Paul Holmes 14 Mar 2011 // 12:00AM GMT
At many companies, it was still possible five or 10 years ago, to believe that the brand was everything the company said about its products and services, the sum total of its logo, its advertising, its press releases, its sponsorships. Today, the brand is no longer determined by what the company says about itself; it’s determined by all the things that are said about the company by others, in the real world (over garden fences, in hair salons, the supermarket check-out line, over drinks and dinners) and in digital and social media.
In one respect, it can be argued that digital and social media have only made a far longer-term reality more apparent, and less easy to ignore. After all, consumers have been talking among themselves about products and services for as long as there have been consumers and products and services. In the past, however, those conversations were more intimate and more difficult to monitor. In other words, digital and social media have merely turned up the volume and made it easier for companies to listen in on what is being said.
But the change is more profound than that.
Corporations—and other institutions—are now facing a level of radical transparency that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago, with the internet providing consumers, communities, employees, investors and other stakeholders with a virtual meeting place at which they can share and compare experiences and mobilize large numbers of friends and allies in a common cause.
In the relatively recent past, a customer with a complaint about a particular product or service might have shared his or her experience with a dozen or so friends. Today, that same individual can find (or create) an online community and tell thousands, even millions of people about that experience—not only in his or her immediate circle, but nationally and even internationally, because digital and social media know no geographic boundaries.
If only a small percentage have a similar experience, they can create a formidable internet presence (sometimes ranking higher on prominent search engines than the official company website) that turns others away from your product. They can be joined by employees who explain how inefficient internal processes (or worse) help to create the problem in question. And they can catch the eye of traditional media reporters, print and broadcast, ensuring that the complaints about your company reach an even wider audience.
The upside of this radically transparent is that companies have the opportunity to hear about all of these complaints. The downside is that they have an obligation to respond. There is no excuse for ignoring customer (and other stakeholder) concerns about a business, product or service, and doing so will have a cost—not only in alienating the complainant but in raising questions even among unaffected parties about the company’s attitude and responsiveness, its willingness to correct its mistakes or address issues of concern.
In such an environment, consumers (and employees, investors, regulators, and the public at large) are constantly evaluating corporate behavior and judging it. Companies that seek to avoid turning problems into crisis, or to turn them into opportunities for competitive advantage, will lead to emphasize several increasingly important values:
Transparency: The smartest companies will not fight against this radical transparency, but embrace it, welcoming closer scrutiny of their products and services, policies and positions, inviting a level of customer and stakeholder intimacy that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.
Humility: Any hint of corporate arrogance in digital and social media will be immediately apparent and met with hostility. Companies must begin to act as if the clichs they have spouted for years—“the customer is king”—are actually true.
Authenticity: In a radically transparent age, any disconnect between what a company says and how it acts will be quickly apparent and will lead to a swift and severe lack of credibility—perhaps the most valuable commodity a company possesses in this new era.
Dialogue: In digital and social media, listening is a more valuable communications skill than talking. No matter how clever or creative a company’s advertising or public relations materials are, they should be seen as a starting point for conversation, not as a message to be “delivered” to a “target audience.”
Engagement: The great advantage of digital and social media is that they invite active participation by consumers and other stakeholders. Communication should be designed to engage, to motivate, to activate brand “ambassadors,” and not merely to transmit information.
For many companies—and for professional communicators—this will mean interacting with consumers and other stakeholders in a fundamentally different way.
What This Means for Public Relations
Nevertheless, it is tempting to suggest that for public relations professionals (good ones, at least), the emergence of social media changes nothing. The fundamental principles upon which public relations was founded need little or no adjustment to accommodate the new media.
Good public relations has always embraced transparency, recognizing that open and honest communication is the most effective. Good public relations has always valued authenticity, recognizing that corporate communication must be a reflection of corporate behavior to be credible. Good public relations has always been about engagement, recognizing that mutual understanding requires a dialogue, that effective communication requires listening at least as much as it involves talking.
Moreover, the process of engaging with stakeholders in the digital and social media environment is essentially similar to the process public relations people have traditionally employed. Historically, public relations people have demonstrated their value within corporations by telling the company or brand story to some third-party who then went on to tell the same story to his or her readers, reaching a wider audience and adding credibility (because of his or her independence from the company) often absent from other communications channels.
Typically, the person to whom public relations people told the company’s story was usually (though not always) a journalist. In the digital and social media realm, that person could be a citizen journalist (or blogger), or it could be an online opinion leader, a mother with thousands of Twitter followers, a teenager with a high-profile in the gaming community, almost anyone with an audience and a degree of credibility.
But the process remains essentially the same. The skills required—the ability to tell a story that is authentic, interesting, engaging—are broadly similar. (The biggest difference is the need for a greater degree of intimacy with the consumer audience. Influential journalists in a particular market segment are easy to identify; often their names are listed in directories. Digital and social influencers are not always so obvious, and require PR people to immerse themselves in the online world.)
So in some respects, the emergence of social media requires very little adjustment on the past of those who have been practicing good public relations. But that begs the question: how many organizations have been managing their public relations this way?
The answer, sadly, is not many.
For that reason, social media guru Jeff Jarvis, in his book “What Would Google Do?” is able to draw the conclusion that public relations is one of a handful of industries “immune from rehabilitation” in the Google Age. He offers a devastating critique of public relations that verges on a caricature of the industry but nevertheless will resonate with some clients.
According to Jarvis: “The problem for public relations people… is that they have clients. They must represent a position, right or wrong. As they are paid to do that, the motives behind anything they say are necessarily suspect. They cannot be consistent, because they may represent a client with one stance today and the opposite tomorrow, and we’ll never know what they truly think.
“In a medium that treasures facts and data, they cannot always let the facts win; they must spin facts to craft victory. They must negotiate to the death, which makes them bad at collaboration. It’s not their job to help anybody but their clients. They are middlemen. They won’t admit to making mistakes well; clients don’t pay for mistakes.”
That will have to change, because social media have changed the rules of the game in one critical way: any violation of the principles of public relations—transparency, authenticity, engagement—will be discovered much more swiftly than in the past and punished much more severely.
But change it will, if only for evolutionary reasons: those who are unwilling or unable to change will become extinct.
To take Jarvis’ argument point by point:
“They must represent a position, right or wrong.” I know of no competent public relations person who would accept that as a term of his or her employment. If a position is wrong—either morally abhorrent or untenable—it is the first job of a public relations counselor to craft a new position. To do otherwise would be not only a waste of the practitioner’s time and the client’s money, it would be counterproductive: destroying the company’s relationship with its public rather than enhancing it.
“The motives behind anything they say are necessarily suspect.” There’s obviously some truth to that, although I’m not sure that suspect motives are unique to the PR profession. Any for-profit organization is going to be motivated, at least in part, by financial concerns. Does that mean that no corporation can hope to succeed, to overcome public suspicion, in this new age? More to the point, are financial motives inherently more suspect than ideological motives? Doesn’t almost everyone have an ulterior motive for their communication?
Surely the distinguishing aspect of this new age is that we have more resources at our disposal to evaluate both the motives and the content of communications and to make our own judgment about what to trust?
“They cannot be consistent, because they may represent a client with one stance today and the opposite tomorrow, and we’ll never know what they truly think.” I have to say I am not quite as enamored of consistency as Jarvis appears to be. Nor do I think it’s the job of PR people to tell us “what they truly think.” (Why would anyone care?) I think most stakeholders are smart enough to realize that PR people are making an argument: it’s the intellectual integrity of the argument that matters, not the authority of the individual making it. Again, one of the significant implications of the new media age is that we trust people to evaluate arguments on their own merits, that ad hominem attacks (of the kind Jarvis appears to be making here) should not be allowed to distract from those merits.
“They cannot always let the facts win, they must spin facts to craft victory.” I’m not entirely sure what Jarvis means when he says PR people must “spin facts.” Facts are facts. Facts inform our decisions, but they do not dictate them. We might all agree, for example, on the fact that tobacco products cause cancer (and a whole host of other health problems). But that fact alone does not lead inevitably to any conclusion about what we should do about tobacco products. It is reasonable to argue that they should be banned, because of the costs they impose on society; it is also reasonable to argue that individuals should have the right to choose dangerous behaviors—including the ingestion of dangerous products—if it pleases them to do so. One could describe the crafting of arguments on either side of that question as “spinning facts,” but it seems to me that such language serves only to stigmatize the kind of exchange of opinions and arguments that is essential to public debate and thus the democratic process.
“They must negotiate to the death, which makes them bad at collaboration.” This is, perhaps, the strangest line in Jarvis’s whole argument, since public relations is in many ways the art of collaboration. Building effective relationships between an organization and its publics demands collaboration and compromise. For that reason, public relations professionals are often viewed with suspicion by their corporate colleagues precisely because they are “collaborators” whose job it is to represent the views of external stakeholders inside the organization.
“It’s not their job to help anybody but their clients.” Even if this were true, is Jarvis really suggesting that they can help their clients—particularly in this hyper-transparent social media age—by advising them to adopt positions they know are untenable, or by telling them they can achieve success by manipulation, deceit and “spin?” If PR people want to help their clients, they will surely advise them to be more honest, more transparent, to listen to their stakeholders more closely, to build relationships based on mutual trust. In reality of course, public relations people have been offering clients this advice—with varying degrees of success—since the birth of the profession, for both ethical and pragmatic reasons.
“They won’t admit to making mistakes well; clients don’t pay for mistakes.” Again, the traditional role of public relations people has been to advise their clients to admit mistakes, often butting heads—again, with varying degrees of success—with legal counsel in the process. It is one of the fundamental tenets of the profession that the public will forgive mistakes, but punish a cover-up mercilessly.
The bottom line is that to accept Jarvis’s argument that the Google era spells trouble for public relations, one would have to believe two hypotheses: first, that all public relations people are incredibly bad at their jobs; and second, that all of their clients are idiots. I have to say—based on close to 25 years of writing about this business—that I don’t think either of those hypotheses is true.
Turf Battles Inside Corporations
The philosophical case that social media are quite naturally an extension of the traditional role of public relations may be strong, but that does not mean that public relations practitioners will necessarily be handed oversight for their companies’ social media strategy. In fact, the early indications are that in-house public relations professionals are losing out to their marketing colleagues.
There are several reasons for this. The first, and perhaps the most important, is a simple matter of economics: marketers have bigger budgets. It is an easy matter for a marketing executive to take a small part of his or her advertising budget and redirect it into social media. A small fraction of a company’s ad budget can buy a significant presence in the digital realm. Public relations budgets are much more limited.
But there is also a question of attitude. At the risk of over-generalizing, marketers and corporate public relations professionals have responded to the emergence of social media in diametrically opposed ways. Marketers typically look at social media and see only opportunity; their first instinct is to use the new media the same way they use other media—to shout their messages at the “target” audience. Public relations people look at social media and see only risk; their first instinct is to lurk and listen, to monitor for potential threats to corporate reputation.
In this regard, the reticence of public relations people may have as much to do with a lack of courage as it does with a lack of cash. I am haunted by a conversation I had 12 months ago with the very senior, very well-respected chief communications office at a major company operating in what might kindly be called “an issues-rich environment.” I had heard that his PR agency wanted to create an online community for the company’s stakeholders to discuss a range of issues, but particularly the environmental and human rights implications of its business.
I asked whether he planned to go ahead with the creation of such a community, and was told that he didn’t. There were several reasons. The first was the fear that the community would create a magnet for all of the company’s many critics, providing them with a forum to discuss all the reasons they hated it.
I pointed out that this first objection was misguided. The company’s critics were already holding these conversations, but in disparate locations. Bringing them together in one place would give the company an opportunity to monitor any criticisms, correct any misunderstandings, and respond quickly and publicly to any genuine concerns.
That brought us to his second reason, which was that his CEO and other senior executives would quickly become obsessed with the conversations taking place in the community, and expect the chief communications officer to do something about them.
Again, I felt that this was a potential benefit, rather than a flaw. If the CEO started to monitor this online community, he might develop a better understanding of the reputational issues facing the company. Which led to the third and final problem: the CEO would expect the CCO to change the tone of the conversation, but would not provide him with the additional budget or the additional authority required to do so. The CCO and his team would be expected to address these concerns without additional resources, and without the ability to influence the policies and practices that led to them.
This was a very senior professional, respected within the profession and within the company. Yet he felt it would be difficult to persuade his CEO to make available the kind of resources necessary to take full advantage of digital and social media for corporate reputation management, and almost impossible to convince the CEO that the new threat to the company’s reputation posed by digital and social media might require new approaches and even new behaviors.
Marketers, on the other hand, have little difficulty allocating a significant part of their existing budget to new media channels, and are prepared to take risks in order to seize an advantage.
It is increasingly easy to envision a scenario in which the marketing and corporate communications functions converge, in part as a response to the rise of digital and social media. Increasingly, corporate behavior and corporate reputation will influence brand preference, while product marketing will have implications for corporate reputation. If that happens, the experience of marketers in the social media realm may provide them with an insurmountable advantage over their colleagues in corporate public relations.
It should be clear from the above that the emergence of digital and social media present a golden opportunity for public relations people to move into a more central position, both within the organization generally and the communications mix in particular.
First, the radical transparency that has resulted from digital and social media mean that corporate reputations are at risk as never before; and so the function responsible for protecting those reputations is more important than ever.
Second, brand and reputational concerns are becoming almost indistinguishable, as a vast range of external issues have the potential to interfere in the relationship between a product and its customers. Only public relations people have experience in dealing with this wide range of issues, and the wide range of publics with a stake in them.
Third, traditional one-way communication, however creative and compelling, is becoming less effective as marketers come to recognize that (to quote The Cluetrain Manifesto) “markets are conversations” and consumers come to value dialogue and reject the constant barrage of “messages” to which they have been subjected in the past.
Fourth, it is becoming increasingly apparent that credibility is the most valuable currency in communication, and that the relationship between control and credibility is an inverse one: which is to say that the more a company seeks to control a message (through advertising, for example) the less credible that message will be; the more a company is willing to surrender control (by relying on the third-party endorsement delivered by PR), the more credible the message becomes.
All of these factors create an opportunity for public relations. But it is far from clear that public relations people will grasp that opportunity.
To do so, they will need to demonstrate greater competence, particularly in the realm of content creation and in their ability to tell authentic and compelling stories about the brands.
They will need to demonstrate greater conviction, in terms of the values—transparency, humility, authenticity, integrity, engagement—that underpin good public relations and best practice in the digital and social media world.
And they will need to demonstrate greater courage, in terms of their willingness to embrace some of the risks involved in greater transparency and more meaningful dialogue and their determination to turn those risks into opportunities.
One additional long-term implication of the social media revolution is the likely change in the way marketing and communications success is measured.
In the marketing realm, at least, metrics related to reach and frequency have dominated. The cost of advertising, for example, is determined primarily by the size of the audience to be reached, and marketers comfortable with this metric have been happy to measure public relations in the same way (whether by the volume of media coverage generated, the number of “opportunities-to-see” or some attempt to put a dollar amount on the “advertising value equivalency” of the coverage generated).
Public relations people have long argued that companies should focus on metrics based on attitude and behavior change rather than volume of coverage, and the rise of digital and social media is helping their case in two important ways. First, the ability to digital and social media to drive specific behaviors—whether persuading them to become a company’s “fans” on Facebook or take visit a company microsite—underscores the value of engagement over reach. And second, such behavior is easier and less expensive to measure than it was in the past.
There is therefore an opportunity for public relations professionals to unite around new metrics focused on engagement that have the potential to replace reach and frequency as the definitive measure of communications success.
One possibility would be to focus on the “net promoter score” approach developed by management consultant Fred Reichheld and explained in his book The Ultimate Question. Reichheld presents a solid, evidence-based argument that the willingness of consumers (and by extension, other stakeholders such as employees and communities) to recommend or promote a company is an accurate predictor of future financial performance.
Net promoter score provides an easy formula for measuring consumer recommending, by subtracting the number of brand detractors (those spreading negative word-of-mouth) from the number of brand advocates (those recommending the company to their friends and colleagues) to come up with a “score” that can range from -100 to 100.
Public relations people should embrace this kind of metric, first because it provides a more meaningful measure of communications success than focusing on the volume of coverage or the size of the audience and second because it de-emphasizes the things that advertising can deliver with great consistency (reach and frequency) and plays to the PR industry’s strengths. Consider for a moment how many advertising campaigns have made it more likely that you would recommend a product or service; then think about the potential impact of some of the following, all essentially public relations driven:
• An internal communications effort focused improving customer service or turning ordinary employees into brand ambassadors;
• A cause-related marketing campaign linking the product to a charity or social issue important to you;
• A significant corporate commitment to corporate responsibility, sustainability or progressive workplace policies;
• An event that brings you together with other customers of the brand with similar interests;
• The recommendation of an expert or a thought leader whose opinion you respect.
Net promoter score may not be the complete answer, but marketers and communications professionals alike should looking for new metrics that emphasize engagement, activism and advocacy.