With the advent of Cloud computing, the public relations industry has found ways to adapt and creatively leverage new forms of communication and Cloud-based services – namely, social media and networking tools. But what’s the best way to use these Cloud-based tools for your company’s PR campaigns? How do you weigh the risks with the rewards? Recently, my article, Social Media PR, a Balancing Act, was featured in the premiere issue of Cloud Magazine, a professional cloud computing resource for small and medium business leaders, discussing this very topic. Check it out…
Social Media PR, a Balancing Act
by Meredith L. Eaton
With the advent of Cloud computing, the public relations industry has found ways to adapt and creatively leverage new forms of communication and Cloud-based services. Micro-blogging sites like Twitter and social networks like Facebook and Google+ have exposed new ways to disseminate content, increase awareness and engage with target audience groups. By capitalizing on such opportunities through PR initiatives, companies have been able to increase their exposure in desired markets in much shorter time frames. However, as with any major trend or development, there is a learning curve and certain risks that need to be taken into account. The use of PR in the Cloud, therefore, becomes a balancing act between the risks and rewards.
Power to the Masses – A significant risk for companies incorporating PR strategies, using Cloud-based platforms like Twitter and Facebook, is that it brings power to the masses. Now everyone and anyone can comment on your company’s activity, whether good or bad. Managing a respected online presence can often be a challenge since it’s impossible to please everyone all of the time. By employing online services, you open yourself up to the thoughts and opinions of the public – something Chapstick learned all too well last October when they tried to handle negative Facebook comments to their new ad campaign and were subsequently ridiculed for deleting their fans’ comments.
Employing social networking sites is not only risky because it empowers the public, but it’s also risky to empower corporate employees. With social media, each staff member instantly becomes a voice for the company. This presents a challenge in terms of monitoring and regulating social activity. For Kenneth Cole, this backfired when they issued a tweet that was resoundingly considered politically incorrect and in poor taste. The tweet read, “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online at http://bit.ly/KCairo -KC.”
Giving power to employees to make public statements, however casual the medium may seem, also gives them tremendous responsibility and accountability for their own judgment. When judged incorrectly, as evidenced by the infamous Kenneth Cole tweet, it can be the ultimate PR nightmare for any company.
Instant Backlash – If an inaccurate or potentially damaging message is sent via a site like Twitter, it’s only a matter of seconds before hundreds or thousands of people see it, share it and judge it. The rapid dissemination of content is one of the Cloud’s greatest benefits, until it comes to a mistake. As a result, companies should ensure their PR representatives exercise more caution when using the tools Cloud computing has enabled because of the unforgiving nature of the Internet.
As with the Chapstick and Kenneth Cole fiascos, it’s crucial for companies’ PR teams to have crisis communications plans in place to handle situations in the event they occur. No one ever thinks it will happen to them, but, when it inevitably does, it’s important to know what steps to take. Deleting the offending message will not suffice since it’s likely already been seen or shared and people will expect the company to own up to it and apologize, directly and sincerely to their followers via all possible channels.
Dedicated Presence – Establishing a presence on Cloud-based social sites is a great way for companies to interact directly with their user base, partners and prospects. In fact, Cone Communications reported that 93 percent of social media users believe a company should have a social media presence, and an astonishing 85 percent believe a company should not only be present, but also interact with its consumers via social media. While these numbers speak for themselves about the importance of social media, anyone who has ever attempted to maintain an active social media presence will tell you that it takes time – and lots of it.
Managing one Twitter account may be fine, but throw in Facebook, YouTube, Google+, LinkedIn, Quora, Flickr and a corporate blog, and you’ve got a huge task at hand. But, given that Cone found 56 percent of users feel both a stronger connection with and better served by companies when they can interact with them via social media, it may be well worth it. Nevertheless, this is a significant challenge for companies’ PR operations in the Cloud (especially as having a presence with irregular activity could be more detrimental to a company than having no presence at all as it shows a lack of commitment and engagement).
Instant Exposure – With modern, Cloud-based mediums, including Twitter and Facebook, if something newsworthy happens, people know about it seconds later. The days when a news announcement was physically mailed or faxed to a newspaper editor seem almost archaic compared with today’s ability to bring news to the masses instantaneously with the simple click of a button.
And, not only is this instant exposure possible, but people expect it. People have grown accustomed to near real-time updates on major happenings for the issues, brands and companies they follow. And, they expect it to come from every direction. After all, why search for news updates when social networking sites or services like Google Alerts can bring it right to you?
This instant exposure has greatly helped companies’ PR teams increase awareness of issues and news over a much shorter period of time. However, this also means that they need to have all their bases covered and use every medium possible to reach each segment of their audience. For instance, if some people prefer to get their news via Digg while others prefer LinkedIn, PR teams better ensure that both are updated regularly.
Thought Leadership – The growth in digital mediums from Cloud computing has, unfortunately, been accompanied by the decline of print publications, including daily newspapers and magazines. In fact, the Audit Bureau of Circulations has shown that the average weekday circulation for 635 newspapers dropped another 5 percent in 2010, following a 10.6 percent decrease the year before. As a result, the traditional role of journalist is becoming increasingly scarce as online publications turn to freelancers and other sources for content.
This has presented a tremendous opportunity for companies’ PR teams to submit contributed articles, commonly known as thought leadership pieces, which is a great way to be included in publications that may not have otherwise given mention to the company or product. While topics and copy must still be approved by the publication, contributed content ensures the issue being discussed is presented with the most advantageous angle and messaging to your company. Although potentially seen as less credible than if written from a third-party source, thought leadership pieces can help companies generate awareness on emerging industry trends, product use cases or even future market predictions.
Links – A big advantage of embracing online mediums is the incorporation of URLs. They direct readers to further information on a company, product or issue, and it’s as easy as inserting a link. Link sharing is one of the most common uses for social sites like Twitter and Facebook and is often responsible for content that goes viral and experiences widespread attention.
Not possible with print publications, linking gives companies another highly sought after component – good SEO (Search Engine Optimization). The more inbound links a company has going to its website increases the likelihood they will rank well in search engines like Google and Bing. Having a good ranking is key, especially as a recent study from Optify found that the top three results in a search get 58.4 percent of all clicks.
For companies’ public relations initiatives this is crucial, as online forums, social networking sites and even online article comment boxes present SEO opportunities. By contributing to the conversations in this manner and including a helpful link for more information, readers are directed back to a company’s website and another link is out in the Web sphere helping boost SEO. This is also a fundamental aspect of thought leadership pieces and all contributed content – including a link to give readers a source for more information about the authoring company.
Analytics – The measurement of a company’s PR campaign has always been a highly scrutinized aspect of the industry. With Cloud-based services like Google Analytics, however, showing the impact of public relations becomes a bit more manageable. For example, with such services, companies can analyze their website to see if they incurred a traffic spike around the same time as a big news announcement or well-placed article, thereby showing the effect of the corresponding PR effort.
Furthermore, as online articles now give people the ability to directly tweet, like or +1 the piece, companies can instantly see the reach of their content and how popular or impactful it was. Along these same lines, if companies use a link shortening service (usually free) like Bit.ly, they can track clicks and analyze how popular a link became over time.
Thanks to the Cloud, such services have significantly changed the way companies’ PR campaigns are evaluated. In the days of print publications, a company may know how many mailboxes a newspaper was delivered to, but, by looking at the number of times an article was tweeted or shared on Facebook, the company can essentially measure the “buzz” or “word-of-mouth” impact as well. Analytics have become crucial to the PR industry, but it’s still widely recognized that the majority of PR’s impact comes in intangible forms.
Many companies have been able to successfully leverage Cloud-based mediums, causing their PR efforts to go viral and receive widespread attention. While it’s often easiest to recognize such successful PR campaigns in commercial products or brands, like Old Spice, which saw website traffic increases of 900 percent at times thanks to their social media efforts, there have also been measureable success stories in the business world.
Take CerviLenz Inc., for instance. This medical device company is not a household name by any means, but it was still able to make an impact using Cloud-based social media tools during their launch. As Facebook seemed to be the platform of choice for the majority of the company’s target audience members – nurses and midwives at hospitals and other medical practices – CerviLenz launched a Facebook page with information about the company and product, including calls to “like” the page and interact with the company. With supplemental marketing activity at events and strategic advertising, the CerviLenz Facebook page garnered over 1,500 “likes” with more than 5,000 visits to the main “About” tab following this social media push. What’s more, the CerviLenz website received more than 10 percent of all its referrals from Facebook, second only to Google, and grew its target demographic fan base by 400 percent. The success of companies in the B2B space like CerviLenz may not seem as drastic as more consumer-focused campaigns or products, but, given the challenging nature of the industry, this is no trivial accomplishment.
For any industry, there are success stories that are bound to stand out. Whether it’s Domino’s successful social media campaign that grew profits by roughly $26 million, Dell’s Twitter push that produced a $3 million spike in sales, or even Scott Brown’s political social media savvy that helped him win an election, more and more success stories are being generated from Cloud-based social mediums with help from companies’ proactive PR campaigns.
BALANCING RISKS AND REWARDS
Cloud computing has helped many industries evolve and move away from legacy business models. And, for companies’ PR initiatives especially, the Cloud has been filled with opportunity. By learning how to manage the risks associated with the instantaneous nature of Cloud-based mediums or potential backlash from more widespread audiences, the Cloud can be leveraged to significantly improve the awareness and exposure of a business, as evidenced by the successful social media campaigns of companies like CerviLenz.
In order to ensure a successful campaign, however, it’s crucial to learn how to balance the risks of Cloud-based PR tactics with the rewards. The following three tips will help make sure your future initiatives won’t end in disaster like the Kenneth Cole and Chapstick campaigns, but have the viral success of companies like Dominos, Old Spice and Dell:
- Strategize– implementing a communications strategy helps reign in the power of Cloud-based tools, which can often feel unmanageable when more than a handful of people have control over posts, updates and general communication. While not wanting to limit people’s freedom of speech, there are certain rules and common sense practices that should be acknowledged when anyone becomes the “voice” of a company. Having a strategy in place that covers items including social media misuse, appropriate topics and public-facing responses is a vital component for keeping any company from falling subject to the risks of such tools.
- Regulate – regulating the massive amounts of potential, instant exposure and media attention from PR Cloud-based initiatives helps keep companies informed about what’s being said and who’s saying it. Whether such sentiments are positive or negative, from credible or novice sources, this allows prompt responses from company representatives to nip any issues in the bud while simultaneously portraying an active presence and gathering data for analytics. Along these lines, it’s also important to regulate employees according to the communications strategy to ensure effective and appropriate use of Cloud-based tools as a part of any PR campaign.
- Schedule – having a schedule of topics or updates helps manage the vast array of Cloud-based tools while maintaining a dedicated presence. Establishing a focus and timeline for issues, events or product features provides an organizational element to any Cloud-based PR campaign, so long as it’s flexible enough to accommodate current events or any imminent news items. This also helps ensure multiple types of content and updates are being distributed as it’s often easy to fall into a rut of only posting on one particular topic or product instead of actively engaging with social Cloud-based communities.
By keeping these tips in mind for balancing the risks and rewards of Cloud-based PR initiatives, companies will be able to direct their efforts more effectively without falling victim to the risks of using social tools like Facebook and Twitter. Implementing a PR campaign that capitalizes on the opportunities presented by Cloud-based tools empowers companies to significantly increase their reach and exposure in a given market, provided the risks are both recognized and monitored.
This article was first published in the February/March issue of Cloud Magazine. It may also be found on March Communications blog, PR Nonsense, by Meredith L. Eaton, and may be viewed here.