Getting real about Social Media, PR (and CSR)…

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship Conference 2010 in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. There was a great turnout with CSR and PR people from every industry and there were great discussions throughout the three days. Unfortunately the pressures of the day job have delayed this post, but I hope you’ll forgive me.

I had the privilege of participating in two sessions on the emergence of new media. The panels included Dianna O’Neill from Fedex and Jennifer Tower from Ernst & Young and were ably moderated by Ken Frietas from Boston College.

It was great to get insight into how Fedex and Ernst & Young are thinking about social media, but as usual at these events, the real highlight was the lively discussion and Q&A. (You can find a summary of the session by Meghan Baldelli here.)

It became clear to me (again) that there’s a clear a disconnect between the social media high-church and the challenges facing people in the real world. Before exploring some of the themes from the panel I wanted to call out some common sense that’s emerging around the discussion on social media.  First up, Jeremy Pepper’s thoughtful post titled It’s About Why, Not How.

I recommend it.

His central thesis is that there’s a lot of experts online who talk about the tools but a lot less about why a company would use the tools and how they will have a real tangible impact.

The issue for corporations right now is you have a ton of social media speakers – many who have no public relations or marketing backgrounds, but have (for some odd reason) been labeled social media and community geniuses – that come in full guns blazing about how to do social media. That is worthless, and does not help companies. Ask them why, and see if they can talk about any past successes – real successes that point to an agreed upon ROI and results – and then judge if what they are talking about would work for your business.

If you read this blog semi-regularly.  You’ll know this is a subject close to my heart. As someone who monitors Twitter and reads blogs and online commentary it’s a constant source of frustration that there’s too much talk and supposition about social media without any context or understanding of the real world challenges that businesses and individuals face. (Rob Key has also written an interesting post on this subject: Why we need to kill “social media”.)

The real questions are how does social media fit in terms of reaching real organizational goals? How do I deal with internal issues and balancing the resources I need to focus on traditional programs (that remain effective) while somehow integrating social media programs?

I’ve worked in communications for a long time. I am painfully aware of the pressure people are under to deliver against these challenges.  There is far too little discussion of this online and far too much blue sky hypothesizing about the latest widget – with no context, and no reality.

The real world – real people, real challenges

Back to the Boston College conference. The panel sessions I participated in addressed the changes we’re seeing in communication.  They were very well attended and it was great to hear the concerns of people who are working in real companies and trying to achieve actual business objectives.  While some of the areas we discussed were CSR-specific, the majority of the discussion was applicable everywhere.

Here were some of my takeaways:

  • Many people still don’t understand the social media tools and channels.  I think the major reason for this is that people continue to struggle to cope with existing workloads and there’s confusion on how to balance that workload and the resources.
  • People are still struggling how and where social media fits in with all the existing programs and campaigns they are running. Many view it as a separate rather than integrated set of activities.
  • There remains a lot of concern from senior management about the risk of losing control and creating risk by actively participating online.
  • People are challenged with how to mobilize and engage their co-workers around social media.
  • There are questions on how you successfully manage the social media process. This ranges from specific publishing processes to legal and HR issues.
  • Those who see opportunity are confused about how to get their social media programs started.

So here are some high level thoughts:

  • Start with your objectives – When you begin to think about potential social media campaigns, the starting point must be your business and marketing objectives.  Think about how social media can positively support the achievement of those objectives
  • Integrate social media – Integrate social media tools and programs with your traditional marketing and PR programs.  It should not be an isolated or one off activity. If you’re working with a large company, make sure that your social media efforts and properties are aligned and integrated with other efforts taking place at your company.
  • Start small – You don’t need to launch a blog a Twitter feed, a Facebook page all at one time.  Dianna O’Neill recommends a Twitter feed as a good, low-maintenance way to get started. Just remember to set some goals, measure your results and experiment!
  • Less is more – Often every division, department and group wants their own Twitter feed, their own blog etc.  Sometimes it makes sense, but often it doesn’t.  Don’t be left with a large number of underperforming online properties when focusing efforts and resources on a small number would be far more effective.
  • Social media isn’t free –   This is a fallacy, unless you have lots of free labor.  There is a cost and it requires resources.  Think through the implications of kick starting your social media program and make sure you have sufficient resources to sustain it.
  • Control is subjective – The issue of control can often be a difficult one.  Sometimes the issue is a concern about legal implications or regulations.  Sometimes it’s based on management’s fears.  However, the reality is that people are probably already discussing your brand and products online. From a legal standpoint (see no shortcuts below) you must ensure that your social media assets meet all relevant legal requirements.  In terms of addressing management’s fears, start in a controlled manner, use sensible policies and test them.
  • There are no shortcuts – Building successful social media programs takes time and resources.  That’s the reality.  Social media is also subject to the same issues as traditional marketing. This includes legal considerations.  Treat social media as you would any other marketing program or tool.
  • Content is king – Social media helps you to tell stories in new and engaging ways. Sometimes you can share content from elsewhere in the marketing mix, but often you need to think in new ways about how you create content.  Be creative. Be relevant. Add value. Do it.
  • Converse and broadcast – Although some may disagree a lot of social media channels are effectively online broadcast tools.  That’s OK.  But there is also the opportunity to engage people on relevant issues and topics. Fedex’s Dianna O’Neill used a phrase I loved: intimate conversations.  Work on getting your experts engaging online – even in limited ways – make sure that you are adding value, not noise to the conversation.
  • Future proof – As social media continues to evolve there are new services emerging all the time and people are now consuming and connecting across more devices and in more locations that ever before.  Think about the impact of these trends and how you can use different approaches to extend your reach and effectiveness.


Should I communicate about our CSR programs?

Finally, one CSR-specific PR issue that comes up again and again is about whether it’s acceptable to promote or communicate around CSR. My personal view is that as long as you have a sustainable, commitment to social responsibility that is aligned with you business, then I believe it is completely acceptable for you to communicate in an appropriate manner. The reality today is that many audiences expect transparency from companies on their commitment to social responsibility, so we shouldn’t be afraid to discuss and communicate how our organizations are looking to help address societal challenges.

What do you think?

Leave a comment below or share your thoughts on Twitter: @tpemurphy.

Update: Thanks to the ever kind David Tebbutt who kindly pointed out a typo – now corrected :-)

16 thoughts on “Getting real about Social Media, PR (and CSR)…

  1. Hi Murphy, great post. I just follow you because my classmate Ashley Jablow mentioned your meeting on twitter.

    All your points are very helpful, especially for a big company. But still your post, especially the legal part, provoked my thoughts that whether social media, in turn, will change corporate culture. As you said, there’s no way to stop people talking your brand or company on social network. So that may means if your company is too big to have a integrated communication strategy, or too depended on control or guidelines, you run the risk that your left hand slapping your right hand.

    Maybe, as you also mentioned, the only way out is not control, but open. I believe the underlying thing about social media is that everyone (employee) is the brand, the media and the messenger.

    Overall, social media or any business communication should based on authenticity.I don’t think CSR should be an exception.

  2. Hi Steven,

    Thanks for the comment. I agree with your point about authenticity and openness. However, the term control is loaded. There has to be some level of “control” because companies must abide by legal and regulatory policies in the countries where they operate. I don’t think this is an issue of corporate culture.

    Where I agree is that the LEVEL of control organizations had over information is changing. That’s absolutely the case, however it’s not absolute.


  3. And still not a word about ethics.

    But coming to terms with the fact that “authentic” pickpockets is NOT going to be as easy as the evangelists falsely prophesied… is a huge step in the right direction. Kudos.


  4. @tpemurphy Just read your latest blog post. I think CSR messaging should (also/especially) be spread by other employees than PR people.

  5. @tpemurphy in that case I believe you can (and should) communicate actively about your CSR programs, because then it’s not just a PR thing

  6. Hey Tom,

    That’s a great post. It is very important that organizations start small when starting up social media properties with long-terms goals in mind. The though that can be applied here is Jack of all traders and master of none.

  7. The thing that bothers me is that sometimes you get labeled as a “social media” person if you just talk about it. Especially to people that don’t know much about it.

    I wish we were putting as much scrutiny on traditional methods as what social media is enduring. People talk about TV, radio, magazines and newspapers as delivering what they promise but most of the time they aren’t measured with half of the metrics that social media and online advertising can bring.

    Don’t get me wrong. I still believe in print and traditional video but I don’t see people demanding better metrics (which can be had now) from them. Or at least going after them.

    You are completely right about going after objectives first and foremost.

    Then it should be understanding your audience – if they aren’t using social media (and some groups still aren’t big on it) then maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.

    Like your stuff – it was recommended through our Linkedin Community here at Notre Dame.

  8. Thanks Ashwani: I agree completely.

    Don: Thanks for the comment. I do agree with you, we should be thinking about the return from traditional investments as well – we’ve never really mastered that. I take your point about the scrutiny and as someone who is known to pontificate about social media from time to time I should point out I don’t have any issues with people providing guidance, or discussing or evangelizing the use of social media. But I think there’s a line where some people stand on soapboxes and preach to everyone with little basis on reality. My central point is that we should be rigorous in how we think about social media as an integrated part of our overall marketing plans – and given social media lends itself to measurement – we should evaluate it. There are a lot of people struggling with how we manage the growing demands of traditional and social media.

    Many thanks

  9. April, 2010

    Thanks for the post Tom. My undergrad ethics class is dealing with CSR & Social Media currently and enjoyed the thought provocation a great deal!

    I also thought I’d include this note…in case anyone is interested here:


    It is my great pleasure to invite PR professionals to attend the 2010 Social Media Certificate offered by Drury University in June.

    Drury was the first university in the nation to develop a graduate-level SMC program and we anticipate attendance from across the nation. Our course is also a listed graduate course and can be transferred per transcript requests.

    Drury’s SMC offers a seated course June 5th-20th facilitated by four Ph.D.s in marketing, media, technology & strategic communication (PRSA Members Included!). We also offer a webinar version June 7th-July 1st with our Ph.D. designed curriculum facilitated by best-selling social media author and consultant Deltina Hay.

    Please follow our blog for weekly updates and posts from our faculty, the tentative curriculum abstracts, content delivery agenda, and more:

    Finally, professionals interested in joining the 2010 SMC should contact me immediately. Our seated course is almost full and our webinar version is already filling.

    Here’s to excellent social media use in 2010!

    Curt Gilstrap, Ph.D.
    Director, Social Media Certificate
    Director, Communication Graduate Program
    Assistant Professor of Communication
    Drury University
    Office: 417.873.4068
    Twitter: @curtgilstrap

  10. Thank you for the pointers on social media tactics. I think they will be a great help during my internship this summer. I am public relations student at Western Kentucky University, and with social media becoming such a growing business area, many universities have not updated their programs to fit the changes in the business. I believe that the generations coming out of school in the future are going need to have a clear understanding of how to not only work the social media, but have a thorough understand of what they are meant to accomplish.

  11. Thanks Curt: great to see more education around these issues.

    Paige: I wouldn’t worry too much about it. There’s a lot of value to understanding the core values of Public Relations, communications and writing. Those values provide a great start to effective social media – and remain very relevant. Keep your passion!

    Many Thanks

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