Don’t laugh; as recently as February of last year, this comment was still being uttered in my presence by some agency and brand executives. Call it digital marketing, social media marketing, social business or whatever the term du jour is, engaging customers, employees, and other stakeholders through digital and social channels – and through multiple devices – has become part of a business’s standard operating procedure. In fact, according the research conducted by Brian Solis and Charlene Li at Altimeter Group, during 2013, 78% of businesses have established a dedicated social media team.
At a minimum, most businesses have assigned or acquired an employee to act as their community manager. Others have hired agencies to manage their social engagement on their behalf or in conjunction with internal personnel. Larger firms – both B2B and B2C – are forming dedicated departments with “social media command centers” that are tasked with everything from monitoring and customer service, to market research, to sales and marketing.
The question: Who, exactly, makes up that team? Has the marketing team been reassigned? Or is it an amalgamation of various departments? The Altimiter Group discovered that there are 13 different departments across the average enterprise with at least one person dedicated to social media (skewed heavily towards the marketing department (73%)). Of course, we all know that social media efforts are rarely coordinated across those departments.
There’s lots of activity but few widely accepted best practices for creating these teams and who should lead them. A few months ago, I made a case for public relations professionals taking a leadership role in the social media marketing team or department. I argued that the communication skills required by social media marketers such as creating brand awareness, identifying influencers, and managing online reputation are the very skills that public relations professionals are taught and hone in their practices every day.
Case Study: Why your social media team should be PR professionals.
Today I want to share an experience Sensei has had with a client from whom we’ve created and manage a social media engagement and customer acquisition strategy. Recently, the client contacted our community manager, who we’ve dedicated to this account, with a late night emergency. It seems that one of their stakeholders posted a picture of a compromised product within a Facebook user group. He posted this picture asking the community if anyone else had experienced similar issues, and if so, to please post pictures or email details so that he could make a case to the business’s executive.
At the time, the picture and online conversation were limited to a small group of people and in one social channel only. If the image and conversation become part of the larger social conversation, our customer acquisition strategy could have be seriously compromised, which could negatively affect our ability to show a return on their investment in us and the program we had created.
Along with the client, our team went into crisis mode:
- Was there any truth to the story? Was it an isolated case?
- How widespread was the story? Who had seen it and what was the likelihood it would go viral?
- What quality assurance protocols were in place and when was the last time they were vetted? Did the QA process fail in this case?
- Has anyone contacted this person? Is there an official statement?
Anyone working with a PR agency would recognize these questions. They’re the questions that PR firms often plan for before such issues occur.
Social Media: A Mob-In-Waiting
Naturally, the client expressed some urgency in having us respond to this person in order to quash the potential negative impact on the brand and future sales. However, the one thing we’ve learned over the years that we’ve been managing such programs is to avoid knee-jerk reactions. Social media has created an environment where our communities are mobs-in-waiting. It’s a curious phenomenon: masses of people who are typically apathetic or members of the silent majority become vigilant activists online when their friends and colleagues sound the alarm.
Any statement – official or otherwise – from an official representative or employee of a brand, can be misinterpreted and become the focus of the story. In many cases, a poor response exacerbates the initial problem that most consumers – and media for that matter – would ignore. This is something we could not afford, which is why we train our team members to pre-plan for such occurrences.
Our assignment, similar to that of any social media marketing program, was to create a relationship with customers along the customer lifecycle (from awareness to purchase, and from purchase to advocacy) and, where possible, convert those prospects into customers using various influence marketing tactics. We were not hired to be their public relations team, which is what this situation required.
Thankfully, Sensei’s community management team includes an experienced, PR-trained group of communication professionals. They knew how to manage the client, how to not over-react in this situation, and how to respond to potentially brand-damaging issues. By quickly engaging the individual who made the negative post, the team was able to convert the brand detractor into a partner of the brand by inviting him in to identify and promote a solution that improved future QA processes. In such cases, the detractor’s tone changes from negativity to positivity.
Essentially, it defuses the wick that could explode a social media powder keg. Further, the detractor can be converted into a brand advocate who may become a powerful ally and influencer in our social media efforts.
We learned a long time ago that having PR-trained professionals on our team is critical in the development and management of social media marketing and community building. And when those people are not available, we hire or partner with top PR agencies who understand these principles, such as the multi-award winning firm Strategic Objectives.
A marketing or advertising firm doesn’t typically perform an analysis of potential issues or monitor for such issues. Most are monitoring for opportunities to broadcast the brand’s message or insert the brand voice into the conversation. Often, the goal is to convert sales, increase followers or drive earned media. All are worthy goals; however, within such a volatile environment, preparing for social media flash-mobs that could turn on you – and knowing how to respond quickly and effectively – is often overlooked or simply not a skill set marketers are trained for.
With another such experience in hand, we continue to hold firm in our position that, to be most effective, social media must be a PR-led and coordinated initiative. And our clients seem to be thankful.
Are PR-related influencer outreach, brand awareness, and crisis management practices simply supporting activities in the social media mix? Or should they lead the effort? Your thoughts – pro or con – are always welcomed.
Feed Your Community, Not Your Ego