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.
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.
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