Leading Australian corporate affairs and public relations professionals are, on the whole, “yet to be convinced that social media represents a paradigm shift for modern reputation and stakeholder management”*. This is despite there being a tsunami of continually building evidence to support the notion that social media is an incredibly fertile platform for engagement, influence and the achievement of business outcomes.

Does Australian PR seek too much control?

According to recent data that has come from Nielsen, social media use in Australia:

  • is up 127% in 2011 compared to 2010
  • increased its share of being a leisure pursuit by 36%
  • sees, on average, Australians spend nearly ten hours per week on social networks.

Additionally, a new study from the USA amongst  300 C-suite and senior executives found that companies that fully embrace social engagement are experiencing four times greater business impact than less?engaged companies.

This is on top of the cold, hard fact that social media provides invaluable help in the field of crisis communication management to:

  • identify emerging issues and key stakeholders and influencers
  • enable speedy communication during the crisis
  • provide information to improve future crisis operational and communication processes (not to mention business operations in the broader sense).

Bearing all this evidence in mind – what’s the problem?!

*This supposition, and a number of others noted in this post, are based on findings and analysis in Trends and issues in Australian corporate affairs 2012, a survey of over 300 of Australia’s most senior corporate affairs professionals, undertaken by leading public relations, communications and corporate affairs recruiter, Salt & Shein.

PR watches the social media boat sail by

Following are some quotes from the report’s respondents that had me raising an eyebrow or two:

  • “I think there are ways and techniques that people will eventually refine that will allow you to control the message in a social media context.”
  • “I still think it’s all about controlling the message. Social media is just another channel, but with tighter timeframes.”
  • “The market predominantly reads the serious press, watches ABC news and listens to AM and PM. It doesn’t necessarily look at someone’s tweet or Facebook post.”

When PR pros start talking about controlling the message, I wonder do they actually mean controlling reputation? Because I would have thought by now that it is generally recognised as being realistic that reputation and brand are created jointly between an organisation and its stakeholders, with social media being one of the main reasons why this is in fact the case.

Controlling the message is, in many instances, an extension of the reputation control presumption. Messages are translated, modified, re-articulated by stakeholders, with value-adding occurring all the time. Trying to control the message, then, is like saying here is a bottle with a genie in it, but don’t you dare open it!

The report says its respondents are, “over-whelmingly… taking a “toe in the water” approach to social media whilst actively monitoring the medium.” A little bit of bravery here guys! It’s not like we are short on data supporting the need to alter our approach to communication, reallocating resources as necessary.

The response from what I assume is an ASX-listed company’s PR employee in regard to the ‘market’ implies that the market is the only stakeholder they care about. This further implies that the company’s focus is a narrow one. I am sure it has more than one stakeholder to maintain and build a relationship with.

The report further notes that, “Several senior practitioners at top 50 companies were scathing in their assessment of the medium, variously describing it as “pure hype”, “completely oversold” and “a re-run of the internet frenzy in the 1990s”.

This seems to fly in the face of best practice PR that espouses thought leadership and its placement on social media, the critically important approach of inbound marketing and the content marketing that needs to underpin it.

On the other hand, as noted through the rationale of the following report respondent, there can be a sound reason for avoiding social media, at least until you figure out a way for ROI to be delivered:

“In one part of our business we are avoiding social media altogether because it’s a hornet’s nest populated by activists who are well mobilised and organised around a single issue. We have assessed the impact of their social media activities on our reputation as miniscule, as the number of people following and reading the blogs and posts is very small.”

Public relations using social media for crisis communication

“The biggest issue for corporate affairs to manage is social media. It has fundamentally changed the paradigm from managing information to managing information flow. Whatever vestige of control there was is fast being dissipated through the fragmentation of social media and the rise of customer democracy in parallel.”

From a crisis management perspective, it seems hard to justify standing by and just watching and monitoring social media.

This notion is amplified by the findings of survey last year that highlighted brand and image as top of the list of risk concerns for 300 Australia and New Zealand executives, with social media highlighted as a “particular risk to brand, image and reputation.”

Well, here’s a news flash guys, unless you are on the social web engaging and influencing, it is going to be too late come crisis time to play catch up. Do you want to build up the relationship bank account before withdrawals are made, or receive the sort of withdrawal shock to the system that Greece, metaphorically speaking, is going through?

The Salt & Shein report notes, “Social media’s role in escalating negative news whilst compressing deadlines and response times is a recurring theme in our quantitative survey, with nearly 18 per cent of respondents nominating its role in issues and crisis management.”

Is a significant, if only partial, solution to concerns like this not screaming us in the face?

What did you think about the findings flagged in this post based on the Salt & Shein report? Does the level of social media engagement from so many leading Australian companies surprise you? Most report respondents were from the Australian financial services sector, so do you think the report results aren’t a fair reflection of PR practice by large organisations?

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