Everyone who works in communications is aware of the massive role that social media plays in bringing in the professional communicator. Social media allows direct contact with your publics; making it easier to evaluate, in theory, and gives teams the opportunity to work across the business and to develop new skills.
But all of this comes with a few downsides. It has marked the death of office hours. You need specialists when many media teams are populated with generalists and at times it can seem that every citizen journalist having a voice is not ideal if you are looking for informed debate.
I facilitated discussions with 50 or so Communications Directors earlier this month on the impact of social media on the modern ‘press office’ at the Corporate Communications Director’s Forum. Three issues struck me as worth exploring.
Firstly the vast majority of delegates were not running communications functions in the traditional sense. They had remit over social media, internal communications and often the company’s web presence as well. This in turn meant that they were interacting with a number of other departments – sales, customer service and marketing – prior to the shift in responsibilities. This helped generate a better understanding of how the business operates and a realisation that many businesses – from hospitals to insurance companies – are becoming social businesses.
On a practical level this means that any gap between expectation and service reality generates a conversation that has to be managed. This highlights the importance of PR skills, to make sure that messages that spread across the organisation are clear, and also means that the skills we take for granted are needed in functions that have traditionally been opaque to the customer and stakeholder.
A number of the delegates had solved the problem of handling out of office hours social media comment by making it quite clear that they only operate between set hours. This may extend outside of office hours but they are not providing 24/7 coverage. This seemed to be a popular approach for financial services and UK based transport companies. For those that worked across time zones the use of a third party agency or provide cover was the most popular. Having said that, all of those in the discussions has 24/7 monitoring in place with agreed escalation procedures in place to ensure developing issues are addressed.
In some cases there was also the realisation that the most junior member of the team was running the company’s social media channels and that this meant that organisation’s reputation was effectively being managed by the least experienced team member out of office hours.
Lastly, there was unanimous agreement that Senior Management outside of the communications function believed that social media was cheaper than normal communications and did not require significant investment. Clearly, when you consider the round the clock nature of social media and its insatiable thirst for content in all forms this is far from the truth. After much discussion it was concluded that education was the answer to this issue. Once Senior Management were taken through the realities of how social media functions it became clear that this is not a low cost exercise.
The unexpected down side of this education process was an enthusiasm for senior managers and directors to start using social media channels themselves without heed to corporate positioning, tone of voice and messaging. The biggest issue being that the uneducated director found it difficult to grasp that tweets, Facebook posts and LinkedIn updates were not deletable in the traditional sense of the word!
In summary, communications teams are dealing with social media in a practical and pragmatic manner. But social media is having transformative effectives on business as a whole, much of which is still not understood and so plans are not in place to deal with it. As ever, communications teams have to fight their corner for the necessary budget to do a professional job. Maybe evaluation is the key to this particular issue, but that is topic for another day.