Over two decades ago, my late husband said sign up to ‘Friends Reunited’, you’ll enjoy it. Unfortunately, I’d misheard. I went online to Friends United which was a Swingers Club. I wondered if this is really what social networking meant? After a few weeks of awkwardness, we realised the misunderstanding. 

When our PR agency Firefly was born, I could not have imagined the mere existence of social media, let alone the impact it would have. Fast-forward to today and social media is not only dominating the world around us but playing an active role in the comms world too. From the first days of sites like Friends Reunited, social media is now capable of helping people start businesses, helping to drive revenue and humanise brands. But in line with these positives, social media also has a darker side of skewed political influence and spreading misinformation.

Does social media actually have too much power and influence?

Many claim that social media currently holds too much power and influence. Some would argue that social media’s ability to self-regulate elevates this sense of power. Twitter recently started to ban users for hateful content, and some claimed this to be a violation of freedom of expression. As a private body, with its own rules and regulations, Twitter is perfectly within its rights to set conditions within its own ecosystem – but when there are more people on Twitter than living in the US, do social networks need different rules?

Furthermore, does this mean that they have too much power over our ability to speak freely? In short, no. Not only is Twitter’s hateful speech policy in line with the official hateful incidents criteria, but the decision is also legally sound. According to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, legal immunity is granted to online platforms protecting them from liability for their users’ posts. This allows them to moderate users’ content without being treated as a publisher.

However, in terms of influence, social media quite clearly dominates. The average person in Europe will spend around 75 minutes a day on social media and lockdown has most likely increased this. With Instagram influencers encouraging people to buy products or services, Facebook allowing misinformation to be published regarding big issues like voting and coronavirus, and the recent emergence of cancel culture, social media is a very powerful and influential place to be right now – and this is both a brilliant and a terrible thing.  

What does this mean for comms?

Whether or not social media has too much power and influence, it is not going away and it’s going to continue to make a huge impact on the world around us, especially within PR and comms. The boom of social media has made comms a much more challenging environment, but it has also opened a world of opportunities, both good and bad. If something catches the attention of the right people on social media, it can spread like wildfire. This is brilliant if you’re trying to promote a campaign, and terrible if one of your spokespeople has commented on a contentious issue and there’s been backlash. The smallest move can amplify or destroy reputations in a matter of minutes, so preparing for all situations is key.

And to put this in context, this primacy is no different to the time when the UK had just four television channels. Advertising on just one channel could easily garner the reach of a huge proportion of the population – the only difference is that social media is global, and unlike television adverts, has relatively little regulation compared to its power.  

On the flip side, getting the attention of audiences is even more difficult. You aren’t just battling with other companies for a share of voice in your market, you are battling with the rest of the world talking about these topics too. This means that content needs to stand out more than ever, it needs to have that competitive edge and needs to be tied into something relevant.

Furthermore, communicating on your client’s ethical and political standings is so important now. Staying silent in troublesome times can be just as damaging as taking risks on making statements. These are the things that really matter, especially to younger generations. Millennials, in particular, believe that businesses should mainly focus on producing high-quality products and improving society. Communicating about company ethics can seem daunting but staying silent can be even more damaging – of course, it is essential to live up to the statements and do something too! In the long run, taking the plunge can also help to build a company’s reputation in line with its purpose. 

Top tips for utilising social media in your comms programme

Social media has undoubtedly gone from a nice-to-have to a business necessity. But it can be both a blessing and a curse for comms programmes, and to ensure you are prepared for both possibilities, here are a few things you can do to make the most of social media.

  • Embrace change and try something new – The world is changing, and you shouldn’t be afraid to change with it. Even if your previous approach to comms was seemingly perfect, staying ahead of the times and capitalising on the power of social media is key to increase reach, stay relevant, and ensure you are always developing.
  • Choose your channel – If you’re targeting consumers, understand your audience demographic and choose your channel carefully. TikTok and Instagram are great for reaching younger audiences, whereas Facebook is better for over 30’s. If you’re looking for professionals, LinkedIn is the network of choice in the UK, with Xing climbing fast in Germany, for example.
  • Always have a crisis plan to fall back on – One word out of place can land you in some pretty hot water, so ensure that you have a crisis plan in place for when situations may go wrong. Part of this will include media training any spokespeople before they begin posting on a social platform.
  • Ensure coverage is shared on social channels – Especially for great hits, social media is a great way to reach more people – and with paid social, you can even target the right kind of audiences, significantly amplifying the impact of the coverage. 

Social media can be scary and right now, it can feel like it has too much power and influence. But not jumping on the trend could be a terrible decision further down the line. Securing a social presence will be key to companies doing well and can work as a tool to increase the reputation of both brands and individuals.

It’s worth mentioning that in researching this piece, I was googling Friends Reunited and also Friends United swingers club, both since closed. However, at that precise moment, having been on my own all day, someone walked in behind me and saw my search for a swingers club. “It was research for a blog post” I pleaded to deaf ears as they stumbled away laughing hysterically. So, the curse of my misunderstanding lives on, 20 years later.  

Agility, adaptability, ability to pivot, the age of disruption… anyone else seeing these words and phrases in constant use? I mean, they’ve been buzzwords for a long time, but COVID-19 has meant that people in marketing can’t go a week – a day, even – without hearing or reading these words.

But in fairness to all those who utter them, and despite us becoming deaf to them due to overuse, you can’t deny that it’s a disruptive time for every organisation and there is a real need to be agile, adapt and possibly pivot.

For the comms world, 2020 plans have been redrafted, maybe redrafted again, some parts pushed back, some brought forward, no doubt some curve balls in there too. When in crisis mode, it’s all rush rush, but what about after? How do we go back to some version of normality?

Autumn is a classic time for planning and Claire just recently gave great advice on planning – it’s an essential read for those in PR and comms. I’d like to follow with my thoughts on re-thinking ways of working and equipping your team and/or agency to finish 2020 on a high note, and face 2021 in a strong position.

Collaboration in bursts

We’re used to sitting in meetings to plan out a whole year, but this is difficult when it’s so hard to see what’s ahead. For some people who pride themselves on being organised in advance, this could mean a big change in how they work – and it might feel uncomfortable at first. It is important to understand the general direction, so know your destination and broadly the key stages you need to reach to get there. But there’s no use in setting out lots of details upfront, because all industries are changing at speed and you may find that all the planning time goes to waste. It’s better to regroup more frequently in shorter bursts – maybe quarterly, or around core comms campaigns – whichever suits your organisation. And in a shorter planning cycle –there’s even more of a need to set out realistic timelines.

Real-time visibility

It’s easy these days to have real-time visibility on comms campaigns. There are many tools and project management technologies that enable this transparency – like Basecamp, Trello, even Google docs. Having this is great, but it’s what you do with it that counts. Seeing a comms campaign roll-out in real-time means you can course-correct or find more ways to optimise in the moment, rather than wait for it to end before realising it had more potential. For example, a whitepaper may be flying on LinkedIn and not getting the engagement through direct marketing channels, in which case it may be worth pumping more resources into LinkedIn to make it go that much further. 

Set guidelines for manoeuvrability

We believe in being as self-sufficient as possible – that’s how things get done, and fast! To do this right, everyone must be clear on the ‘rules’. For example, you may run comms in multiple countries, so how strict are your localisation rules – does a comms team in France have the flexibility to re-write copy keeping the essence of the original content, or should they largely translate and localise only where needed? These pre-set guidelines mean that your comms team is able to plough on and get more done, rather than asking permission…or worse, waiting for instruction! Essentially, you’re making efficiencies by avoiding hesitation. 

Faster feed of knowledge

It’s important for everyone on a comms team to be completely up-to-speed on the market, products, services, the business… everything. That knowledge means that comms is clearer and on point, and often sparks new ideas and approaches. And this knowledge comes from multiple sources – internally and externally – through videos, articles, other people’s expertise, online courses, books, events, podcasts…the list goes on. But as well as the comms team having a mentality to always seek knowledge, they must be sharers. 

All these approaches give comms greater flexibility – both in facing challenges and seizing opportunities. Yes, yes, I know, I’m talking in buzz words again – but it’s true. Everything is moving faster, it’s ever-changing and working the ‘old way’ won’t cut it anymore.

What we know is that we cannot possibly think that the end of 2020 and 2021 will be ‘normal’ years, because they just won’t. So, instead of focussing of planning, focus on preparedness. 

Is it time to shape your reputation?

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