August 4, 2011
To all communicators, clients and employers: privacy is over.
If recent revelations about former Congressman Anthony Weiner and the rapid identification of the “kissing couple” in the midst of the Vancouver hockey riots haven’t convinced you that privacy is a thing of the past, maybe this passage from a June 20 New York Times article will:
“This erosion of anonymity is a product of pervasive social media services, cheap cell phone cameras, free photo and video Web hosts, and perhaps most importantly of all a change in people’s views about what ought to be public and what ought to be private.”
This change represents a potential crisis for our profession and for the clients it affects. As communicators, we have to take action.
Some progressive PR firms have already begun to adapt. Take GolinHarris for example. The firm recently set up social media monitoring centers called “The Bridge,” which the agency describes as “real-time storytelling centers.” Star Trek reference aside, it shows a serious attempt by a major firm to make sense of the communications chaos.
PR professionals must adjust to this changing communications environment. We need an in-depth understanding of these new tools, but more importantly, we must convince our clients that transparency has already happened, regardless of whether they chose to participate.
The Internet has a permanent memory. Once something is tweeted, posted or photographed and placed online, you can remove yourself and your company from every social media site on the Web — but others will still have the goods and can repost them at any time.
To assist clients and management in this risky communications milieu, we must remember the following:
Understand that you’ve already lost control — You cannot control the Internet, but you can manage it. Social media wisdom begins with the recognition that any one of your employees (or your clients’ employees) might expose you to risk. Consider Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier who provided thousands of damaging documents to Wikileaks.
Convince your management that they’re exposed — If your CEO or client leadership fails to understand this new reality, your leaders will eventually end up in a damaging post or headline. You need to know the intimate business details of a CEO’s career and private life if you expect to protect them. You must strive to become the ultimate insider for your company or client so that you can effectively defend their reputation.
De-emphasize traditional print and broadcast media — Newspapers, television and radio are now secondary sources of news. Even they get most of their content from the Internet. When pitching positive news or opinions, go to the primary source and attempt to influence there. Secondary media will amplify the content it gets from the digital community, so devote your attention to the source to have the most control over the message.
Monitor all social media and business activities – Follow GolinHarris’ lead and recognize that you’ll need to devote more resources, both financial and human, to keeping up with Internet-driven news cycles that unfold in minutes. It doesn’t matter if your client or company participates actively in social media; people are already talking about them. If you manage an agency or corporate team, arm your employees with smartphones or tablet devices and expect them to use them 24/7.
Aggressively tell your story – As your social media team engages in conversations, its members should know clients’ or companies’ communications strategies, including corporate values, messaging, culture and positioning. Otherwise, you run the risk of making a permanent error in a crisis or even during routine events.
Review crisis communications – The next Internet revelation could be about your company, your boss or your client. Arm yourself with crisis plans that focus on social media first and traditional media second.
The social media revolution also has significant economic implications for our profession. The tools of journalism and communication have been placed in the hands of everyone, and the resulting democratization of information has transformed our services into a commodity. As Dave Morgan, CEO of Simulmedia said in The New York Times, “Publicity … is no longer scarce.” And from Economics 101, we know that when something is plentiful, it’s a commodity.
What does this mean for companies and PR agencies? Unfortunately, it could mean higher operating expenses and eroding profits. It will cost plenty to protect reputation in this environment. Clients and corporations need small armies of social media tacticians to support their communications efforts. Can agencies recover these costs? That question will play out on a case-by-case basis with clients.
As an initial strategy for coping with this tsunami of change, I counsel my clients to start with a simple “self-publish and monitor” strategy. Set up a Facebook page, an SEO blog like Wordpress, a YouTube channel, a Twitter account and a website to distribute all new content automatically and broadly.
The initial online content you develop represents the only true control you have over messaging. This forms the foundation of your reputation and image.
Remember: what you post is permanent and widespread. If rumors or misinformation turn up about your company or client, then you can refer back to these sources. If your client or company operates in close alignment with its stated values and policies, then you’ll be on solid ground in public forums.
As the digital environment continues to change, we will have to learn as we go. In order to provide real value, we must anticipate evolving trends. Yet with so many variables, this proves more difficult than ever.
Despite these drastic shifts and the overwhelming amount of information surrounding us, the essential skill of modern communicators remains the same: good judgment. If you can stay current with change and use solid judgment, then you and your clients can defend your reputation and find new opportunities to enhance your brand.
Curtiss Olsen, APR is principal of CFO Communications, a San Francisco Bay Area firm specializing in strategic communications management. He is a past president of the PRSA San Francisco Chapter and is currently the Chapter’s Vice President-Finance. Tweet him at CFOPrincipal@twitter.com.
Email: curt at cfo-communications.com