A Natural Marriage – CSR and Social Web

19 April 2010

The Conference Board of Canada is the matchmaker in a sensible marriage of two closely related concepts — corporate responsibility and social media.

A Conference Board event called CSR and Social Media is taking place in Toronto on May 13th. (I am the conference chair, but this is not about shilling for it. But do come.) I wanted to explain why I think a discussion of these two conjoint ideas just makes sense, and in any case the post will likely metamorphose into my introductory remarks.

Three ideas make the marriage of corporate responsibility and the social web work:

  • A readiness to identify, work with and listen to stakeholders should be at the core of corporate social responsibility strategies within organizations if they are to be influential, believed and trusted. Organizations which leave stakeholders out of their responsibility planning, actions and reporting are missing the most important program “element” . . . people who care about, can affect or can be affected by their actions.
  • The social web exists because people are, well, social. They will choose social exchange platforms in which they are listened to, have the possibility to question and observe, and have the potential to contribute. People become stakeholders of the conversations or dialogues (they’re different these two, but that’s for another more philosophical day) in which they participate.
  • The harmony of CSR and the social web around what I guess you could call ‘people dependency’ opens up interesting and worthy new ways to gather information and opinion about CSR performance (point of view mapping, open performance data rooms and online co-development of evaluation models) as well as to report on — and evaluate — progress on achieving targets and goals through quarterly online reporting on performance indicators which are open for comment (see Timberland).

There. . . I have set my expectations for what I hope at least some of the speakers will address. If they don’t, I get 15 minutes at the end of the conference to make my case anyway.

Agency Frustration

08 April 2010

Let’s be honest, most consultants have felt it at one time or another . . . the frustration of having your counsel questioned in a way that evidences a lack of respect for your experience and expertise.

It seldom happens with lawyers, accountants, physicians and probably management consultants with McKinsey and Company; but often with communications consultants, web designers, advertising copywriters and creative directors.

So, thanks to Dave Fleet for pointing to a little lighthearted push back (especially the penultimate sentence) at Agency Smackdown.

Be Careful How you Judge

19 March 2010

Thanks to a former colleague – Sharon Fernandes – for directing me to this YouTube video. Warning, though, you need to watch it all the way to the end to understand exactly what is going on. It’s less than three minutes long.

While the video is about book publishing, there are important lessons in it for anyone in an organization responsible for its interaction with customers, the public or communities . . . be careful how you judge what they value.


Wanted: More Community Managers

15 March 2010

Last week, I wrote a memo for a client that got me thinking about the role of online community managers and how crucial they can be to the success of any social media strategy.

I am more convinced than ever that successful social media strategies for organizations can’t be only about the creation of Facebook fan pages, organizational blogs or  outbound communications tools.

Social media are about interaction and relationship: A social media-focused program cannot therefore fundamentally be about the creation of social ‘objects’. It has to have at its center a commitment to reciprocal exchange, which starts from the four principles of dialogue introduced in William Isaacs’ book Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together; they are listening, suspending, respecting . . . then voicing.

Reciprocal exchange needs a platform it’s true. Social networks, photo and video sharing sites, blogs, microblogs and other digital amphitheatres are places where the distribution of ideas, messages or images can happen. But they aren’t the provenance of interaction: This belongs to people.

As  I wrote in that client memo, approaching communities and influencers from their point of view (as opposed to pushing corporate content) requires embedded interaction. And that interaction can be mediated successfully only if there is someone to start and participate in it . . . the community manager.

Jeremiah Owyang from Altimeter Group explained the role more than three years ago, but there is still little confidence in the central position of a community manager in an organization’s social media strategy. Confidence may be the wrong word: belief, commitment or understanding may all be closer to the truth. 

I can understand the problems some organizations will have with hiring an online community manager because it means an extra salary or at a minimum a redefinition of somebody’s job that this new role infers. But if you accept there is power in harnessing the energy of committed people — and their social graphs — to further your product strategy, service or cause, then giving someone the mandate to be your voice in online communities, to listen, share and help members of these communities just makes sense.

Journalists See Benefits to Social Media After All

24 February 2010

One of the surprising findings in the 2009 Middleberg/SNCR Survey of Media in the Wired World, along with such facts as 70 percent of journalists are using social networking sites for their work, is this:

More than 90 percent of journalists agree that new media and communications tools and technologies are enhancing journalism to some extent.

Instead of seeing social media as a leviathan destroying news rooms and enfeebling the quality of news reporting, they are recognizing that “Social media is changing the profession. It has enhanced the dialog between audience and writer and expanded the scope of those who can participate in disseminating news.”

Spot on . . .

Slightly Indecent Self-Promotion

18 February 2010

As best as I can recall, I have never used this blog to promote either my own consulting practice or that of my employer — the public relations and public affairs consultancy Hill & Knowlton. Forgive me, then, if I make an exception this one time with the reassurance I’ll return to my normal probity immediately afterwards.

Having spent 25 years or so providing counsel to organizations and companies on reputation and issues and crisis management, and seven years as head of the corporate communications practice for Hill & Knowlton Canada, effective this month I’ll be focusing almost exclusively on helping build H&K’s social media and digital communications business as practice leader. I will be working with a team that includes the inimitable dean (my description, not his) of social media in Canada — David Jones — the talented and creative Lynn Crymble, the Quebec digital communications luminary Michelle Sullivan and others in Ottawa, Calgary and Vancouver.

Although I am not, shall we say, in the demographic usually touted as the natural home for social networking, I recognized five years ago — about the time I began blogging — that social media and social computing are a rupture in the fabric of personal, political and business communications. For five years I have been proselytizing within my firm, on this blog, in classrooms, with clients and in speeches globally that the public relations business’ media relations, crisis management, government relations, product marketing and reputation enhancement and defence models of the past will over time have to be vigorously renewed if not replaced.

Rather than this belief remaining a passion, I now have the freedom, and the charge from our CEO, to help people more expert than me at H&K do something about it.

Yes, I can already hear some of the ’snark’ about me positioning myself as a ’self-styled social media expert’, which of course I am not.  As with any young discipline, there are people within social media consulting and writing in North America who are nasty, gossipy and narrow-minded especially when they feel others who aren’t part of the clan are pushing into their territory. I’ll ignore them because as Cato the Elder said “We cannot control the evil tongues of others; but a good life enables us to disregard them.”

My juiced up new focus will change the content of this blog only marginally. I will continue to write about the intangibles, but now through the more apparent filter of how social media can make things more tangible and persuasive.

Wish me luck.

Facebook and Twitter on a Tear

11 February 2010

Reading studies about trends in digital marketing is not how I prefer to spend leisure time. But they can be a nice counter balance to the time spent trying to convince organizations that social media are not going away (unlike mainstream media).

A comScore Inc. recap of digital marketing in 2009 in the U.S. released yesterday tells us, among other revealing findings (Would you have guessed that the largest growth rate in e-commerce in 2009 was in the purchase of books and magazines?), that people in the U.S. continue to flood to Facebook and Twitter, and to a lesser extent MySpace.

According to the study:

“Facebook grew substantially across nearly every performance metric in 2009. Unique visitors, page views, and total time spent all increased by a factor of two or more. Frequency metrics such as average minutes per usage day (up 6 percent) and average usage days per visitors (up 37 percent) also saw gains. As more people use Facebook more frequently, the site has grown to account for three times as much total time spent online as it did last year.”

Others with an analytic predisposition can deep dive into the charts and graphs in comScore’s study. Suffice to to say from my perspective this even more important than the huge numbers tossed around which compare Facebook’s 350 million or so users to the populations of various countries.

The numbers are telling us that people are coming to Facebook more often, spending more time there, and exploring the Facebook landscape more broadly.

As for Twitter, someone commented on a recent Tweet of mine which asked whether I should try to be funnier in my posts that I shouldn’t because it is a “business medium.”  The comment may have been justified a year ago given the demographic composition of users, but the change in the age of Twitter users (which now total 20 million in the U.S.) may bring that assumption in question:

“The initial success of Twitter was largely driven by users in the 25-54 year old age segment, which made up 65 percent of all visitors to the site in December 2008, with 18-24 year olds accounting for just 9 percent of visitors . . . Despite Twitter’s initially older skew, as it gained widespread popularity with the help of celebrity Tweeters and mainstream media coverage, younger users flooded to the site in large numbers, with those under the age 18 (up 6.2 percentage points) and 18-24 year olds (up 7.9 percentage points) representing the fastest growing demographic segments.”

There may be troubling questions about the options for monetizing these platforms so they can be sustained and about the ability best ways to harness online networks for marketing purposes, but there is clearly every reason to keep at it. These platforms are in increasing part of how the world plays out its relationships, idea and information excahgne, civic engagement and, yes, product and service research.

LISTEN UP: Four Reasons to Care about Social Communications

08 February 2010

The Economist, as it often does, sums up a business trend succinctly: In the introduction to its special report on social networking, its author argues “Lastly, it will contend that this is just the beginning of an exciting new era of global interconnectedness that will spread ideas and innovation around the world faster than ever before.”

If that is not reason enough, here are four other arguments for caring about social communications (For the contrarian perspective, you can always depend on Paul Seaman blogging at 21st Century PR Issues, who believes “Social media is looking less glossy after bruising encounters with business, personal and political reality”):

  1. Major brands are beginning to invest heavily in social media projects. Unless a company or organization creates a strategy based on an analysis of its readiness, balancing of the opportunities and risks, and designing a road map to social success it could easily be out-manoeuvred.  Although missing the point about Twitter, even venerable Procter & Gamble apparently has dozens of projects underway looking at how social media can benefit their marketing programs and reputation. If coldly sober P&G is taking social media’s measure, it’s evidence that this isn’t kids stuff.
  2. If you don’t listen to what bothers people about your organization, and don’t recognize how social communication has become the midwife for organized anger, you could easily be out-gunned by someone who doesn’t like you and knows how to use social networks and social communications to do something about it. This is simply the lucid logic of effective issue management playing out on a new battlefield.
  3. People are becoming hardwired to react, take advice, learn and challenge ideas differently. A whack of research studies have identified that the most trusted source or information for people today is someone like themselves. People find people like themselves in social networks. This is unlikely to change, even if the social networks or social communications infrastructure within which they seek the advice. Such an evolutionary reconstruction of culture is always hard to accept since it happens slowly and often finds itself questioned by short-sighted talking heads. But organizations who need a public license to operate should recognize that the zeitgeist of engagement is bending differently today.
  4. The marketing and corporate communications vocabulary in social media is also shifting, and some marketers insist on speaking the wrong language. An example: Marketers have slapped the social media concept of ‘engagement’ on top of their beloved ‘brand’ and come out with a concept called “engage with a brand”. Engage generally means to interact with or attract (It can also be defined as ‘to enter into combat with’). It is personal and reciprocal, and it is only wishful thinking when it comes to the relationship between a person and a product or company. Avoiding this type of awkward and alienating juxtaposition of a social communications reality with a marketing communications ambition happens when you recognize your word-stock doesn’t fit anymore.

I’ll leave the conclusion to David Carr writing about Twitter in the New York Times at the start of the year in an agreeable precis of the personal pleasure and business opportunities of social communications that is better than anything else on the subject I have read recently . . . “The most frequent objection to Twitter is a predictable one: ‘I don’t need to know someone is eating a donut right now.’ But if that someone is a serious user of Twitter, she or he might actually be eating the curmudgeon’s lunch, racing ahead with a clear, up-to-the-second picture of an increasingly connected, busy world.”

Social Media ‘Advocacy’

29 January 2010

Domino’s on a Roll

As a corporate reputation watcher, I like to find examples of new takes on traditional reputation building. Here’s one to watch at a website called pizzaturnaround.com. Domino’s Pizza, the unfortunate quarry in a legendary YouTube video, is now addressing criticisms of products in a series of videos in which it admits customer dissatisfaction with its pizza.

Rather than hide behind weasel words like ‘enhanced’ or ‘improved’, the company is changing its pizza recipes, from crust to sauce to cheese to find a combination its customers will find more appealing. Organizations whose reputations are in the toilet could learn from this ‘let’s be honest about what’s wrong and just fix it’ approach.

Political iPhone Apps

In Canada, we are well behind Americans in using social media as a political organizing and advocacy tool, largely as a result of differences in our political systems. In the U.S. individual senators and members of Congress aren’t subject to the party discipline which hampers independent thinking here in Canada.  The flip side is that in the U.S. politicians become the target of interest group pressure and popular advocacy, and the newest channels for pressure are social media.

Ian Capstick at MediaStyle singles out three political iPhone apps, at least two of which could be adapted for use in Canada. One is a complete contact list of members of Congress and their staffs and the other an application which allows users to see “if a brand they are about to purchase is – or is not – supportive of their community.”

Don’t block access to social media. Invest in a good policy instead.

27 January 2010

By Amanda Brewer, ABC

I presented yesterday to the Conference Board of Canada’s Council of Public Affairs Executives as part of a panel discussion on effective internal communications. My part focused on internal communications in the era of the wired worker and asked – how equipped are your employees to be guardians of your brand?

It is always interesting to learn how few companies actually have social media policies or guidelines in place, and how many continue to debate the range of access to social media tools or networking websites. Those conversations are always lively and illustrative because, as I pointed out, it doesn’t matter if your company is blocking access to facebook or personal email accounts. If employees have cell phones (and who doesn’t these days?), then facebook is accessible on just about every enabled phone, as is twitter and the internet. Phones have cameras and video-recording capacities, and with a quick link to youtube, anything can be uploaded and distributed in a matter of minutes.

The point being, that even if companies aren’t providing access to social media, employees have their own networks and don’t need a company’s computers to communicate.

This isn’t to say that since you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em and crank the gates open. What I am advocating for is the creation of social media policies that are easy to comprehend and clearly outline the responsiblities placed on every employee who enters into the space, whether as a representative of the company or on their own time. It is completely within a company’s rights to determine how their brand and reputation is discussed and to place restrictions on who can do so or what can be said.

The general feeling with yesterday’s group of seasoned executives is that the majority of employees are respectful when it comes to using social media. It would be egregious to think that it is not possible to use social media responsibly inside a company. However, it would be foolish not to have a policy in place that clearly outlines the rules of engagement and the consequences for not following them.

Just some food for thought!