Archive for September, 2008

Symmetrical communications model: time to say good bye?

Following the discussion on PR Conversations, Bill Sledzik made an intriguing reflection in his post “Symmetrical PR meets the Cluetrain Manifesto”. There he compares the Cluetrain Manifesto postulate with concepts of two-way symmetrical communication model.

I’m a big fan of the Cluetrain Manifesto, but I have to admit I do not look at it from the 2WS-perspective. Don’t get me wrong: I passionately believe that having ongoing conversations with publics is the ultimate way for businesses to succeed in the future. But I just don’t believe in their symmetry. Moreover, I don’t think it’s healthy to focus on it, rather than focus on the very relationships. Relationships are rarely, if never, equal, or symmetrical. People are not masses, they are individuals with different social, economic and symbolic powers. Still we perfectly and, not the least, mutually beneficially, exist together in the complicated web of social relationships, be it with our parents, peers, governments or businesses.

In case of big corporations with multiple stakeholders, sometimes millions of them, symmetry is further not possible due to the human attention span limits, so well defined by Clay Shirky in “Here comes everybody”. As I wrote in my previous posts, no matter how open and democratic the digital social sphere si, it is not possible to listen, not even mentioning respond, to every voice out there.

It’s time to acknowledge that as great as it sounds, symmetrical communications is not a realistic implementation, for better or worse. However, getting to know our publics, and by that, forming relations with them based on mutual understanding and good will, now that is not only possible, but also necessary for success. Internet and social media tools present an unique opportunity for businesses, and public relations industry in particular, to focus on buiding these precious relationships with our audiences.

In fact, maybe for the first time in history, we should become their audience. After all, it’s us who depend on them, not the way around.


Challenges of defining PR

This weekend I got engaged in the discussion on PR Conversations, started by the controversial article by Heather Yaxley: A Radical view of PR. Discussion unveiled to assess the Excellence theory, and Dr. J.Grunig gave us an honor by participating in the conversation. This is a great discussion to take place due to EUPRERA conference coming up in Milano in October on institutionalising of PR.

One of the biggest challenges for PR as a discipline is finding a common definition of PR and its role and functions in an organisation. The discussion clearly reveals a gap between academic position on defining PR, and the social reality of its practice today.

As I realise that there will always be tensions between practice and theory in any field, I find a couple of trends in this conflict disturbing. It is academic determination to move PR further away from marketing ignoring the web 2.0 trends altogether. The more I study social media, and business trends to employ web 2.0 tools in their communication efforts, both internal and external, I see the need for these two departments, or sciences for that matter, to work closely together in order to produce best results for both companies and their publics. Integrated communications today is the most optimal model for organisations to successfully operate in the society which is both highly fragmented, media savvy and technologically advanced. Isolating PR from this development will result in marketing taking over the tasks public relations traditionally has been doing for decades, and is very good at. 

Another thing which disturbed me in the course of the debate is learning something brand new about PR’s role in an organisation. While studying Masters in PR in Leeds Metropolitan University, I have never heard that PR’s function in an organisation was to provide “publics a voice in the decisions of organisations that affect them”, as Dr. Grunig and his advocates claim. I have learned that PR’s role was to help an organisation to navigate in dynamic environment by advising on the communication strategy which will in the long term strengthen the organisational reputation. While organisational reputation and societal welfare are closely interrelated it’s no longer a question whether company should behave ethically, and address the needs and expectations of its stakeholders. But being the voice of the society in an organisation, and serving the interests of the society as a whole (addressing stakeholders from the societal perspective, not only organisational, Grunig claims), rather than serving the interests of the employer – this is a new thing for me.

I have a feeling that from one extreme, often being the devil advocates, we are now moving to the next extreme, being pro-bono angels, neither of which reflects the reality of practice of public relations today. What about finding the golden middle, by trying to learn from the mistakes of the past, and continue doing what we do best: add value to both the organisation and our publics through informative, transparent and two-ways communications. Let’s admit it; we have neither competences nor aspirations to speak on the behalf of the society in its divergence and complexity.

Do you need a social media pill: a check list for brands

Chris Brogan posted a provocative post a couple of days ago: ’You can do your job without Twitter’. He asks why we invest so much time and energy online, when it is still perfectly possible to continue quietly doing business the usual way, in the world without RSS, widgets and social networks.

Is it really necessary to constantly monitor the web for the last news, share everything we come across, and manically aggregate all even distinctly related to our interests content? Does it really pay off to listen to all of the gossip online, and even more, take time to respond to it?

Although we have come far since the days of the Cluetrain Manifesto, these questions are still legitimate because they are still raised by the brands, who don’t want an answer: ‘well, that’s just the way it is’.  

Now although I believe that some social media tools are, or soon will be, obligatory for all companies (who mean business) to embrace – corporate blogging, for example – heavy artillery might not be necessary, or timely. Before jumping into the unknown waters, it can be smart to do a check list, suggested below, to estimate the degree of your need to join the Twitter (+ every other application you’ve ever heard of).

Indeed, a simple reality check might not only guide your future web strategy, but also show where you should put your main efforts. In fact, maybe you don’t need all these fancy tools to run your business smoothly.

And so, you really need social media strategy if: 

  •   You seldom/never get customers by referrals. No one recommends you to others.
  •   You are using too much money on marketing/advertising, and not getting enough ROI for it.
  •   You fail to provide good customer service, although you spent lots of resources on it.
  •   You seldom/never have time to be updated with latest news and trends, and you have no idea what your competitors are up to.
  •   Your brand name doesn’t provoke any associations with your main audience. After you’ve been in this business for several years.
  •   You’re not sure what your targeted markets are, or where to find them.

If you find yourself checking one or more boxes, seek social media help immediately. But do ask a professional to help you: taking too many pills at once might kill instead of heal you.

Check also this: Adam Singer lists 10 great reasons to use social media to build an audience


Social media presence: the future license to operate

Recent annual Forrester research on Interactive Marketing conducted among 333 marketers reveals that 68% of companies are willing to try social media strategy only after it’s proved that it works.  Indeed, the effect of marketing and figures for ROI on most of the social media platforms, including mobile phones, is hard to measure. The number of clicks on digital advertisements (which a couple of years ago led to the temporary eithoria among advocates of mobile marketing, yet still to be seen) has not showed direct correlation with actual sales. Interactive marketing via social platforms and corporate blogging have not yet produced enough evidence for companies to widely invest in it either.

In this post, I would like to turn this issue around and ask: do we need to measure the effect of social media in order to make a decision to employ it?

The marketing/PR measurement figures have traditionally been used for decisions to lay out future promotional strategy (we know that it works, so we’ll try it again), and to attract sponsors/clients to invest in us rather than our competitors. Unquestionable numbers of newspapers with certain PR-content being sold, and advertisements being seen, were alike unquestionably linked to the increased awareness and sales. This measurement strategy gave marketing- and PR departments legitimacy to exist, and consume a respectable part of corporate budget. Evidence for success is in many ways comforting sign for marketers that they are on the right track. However, there are also downfalls. Measuring the effect of one campaign doesn’t give enough reasons to believe that the same strategy will work well next time. Perceptions change, and so does media use. Furthermore, how does one easily measure the attitude change? And how do we accurately assess what exactly worked, and what didn’t? 

But my main argument is that the culture also changes. In the last 10 years, companies on the global scale became forced to invest big in something they couldn’t get the immediate gratification from: corporate social responsibility. CSR is now an indubitable part of any respectable organisation’s corporate strategy. Nobody bothers any longer to question or measure its effect: it has been proved not so much by the success of the companies who pioneered it, as by the crisis of the corporations (Nike, Shell, Enron, Nestle, Microsoft, ExxonMobil and many others) who neglected it. 

I believe that just like CSR, which today is a requisite for any company to engage in a sustainable business and have ‘license to operate’, social media presence will become a natural part of communication strategy. It will become essential to give businesses necessary authenticity and transparency not to only to compete, but also to exist in the future business environment. In the future, we will only deal with companies that we trust and have relationships with. Why, because we have a choice.

Eagerness to measure the effect of social media presence in order to make a decision to employ it is an echo of corporate philanthropy, characteristic for the 20th century and unacceptable in the 21st.



How to make social media scale?

A little while ago Peter Kim has written an enlightening article on scalability of social media, posing the question: do social media scale at all? I was among advocates who believed it does, but slower than traditional media. There were, however, also critics who thought social media scale to a certain point, but have clear limitations.

This post prompted me to think more on this issue. Why are there so few case studies? Why companies are so reluctant to embrace social media, when it’s so cheap? Finally, why is it simply not working out as good in practice as it looks in theory?

Although there are no straightforward answers, and I didn’t come up with any revolutionary explanations, I did make some reflections.

Lack of education: marketers should be introduced to new media courses. By looking you can learn how it can be done, yet it’s not as easy to understand why it should be done. Formal education is slowly starting to be introduced to communication degrees here and there, but what about those already working in the industry?

Lack of understanding: we have made a successful transition from the importance of media content to the importance of media channel (and back again), and we’re pretty much stuck there. Social media call for recognising the third dimension of communications: the context. In fact, when applying social media strategy to marketing, both content and medium do not matter as much as the context in which they are presented. The ultimate success of a social media campaign depends on it. The first step towards engaging the publics (the motto of social media advocates) is to catch their interest. The easiest way to catch someone’s interest is when someone is already at it – remember, don’t disturb, get involved.

Lack of time and passion: Hence, to significantly increase your chances for success of your social media strategy, you have to know your audience. Not only their demographics – that worked fine for traditional marketing and advertising. Now as publics grow more sophisticated in their media use, it is reasonable to assume that marketers should also become more sophisticated with their research tools. With public’s wide use of social media applications on their computers, mobile phones, blackberries, iPods, etc – marketers have unique opportunities to ‘stalk’ the users: who they are, what they do, when and how they do it. Alas, marketers on the global scale got used to taking shortcuts when planning media strategy: often using the old statistics and tactics. They are simply too lazy or sloppy to use more time on the good old research.

Why don’t we start over again, but this time from the right end. Maybe then we won’t have to ask ourselves if social media scale or not.

September 2008
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