Loosening control, not losing control

How social media is changing the shape of corporate communications departments

Has your organisation begun to use Twitter, LinkedIn and/or Facebook to engage beyond or within its boundaries? Is managing the content demands of social media tools proving challenging because most of your communications resources are still aligned with the traditional channels of public relations, marketing and advertising?

If the answer is ‘yes’, you are not alone. According to Burson-Marsteller’s Global Fortune 100 Social Media Study, 86 per cent of European-based Global Fortune 100 companies use at least one of four identified popular social media channels, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and RSS. In contrast, only 15 per cent of these companies used all four of them. Even correcting for industry and target audience-related skews in the data (B2C companies are more likely to engage via multiple channels than B2B companies), the general conclusion is that the integration of social media into the fabric of business communications is still a work-in-progress.

People like them

There is no denying traditional media outlets, be they print, broadcast or online, continue to have a large and diverse viewership, and by extension, remain an effective medium for broadly influencing a general audience. However, the much touted “person like me” is increasingly cited as the most trusted source of information across almost all consumer industries. Save for old-fashioned face-to-face word-of-mouth, no other medium brings consumers closer to “people like them” than online social networks. Communications managers cannot ignore the opportunity to use these channels to create deep, localised influence among specific audiences.

Managing social media as part of an integrated communications strategy means communications departments need to straddle the ostensibly conflicting identities of ‘gatekeeper’, whose primary role is to disseminate and defend a consistent corporate message, and ‘engager’, whose role is to ‘break down corporate walls’ through active dialogue with stakeholders – usually on their terms and according to the conventions of the social medium-in-question. In social media, where customers and other stakeholders expect authentic, open dialogue – and response times under 24 hours – the pared-down objective is to loosen control without losing control.

To do this, communications departments have to be resourced towards creating content that is of value to their audience, towards having staff familiar with the tools and norms of social media engagement and towards having frameworks and processes to regulate, track and assess outreach efforts throughout the media.

The best communications managers will be distinguished by their ability to exploit the media as a system. The majority of publishers now have a presence in online spaces where their readers are active. Journalists use social media to distribute and promote their own content but, most significantly, they are being influenced by social media. Apart from using it to keep up with the conversation, they are increasingly turning to social media to build their source files.

Influential bloggers, Twitterers and journalists often cross-pollinate. News that eventually makes it into the mainstream press can break in social media. Communications managers must understand how and where to seed messages in this system, must make intelligent predictions about how those messages will proliferate across different channels and must know where they can engage with particular segments and interest groups. This coupled with a consistent presence in social media will hopefully lead to establishing natural advocates whose conversation could help a brand’s message go viral.

Mental hurdle

The potential risks and rewards of social media usage for business objectives are amply illustrated by numerous prolific examples, such as Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign which galvanised voters, donors and volunteers to give him an overwhelming margin in the elections, and Nestle’s very public Facebook meltdown under pressure from Greenpeace supporters in March 2010. For most communications managers being initiated into this field, the perceived risks are great. The biggest mental hurdle to employing social media in a holistic way is a lack of familiarity with how it works both technically and in terms of interaction. A major component of any social media strategy is correctly combining content with platform and role, that is, knowing which networks or channels to engage on depending on the intended audience and knowing what to say and what your ‘right to play’ in that area is.

For example, drug marketing departments face the challenge of having access to many online disease-specific communities where their products are being discussed constantly, but they have to be extremely cautious about how they participate – even if it is to correct misperceptions or clarify side-effects – because consumers do not necessarily see them as impartial experts and there is a possibility of inadvertently delivering wrongful advice on patients’ unique medical conditions. Tonality and engagement style are also important in creating a favourable brand experience for social media-based customers. And crucially, in the borderless, crowded online space, content becomes truly strategic. In the wild realm of social media, high quality, on-brand content helps to exert some influence over the development of one’s brand message.

A common temptation is to recruit social media ingénues – purported ‘experts’ with active online profiles – or assign the function to the IT department. An ingénue can help to structure and infuse the communications team with enthusiasm for the medium but given the considerations laid out in the previous paragraph and the exponentially positive impact of putting out timely, audience-relevant blog content (or, needless to say, the exceedingly negative impact of a poorly conveyed Twitter or Facebook response), the optimal solution would be to employ existing communications staff members who are already experts on your brand and who are kept up to speed with social media environments through training and internal experimentation.

Easing the way

While the initial challenges can be eased somewhat by outsourcing to agencies, exemplary usage of social media for marketing purposes is usually found in-house. In some cases, social media engagement remains supervised by the communications department but can be executed by people in other specialisations within the organisation, including the CEO. The top-down model of traditional media communications, where the C-level executive dictates the message for the communications manager to synthesise and disseminate, is no longer a given. A large pharmaceuticals manufacturer I interviewed set up its own in-house training system that required employees to create and manage personal social media profiles on the company intranet as well as on public platforms.

Working through modular ‘assignments’, they were required to engage with colleagues and use the full gamut of web 2.0 tools to facilitate internal coordination and cross-functional collaboration. The CEO himself encouraged this practice by maintaining an active internal blog on corporate affairs. The result was a pool of subject-matter experts in different areas of the business, comfortable with the technologies and informed of the subtle codes of conduct of social media, ready to engage on the company’s behalf.

With the level of access to stakeholders that social media affords, the often neglected communications function, researching public attitudes, is taking centre stage once again. Media monitoring tools aid in distilling statistically-backed insights from online conversation. The volume of information and its potential relevance to multiple functions within the organisation means that the communications department must configure frameworks and processes to tailor ‘listening’ and engagement towards the requirements of disparate internal stakeholders like marketing, sales, customer care and research and development.

Where social media engagement is carried out under various areas of business or by other departments, the responsibility for internal advocacy, counsel and policy-setting lies in the hands of the communications department. Communications becomes a nexus for a multi-way relationship, feeding the organisation with customer insights gleaned from media monitoring, setting social media rules of engagement and directing overall social media strategy, including establishing performance measures. 

The challenges and opportunities presented by social media effectively expands the role of communications within an organisation. The dual necessities of presenting a consistent brand message and engaging in open dialogue have, in effect, made communications departments the arbiters of what is appropriate to discuss publicly, what not to discuss and what needs to be discussed with the organisation’s broader tactical and strategic goals in mind.  Depending on the scope of social media use, communications could become a key ally, watchdog and adviser to multiple functions in an organisation.

By resourcing departments with trained communications professionals or subject-area experts, communications managers boost the chances of publishing high quality content and engaging appropriately, thereby delivering and nurturing a well-crafted brand message. 

Soumitra Dutta

Soumitra Dutta is the Roland Berger Chaired Professor of Business and Technology at INSEAD. Based in Fontainebleau, France he specialises in social media, having written Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom (Wiley, 2008) on the impact of social media on communications and organisations. His research into artificial intelligence algorithms for making sense of social media have been used by firms including Fisheye Analytics.