which appears to include the majority of corporate communicators—are interested in what is going on in the digital and social media space, but largely for defensive purposes. They are prepared to pay public relations firms for monitoring services, and want to know what is being said about their companies and their brands in chat rooms and in the blogosphere, but they are reluctant to actually engage, either because they don’t understand the rules of the new media or have come to the conclusion that there are no rules, and that engagement carries unjustifiable risk.
The fourth—and unsurprisingly the smallest—camp is using social and digitally media sensibly and strategically. Professionals in this camp have immersed themselves in new media (or have paid for and listened to the advice of others who have), understand the etiquette, have learned and understood the rules. They recognize the true value of social media: the ability to use authentic communications to recruit brand ambassadors, credible third parties—opinion leaders and ordinary consumers—who can spread the company or brand message to others. And they educate and advocate within their own organizations, helping senior management appreciate the powerful benefits and assuage its fears.
The big challenge for the public relations profession is to move more corporate communicators from the third camp to the fourth.
In some ways, their caution about new and social media is mystifying. There is, on the face of it, very little difference between the process through which public relations professionals have generated earned media coverage and the process through which bloggers, word-of-mouth advocates and opinion leaders online and off should be engaged. Public relations professionals identify those who have influence; they tell their stories to those individuals, and respond to questions; then they depend on those individuals to tell those same stories to others. Historically, the individuals with influence have mostly been reporters and editors; today, the pool of potential influencers is broader and deeper. But the process should be familiar.
Moreover, public relations professionals ought to be familiar—and comfortable—with the need to relinquish control over the final content of the message. In traditional media relations, they have long been accustomed to surrendering control to reporters and editors; in the digital and social media realm, they must surrender control to a variety of influencers. But again, the process should be familiar.
So why are so many corporate public relations professionals apparently uncomfortable with social media?
Over the past few months I have heard some variation on the same story many times over: the public relations agency came to the corporate PR client with a proposal for a proactive social media campaign, engaging bloggers or other online influencers; the corporate PR client liked to proposal in principal but when it came time to sign off on the campaign felt there was simply too much risk. In most cases, the rationale for abandoning the effort was that the CEO or other members of the management team would not look kindly on the use of an unproven medium if the campaign went wrong.
What is interesting is the definition of “going wrong.” In almost all cases, the concern is that some of the social media activity generated by the campaign might be either off-message or negative in tone. In other words, a campaign would be deemed to have “gone wrong” if it generates honest, authentic feedback. But honest and authentic feedback is the entire point of a social media campaign; if some of that honest and authentic feedback is negative, then at the very least the company has gathered important intelligence that can help it engage with stakeholders in a more productive fashion.
It is important to remember that social media campaigns—unless they are conducted deceptively or involve some form of manipulation—do not create negative discussions about the company or the brand, they merely bring them to light. The choice is not between allowing conversations or refusing to allow them, because these conversations are taking place already. The choice is between participating in those conversations—influencing them and learning from them—or ignoring them.
Yes, the rules of the digital and social media game are different from the rules of traditional media relations. Yes, it is more difficult to identify influential social media than it is to identify influential mainstream media. Yes, bloggers are more likely than mainstream journalists to treat a company’s press releases rudely (particularly if companies choose to communicate in formal, even legalistic language). But reputations are being forged—and damaged—online, and those responsible for managing reputations are being irresponsible if they do not engage with those who are helping to shape, or undermine, their brands.
But this is not just about responding to a new threat, it is about seizing an unprecedented opportunity.
The social media revolution has the potential to fundamentally alter the way in which organizations communicate and interact with their key stakeholders. It will empower stakeholders, who will have more information, more opportunities to share that information, and more channels through which to organize in response to that information (as advocates or critics) than ever before. But it will also empower individuals within the organization who understand how to use social networks and digital tools to engage those stakeholders in an honest and authentic dialogue.
Those individuals should be public relations professionals, who can earn the right to move into more central and vital roles within their organizations if they take the initiative in this arena. If they fail to meet the challenge, however, they will increasingly find themselves marginalized and disenfranchised by others—marketing executives in particular—who are not so timid.