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 🙂