Social media is death to dialogue (and public relations)

One of the great fallacies of social media is that it is a boon to dialogic communication (sic) and interactivity and, hence, public relations*. In actuality, it is characterised more by the viral compounding multiplication factor, which manifests itself through replicated sharing with minimal or no value adding.

Tsunami of fatuous social media information

This, essentially, defines social media as primarily a broadcast medium, rather than an interactive one. So instead of communicating WITH each other through social media, we are using it to communicate AT each other.

*Public relations cannot work unless there is dialogue embedded within it. Dialogue is fundamental to at least two key characteristics of PR. It provides the best possible means of:

  • understanding stakeholders’ positions on issues
  • manifesting empathy towards stakeholders (though of course behavioural change by the organisation illustrates the best sort of empathy-in-action!).

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So while social media should be a boon to enabling dialogue (and hence public relations) to be effectively implemented, it very often simply isn’t up to the task. Two reasons for social media evolving in this way could be:

  • the harnessing of social media by commercial interests as a means of marketing products and services (i.e. to sell stuff)
  • society’s predilection for using it as a means to brain dump inane chatter, thus clogging up the communication channel with so much junk people have, often, become inured to it as a credible means of gaining information and communicating WITH people.

Social media for cretinous commentary

It can be argued that simply by RTing ,sharing et al, online posted content is being injected with the sharer’s credibility and imprimatur, but that is still not the same as contributing to the dialogue. And it’s a very long bow indeed to pontificate that it’s remotely value-adding, either.

While we all are known to some degree for our position on certain issues, with this stance ostensibly casting a shadow or veil over the content which is being shared, without the value of explication this will rarely offer sufficient clarity on the sharer’s stance, especially to those who are more than one step of ‘separation’ from the person who originally e-articulated the content.

Social media is the lazy person’s means of making something known, too. A simple RTing means, ‘I don’t have to think much or add value as I’m letting the initial content do the intellectual heavy lifting’; I’ll just (hopefully) look smart through association. God knows I’ve been guilty of this myself often enough. And generally this just adds to the information noise out in the e-ther.

I raise my e-glass to the power of less!

Raillery as the missing e-ingredient

I say: forget the cursory upload or sharing of content which does not have value-adding integrated.

To echo the stupendously wonderful Robert Dessaix, we want raillery (light hearted criticism) to enliven the e-cosmos. Criticism can be negative, positive or neither – simply analytical and observational.

But raillery is analysis which makes you smile through its gentle teasing and play. I’d like to think it’s one of Australians’ better national characteristics.

Social media as Narcissus’s ‘mirror’

Another failure of social media is encapsulated in a further non-social media-specific observation of Dessaix’s, that of individuals within western civilisation’s tendency say what they think as a sort of “angry narcissism”, with people “locked within an endless loop of self- reflection”. E-narcissism anyone?

This is a good description of how social media is used as a mechanism through which tsunamis of fatuous, self absorbed information are paraded like trophies, when even to describe this information as the emperor’s new clothes is to overestimate its utility and resonance.
Dessaix classes this as “conversation avoidance”. Hardly the dialogic platform social media is meant to exemplify.
Dessaix has further implied, if not the death, then the traducing of the term ‘friendship’ by social media. Facebook, I cast the stone at thee. Facebook, the evil home of ‘friending’. where vague acquaintances are elevated to friends. The commoditisation of friendship.  Can social media go any lower?

Further, most social media-driven ‘additional’ commenting (hardly value-adding!) on the initial content is facile and/or solipsistic. Marginal, at best, from an interactivity and dialogue perspective.

Clearly, there will be resistance to some aspects of this social media rant! What are your thoughts? Have I underestimated the current value of social media to corporate communication/public relations? is social media more interactive than broadcast, as I define it to be in this post? Can you give examples to illustrate your point (which, clearly, I haven’t!)

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Saving the world – one cigarette at a time

It isn’t communication and public relations that will save the world; it’s what PR professionals have to work with – corporates’ social responsibility and business innovation.

Smoking kills

CVS Pharmacy is doing it by ditching cigarettes from their retail shelves. Chick-Fil-A and Starbucks are doing it through their stances on gay rights and sexual orientation. There are opportunities aplenty in the areas of resources (including energy) and waste.

Positive public relations from commercial and ethical foundations

On February 5, 2014, CVS Pharmacy (CVS Caremark), one of America’s largest pharma-retail companies, announced it will end the sale of tobacco products in its 7,600 stores come October, 2014.

This is a guest post by Adedamola Jayeola, who writes from Loyalist College in Ontario, Canada. Adedamola has written previously for this PR blog and brings a unique perspective and experiences to his observations, thanks in part to his Nigerian background, but also due to his global perspective.

Launching the move with the slogan “CVS quits for good,” company CEO, Larry J. Merlo said that “tobacco products have no place in a setting where healthcare is delivered and removing them from our pharmacies is the right thing to do.” This makes CVS the first pharmaceutical retailer of its size to chart such a course. As expected, the announcement received commendation from stakeholders such as the American Nurses Association, the American Medical Association and even the White House, to name a few.

This is not a step without consequences.

The company is projected to lose about two billion dollars in revenue (one percent of its estimated $120billion annual revenue) and significant ‘traffic’ from tobacco consumers, meaning further negative ‘knock on’ impact on the sale of other merchandise in the pharmacies.

Analyses will uncover different objectives for this decision, from the public health perspective proffered by the company, to business strategy (CVS Caremark plans to evolve from the retail model into a health care provider) or just “Great PR”, as described by Forbes.com and other industry watchers.

However, what is indisputable is that CVS is taking a stand, a definite one. Tobacco smoking is still dangerous to health and CVS wants to have nothing to do with it.

Taking a stand: fallacy or fact?

Do brands take stands now? Recently, some brands have brazenly expressed, or alluded to ,opinion on controversial issues, often dividing their audience into different schools of thought in the process.

The debate on gay rights and sexual orientation involving Chick-Fil-A, Starbucks and some brands in sports and entertainment come to mind. For-profit ventures now declare a corporate stand on sensitive topics, either as a matter of choice or in a move of strategy. Indifference as a business stance seems to be losing its appeal.

Not to be dismissive of socio-cultural or ethno-religious issues, I find CVS ending tobacco sale an action with greater impact. With consideration of health dynamics, morbidity as a sequel to tobacco usage will supersede individual orientations such as sexual preferences or proclivities. It is a matter of life first, before how you swing. No pun intended.

Applying conscience and commerciality to African enterprises

I had a chat with a colleague on the lesson(s) indigenous businesses (small, medium and large-scale) in Africa’s emerging economies can take from CVS. She gave me that “you cannot be serious” look which I (admittedly) saw coming.

The peculiarities of the business environments in some regions on the continent will make any brand think again before deciding to be a hero. According to the World Bank’s Doing Business Report of 2014, Nigeria and Kenya score 147 and 129 respectively (out of 189) in a ranking of “ease of doing business.” Suffice to say ,the regional average for Sub-Saharan Africa in this data is 142.

Behind any ‘sunny’ statistic positioning the continent as emergent are everyday challenges of infrastructure, finance and lately, security. For local businesses, these are real excuses to be indifferent and leave saving the world to super, cape-donning [and western-based? – Ed.] brands.

These handicaps notwithstanding, I believe Africa’s businesses can take a stand on some issues of global importance. Possible areas include:

  1. Energy: Nigeria (my home country) is still challenged in power production for domestic and industrial consumption. This forces many businesses to generate their own electricity, often through fossil-fuel powered engines. The downside of this is extreme air and noise pollution, especially in the commercial cities. Until power is fixed, brands that take a stand to Go Green on energy (solar, wind, etc.) either partially or totally, will reduce their own carbon footprint. The benefits for the society if there is industry-wide replication will be tremendous.
  2. Waste: Waste and energy share an interesting relationship. Public-Private-Partnerships (PPPs) on waste management are yielding success in cities such as Lagos and Accra. The progress can be made symmetrical if brands are active with sustainability initiatives (recycling, composting, etc.) or develop in-house eco-preservation projects that are strategically communicated.
  3. Resources: Specifically, raw materials that go into manufacturing or production. Issues and conflict from crude-oil exploration in Nigeria’s Niger Delta are legendary, but little attention is paid to other natural resources. For example, wood is an important raw material for industries such as art, tourism and furniture on the West African coast. Players in these industries can take a stand on preserving the earth through tree planting projects, or choose to adopt synthetic materials as substitutes for wood, if possible.

These suggestions are not unfamiliar and would fit somewhere in a corporate social responsibility (CSR) plan. Are they practical? Yes (though I admit this practicality is relative). For instance, in (1) and (3) three above, production costs may be involved, no matter how marginal.

So, here is the crux. Taking a stand will be a step beyond executing a CSR script. As earlier described, it will often come at an appreciable cost, even in the short-term. With pressure on Walgreen and other players in pharma-retail to tow the CVS line, credence is being lent to a radical, yet credible point of view:

the brand of the future cannot afford to only create value for profit, it must demonstrate values in itself. Strong values that may yet give our dying earth some hope.

Adedamola Jayeola writes from Loyalist College in Ontario, Canada. He’s online at www.adejay.com and@drjayecomms

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Cheerleading, customisation and storytelling: 3 pivotal axes of internal communication

Storytelling, the customisation of content and being an effective organisational cheerleader are critical axes of internal communication. Each of these are vital if we are to achieve internal communication nirvana: employees as an organisation’s number one brand advocate.

Communication nirvana

Customisation and target audiences in communication

As professional communicators we are always seeking to customise the message/content and the communication mechanisms/conduit to have the greatest impact on the target audience. In some ways, internal communication possesses greater challenges than external comms, as the target audience is often so small any significant expense cannot be justified on the basis of ROI.

This means, quite possibly, no grandiose launches, campaigns, gimmicks etc.

On the other hand, as interpersonal, face-to-face, leader-led communication is going to have the most impact almost every single time (internal comms or external comms), in theory internal comms should be much easier to get a result in than external comms.

Of course, this necessitates leadership buy-in and endorsement of the messaging and, without question, it means actively communicating this with teams, not just assuming they know it.

Other reasons why internal comms can hit some pretty big home runs these days includes:

  • Intranet – most employees will access the intranet on a daily basis. For employees in many organisations, when the browser is loaded up the intranet is right there in your face, making it the first port of call in work-related communication (not that this means all employees read its content, of course…)
  • Email – a very much abused and underestimated means of communication. How many times have you heard, well, if they don’t like it they can just delete it…? This is an attitude which contributes to the undermining of email as a useful communication mechanism (e.g. spam). The customisation of email lists can help alleviate this spamming attitude and make the communication approach relevant to as many employees as possible
  • Video – corporate communication teams are becoming increasingly adept at video production. Visual communication is a winner. ‘Moving picture’ visual communication is an even bigger winner. Simply extrapolate what’s driving social media usage into an internal context. No brainer, folks…
  • Photography – same as video, but less so, yet still extremely helpful in conveying information, giving a turbo boost to written and spoken communication and engaging with target audiences.

Don’t get me started on the laziness which can be exhibited by leaders when it comes to communication and the preference of many for images and video, however. The reliance some people have on visual communication poses the risk of subtlety, context and depth being lost in the communication mix.

I don’t think it is so much a symptom of the social media sharing age – i.e. images, video, punchlines with no narrative – as it is of information and responsibility overload. Quick wins and not taking responsibility for providing context and implications are bedevilling the competency of contemporary management.

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Storytelling for internal communication

Generating narratives with resonance and relevance for the entire organisation is a critical step in achieving:

  • an understanding of, and subscription to, the desired culture
  • an awareness of what the organisation actually does and why it is relevant to its external stakeholders
  • productivity and efficiency, including the outcome of employees staying longer at an organisation and so, therefore, reducing churn.

As a sage government relations expert ex-colleague of mine, Jason Froud, has said, “Culture is an amalgamation of stories.” An implication of this is that not every story has to resonate with every single employee, which is true. But for the bigger picture, the strategic direction if you will, to be clear to all employees there must be a common understanding of what the aspiration/objective of the organisation is.

It’s a paradox, but one which can be easily tolerated. The narratives relevant to only a few will often still have an approach, theme or sentiment which is encountered throughout multifarious stories. It could be something as uncomplicated (but important) as good customer service or telling the truth or having a positive attitude.

Good narratives help humanise an organisation, make it an entity which is people-driven and peoples’ values-driven, rather than one which is a corporate edifice and little else.

Internal public relations: always a cheerleader

The role of a communicator is by default that of a cheerleader. It is one of the terrific aspects of public relations; it focuses on the positive.

PR also identifies the potential negatives and develops approaches to help protect organisational reputation.

And the third, and potentially most important aspect of public relations is identifying perspectives and behaviours which are not aligned with the organisation, understanding this, then providing strategic counsel to the organisation which enables it to become more aligned with stakeholder (including employee) expectations. Ipso facto, changing the organisation, as well as changing stakeholders’ knowledge, opinions and behaviour.

The communicator needs to be careful when focusing on the positive that it is not being done in a manner which is so obvious as to be inane and saccharine-sweet. This could lead to literal, metaphorical and behavioural eye rolling – the actual undermining of organisational credibility rather than building it.

The other negative of focusing on the positive with a little too much gusto is if there is actually a seriously negative dimension to what is being discussed (e.g. redundancies, safety-related issues). This can lead to perceptions of spin or manipulation, which employees have a very sensitive nose for.

In fact, as employees are very intimate with an organisation’s business, it can be much more challenging dealing with some issues which require communication than in external comms.

One reason for this is the informal networks and relationships employees have across the business. It doesn’t take long for one piece of information to spread like wildfire through unofficial means. In many organisations, bosses will have strong relationships with those lower down the food chain than themselves, sharing information which shouldn’t really have been provided.

What is your experience in the use of video and imagery in internal communication – or even external for that matter? Is there a risk that context and fine detail is lost which then undermines the utility of the communication? How have you addressed the challenge of making storytelling relevant for the whole organisation when the stories can be particularly focused on one part of the business?

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