Social media: freedom or fiefdom for public relations?

Social media is an antidote to the nanny state, for young people in particular, offering them a freedom that they are increasingly being deprived of. With its virtually (sic) non-existent rules, ever-evolving ‘etiquettes’, yet-to-be-determined legal precedents and myriad of platforms – which offer opportunities for expression and showboating never known before – social media frontiers are being extended each passing moment.

Social media playground for PR

This is a view recently touched upon on by John Roskam of the Institute of Public Affairs in The Australian. No doubt it’s not the first time this observation has been made, but it’s one I found quite striking and worth exploring.

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The nanny state which Roskam bemoans has been extensively discussed. It is a state of being which is seeing freedoms curtailed for the sake of occupational health & safety. It is having its most extreme manifestation in Australia’s economy, where safety is a major factor in the rising cost of doing business in Australia (e.g. mining, oil & gas), frightening off investment dollars (and jobs) elsewhere.

For Roskam, the freedoms lost to Australian youth are frustrating, too. Examples include children not being allowed to play physical games at school, no matter how seemingly benign, or playgrounds only being permitted to be constructed using certain equipment and after extensive and expensive risk analysis has been undertaken.

An extension of this is the political correctness applied to situations such as children’s sport, whereby coaches of young children are chastised if they answer questions about a match’s score, rather than answering in an obfuscating way along the lines of, “The score doesn’t matter, it’s about participating and having fun.” (Of course this is true, but if the kid asks the question, as a kids’ sporting coach myself I think there is a safe middle ground here which is not condescending to the children.)

Social media as freedom

It’s hard not to agree with Roskam’s assertion that social media offers freedom, though perhaps there is worth in the observation, too, that “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”.

And this is not just a throwaway line, not in the context of social media, anyway. Because freedom means being able to act like an idiot, a bully and a saboteur, just as it means being able to behave in a manner useful to society and/or simply to have some harmless fun.

We could talk at length about the cloak of invisibility social media offers those who choose to go down this path. How many times have we heard of cyberbullies and/or those who make comments whilst not choosing to make their identity known, potentially causing all sorts of unhappiness, yet running from taking responsibility for what they have contributed to?

Is this the sort of freedom we want?

Yes, the same sort of thing can and does happen offline, too.  But offline doesn’t have the same viral, audience multiplication characteristics:

  • More people can learn of an opinion, accusation, rumour etc online than they can offline
  • Social proof – the credibility of numbers. An implication of this is that if a piece of information is shared often enough online, then by its sheer proliferation it is assumed it must be true, when clearly this isn’t necessarily the case.

It is true, also, that many online environments can have a moderating effect on information, calming the waters of outrageous pieces of supposed information (more like a piece of data, really).

And it is similarly true, and here we have a wonderful example of social media freedom, that the information posted online can be curated by those choosing to share it. This can mean adding further (perhaps qualifying) insights and opinion, scrutinising what is being shared and, ultimately, accelerating a dialogue on the topic in a much more expansive (if not necessarily in a more intelligent) manner than could have occurred offline.

So yes, social media does offer a unique sort of freedom to all of us. How society ends up using the freedom, well, only time will tell. But it will be interesting to see how it evolves!

Freedom at last: implications for communication/relationship management

For communicators, social media offers wonderful opportunities to share information, enhance reputations and build relationships. And it can help mitigate the impact of crises, through issue identification, conversation monitoring, information sharing and having 3rd party advocates assist in the application of social proof.

Of course, when it comes to crises, social media has made worse many an organisational crisis, too, due to the number of people who can very quickly pick up on a piece of information (or disinformation, as the case may be) and share it.

Another major challenge for communicators are the proliferation of social media platforms which can be utilised. And it’s not one size fits all. One piece of information articulated in the same way cannot simply be replicated across all platforms.

All this interaction requires not just strategic insights, technical skills and creativity, but increased budget.

The many opportunities for expression social media and digital offers creates further new challenges. Video, photos, illustrations, software which makes and distorts all of this, with text being either bastardised into new forms or iterations of language or being superseded completely by digital’s current darling, video .

It’s tempting to accuse still images of dumbing down communication, with infographics being one manifestation. But that would be to deny a powerfully large thing we call the visual arts. Still, you have to wonder that whilst, yes, a picture is worth a thousand words, sometimes those ‘words’ may not make much sense.

Or, and here’s the killer, words may not be connected in a manner which the viewer is able to ‘decipher’ to give the words meaning.

Furthermore, the meaning audiences gain may not be the meaning intended. It is my belief words can be much more specific than images, both to capture the meaning and to customise the meaning in a manner more attuned to the individual’s ability and desire to decipher it.

Really, even at the best of times it’s hard to know to know whether social is a bane or a boost to professional communication. It’s certainly complicated it! And, as well all know, it ain’t going nowhere, so best we figure out excellent solutions and be ever open to a rapid evolution to the approaches we choose to take.

Where have you seen, or experienced, the impact which social media’s freedom characteristic has had on public relations or marketing? Where do you feel the freedom dimension is helpful or a hindrance to professional communication? Have you observed where the nanny state mindset is being applied to social media (apart from China!)?

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Public relations generating excellent qualitative market research

Qualitative market research is a public relations and marketing professional’s best friend. It provides evidence and insights which inform communication strategies. It identifies issues and content to be addressed or included. And because the generation of qual is also an iterative, exploratory process, when an excellent researcher is interacting with the interviewee, the information gained can become very profound and useful.

PR discovering insights through qual research

Whilst it is generally professional market researchers who undertake qual, public relations professionals themselves also have the capability to step up to the plate in a most effective manner. This is because the best PR professionals are excellent interviewers. They need to have this skill because they need to be very good writers and to be a very good writer you need to be a very good interviewer.

Another benefit of a PR professional undertaking qual is they are actually applying the market research findings within the strategy they are formulating. Even if they are not the PR pro applying the research findings, they are wearing a PR strategy hat, so will be constantly thinking how they can use the information and insights gained within a potential communication strategy.

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As the strategy formulation is probably the reason the research is being undertaken, the nature of the questioning will be driven by this awareness. Therefore the questions will go down paths which only a communication strategist will have in their mindset. It will enable a richer amount of information to be generated which will be of greater use to whoever is actually undertaking strategy formulation.

PR leader’s think like market researchers

A public relations professional will be neither excellent or an effective strategist, either, unless the qual research mentality is inherent within their approach.

This manifests itself in the most prosaic of ways – the need to always ask: why?

  • It is the PR leader’s task to be forensic in their examination of an organisation’s rationale for suggesting a specific approach to communication
  • It is their role to challenge accepted orthodoxies
  • It is their role to mine for insights, either to enrich, to reinforce or ascertain new and valuable insights to aid in an organisation achieving its objectives.

Empathy is critical to public relations

Public relations professionals need to be experts on empathy – understanding, and even predicting, the opinions, rationales and feelings of others before they even recognise them themselves.

This is because two-way symmetrical communication and its mixed-motive model have made it clear the only way for organisations to create meaningful, sustainable relationships with stakeholders is to understand them and bend at least somewhat to their wills. Public relations are the kings and queens of this mindset.

Empathy, it goes without saying, is fundamental to effective qual research. The interviewee needs to be put at ease, they need to feel they are being heard, they need to be asked questions which lead them to the heart of what is important to them (once again, without them even realising this is case much of the time).

Curiosity and intuition within public relations and market research

Other attributes any excellent PR pro will possess are curiosity and intuition.

Without possessing genuine curiosity in an issue and in people, the interviewer will not cut the mustard. Whether it is in PR or in qual market research. It will not enable the ‘humanity’ gene to kick in. The interviewer will remain an observer, rather than becoming a participant in the process of discovery. Without this trait he or she will not truly understand the person and where they are coming from.

A lateral manifestation of curiosity is intuition. This is interesting, because qual research is an obvious sister to the very useful quantitative research, this being the sister that is more clinical and the provider of hard statistics. Both are vastly valuable to the public relations and marketing professional.

Yet quant is more black and white, whereas qual takes into more of a grey area. An area where intuition has its place in helping to explore issues and points of view which are not entirely clear, nor do they have a necessarily clear or rational explanation. Intuition, therefore, can lead a skilled interviewer down a path with no immediately apparent return on investment, yet some startling insight or finding might prove the worth of this dialogic diversion.

Undertaking qual research during a communication program provides valuable feedback on how the program might be refined to help it achieve a greater degree of success.

Undertaking the qual after a program is complete helps an organisation prepare for next steps, especially through the identification of issues and content which can enrich future communication to generate more compelling content and achieve greater buy-in.

PR leading market research

PR strategy leaders will have, over the years, been exposed to and/or commissioned market research programs. A familiarity with market research processes helps educate the practitioner.

As they examine the methodology applied, as they review and refine the sort of questions which are asked, the topics which are addressed and the results of the research, they become increasingly educated and competent in the craft.

Unless they have been in such a market research leadership position, I don’t consider them educated to a sufficiently high level to actually implement a qual market research program personally.

They may still be very good interviewers, however – but this may be a factor to consider when commissioning a PR pro to undertake a qual market research program.

I should say none of this is to say market research professionals are not excellent at their qual research jobs. Most of the time they will definitely be better than PR professionals. Only a very few of the latter will be effective enough to match the market researchers’ skill sets and effectiveness.

But there are certainly benefits to considering certain PR pros in undertaking formal qual research tasks. It happens pretty frequently, though I’m the first to admit I’ve seen some PR pro versions of it I don’t rate highly.

Qualitative research obviously complements quantitative, with the former providing more profound intelligence on how a target audience, or those with an interest in an organisation, are thinking. Qual research, therefore, is of great value to the strategic approach organisations apply to communication.

Have you undertaken qual market research programs yourself? What sort of value did you gain for your organisation in the process? What did you learn? Did it help in your strategy formulation? Where have you seen qual market research programs fall down and do you have examples of where their findings helped your communication strategy and business outcomes?

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Direct marketing and employees as brand ambassadors using LinkedIn

The direct marketing power of LinkedIn is partially driven by its customised databases, the influence 3rd party credibility provides, the extra oomph an organisation can gain by using its employees’ profiles and its excellence as a thought leadership platform.

Employees are powerful brand ambassadors

Company pages on LinkedIn provide an additional means for organisations to leverage their presence on the platform. They enable the business personas of individuals to boost a company’s profile.

LinkedIn is a B2B social marketing platform without peer:

But do you agree? Please share your thoughts in the comments section of this post.

These thoughts are in addition to previous discussions on the communication strategy behind using LinkedIn, as well as its market research and professional networking tactical capabilities.

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Using employees as brand ambassadors on LinkedIn

How may organisations, I wonder, really use their employees effectively as advocates on LinkedIn? Very few, I suspect.

Of course, you need to have a thought leadership platform to promote, such as a blog featuring helpful insights and advice, to make this an exercise likely to be able to be sustained, but still…

According to LinkedIn itself, employees are 70% more likely to engage with their company’s status updates, thus helping spread the message across LinkedIn, with mornings being the best time to post these updates. That makes for powerful marketing. And it’s not hard to do:

  • Set up a company blog; post insights and advice
  • The company places a summary of the post on its company page with a link to it
  • An email is sent company-wide to let employees know of the post and encouraging them to read it and share to their contacts via LinkedIn etc.

Doing this will ultimately make a significant difference – directly and indirectly, via SEO for instance – to how easily this company blog content is found and read on the internet. There is NO company which will not benefit from undertaking this approach and it is so simple it is ridiculous.

Let’s not forget, Peter Paul and Mary, that after word of mouth recommendations from people we trust, the next most influential form of communication is how highly a service or product ranks on Google searches. This is supported by the power of social proof that comes from visiting a blog page and seeing it has been shared hundreds if not thousands of times.

Why aren’t we all doing this?? Well, actually maybe many of us are, as recent research has pointed out LinkedIn is the most popular social media channel for sharing content organisations produce.

Public relations uses for LinkedIn Company pages

Any organisation serious about leveraging LinkedIn or utilising it in a truly strategic (i.e. holistic) manner will have a LinkedIn company page and will populate it with information, including thought leadership and curated content.

Often, content links will reach back to discussions in LinkedIn groups, but so will they simply link externally. It seems fair to assume people who follow a company page are very serious about the company and, in the main, are probably advocates of the company or, at the very least, strong supporters of it.

As per web best practice, photos and videos should be posted to the company page, but sparingly, to enhance interest and engagement. According to LinkedIn, company page status updates with links result in 45% higher engagement than updates without links. This is in line with findings about Tweets, too, so clearly people like having sources of information to refer to.

And as with any social media platform, you need to have a content calendar, no matter how formal or informal, and as part of this you need to post updates regularly. How regular is a moot point and will be different for each organisation, but twice a week at a minimum seems sensible to me. The response to different sorts of content and the timings of it needs to be reviewed periodically and the content strategy adjusted accordingly to optimise results and ROI.

Part of this calendar should be based on the obvious presumption that sharing the content of those who you want to influence or become best business buddies with will help enamour you to them:

  • It might help you open up a dialogue with a potential customer
  • It might help enhance the relationship you have with a current customer, thus growing your business with them
  • It might help create a more positive relationship with an influencer on customers and potential customers, thus making them more ripe for a direct sales pitch from your organisation and/or make them more likely to reach out to you for support.

Personal LinkedIn pages as promotional platforms

I have noted on a number of occasions the power of using employees’ LinkedIn profile as a means to increase the impact of using this platform for organisational strategic communication. It will serve organisations well to remember, however, people’s social media real estate – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs etc – is their own personal property.

An individual’s social media real estate is not owned by a person’s employer or clients. It is entirely up to the individual whether they want to use their ‘real estate’ to help their employers. Personally, I use Facebook for personal use and won’t Like, for instance, a posting on Facebook simply because it’s a work priority. I would only do so if it has personal resonance for me.

In the context of LinkedIn, however, I am more than happy to share if not all, then many, posts of relevance to work. I still, however, reserve the right to evaluate each piece of information and pass judgement on it before I share. Employers should be pleased with this approach, as it does two things:

  • It definitely enhances the uniqueness and individuality  of the person who is sharing information thought their social media platforms
  • It, um, hopefully anyway, provides a qualitative filter to the information they share, making their real estate (and them) more credible.

Where do you think the line should be drawn in using personal social media real estate for employers’ purposes? Is LinkedIn different to Facebook in this regard? Have you seen organisations effectively use their employees for LinkedIn marketing purposes? How do you think the tactical communication approaches discussed in this post and its preceding ones could be improved upon?

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