Advancing Reputations When Every Organization Is a Media Company

“Every company is a media company, to some degree.”

It’s a statement that was first attributed to CBS president Andrew Hayward, and its implications on organizations of all sizes have since grown to staggering proportions.

“The idea has proven to be rather provocative,” says Nancy Ruscheinski, president and COO of Edelman U.S. and chairman of Edelman Digital. “One of the seismic changes in the world of communications is that companies and organizations no longer have to filter their content and messages through the media; they have become media entities unto themselves. They have the means to distribute their own content and, arguably, to advance their own reputations through the [social media] channels that they choose.”

It’s that choice that makes or breaks organizations’ reputations, as the absence of a traditional media filter—a reporter, an editor, a journalistic standard—increases the likelihood of contracting the proverbial foot-in-mouth disease.

Likewise, taking the opposite approach—muzzling communications to avoid any missteps—precipitates equally, if not more, severe symptoms of reputational decline.

Just as detrimental as it can be to reputations, social media can also be the ultimate reputation enhancer.

“It amplifies everything you are doing, good and bad. Being able to harness the power of social media makes things very interesting for companies and organizations,” says David Liu, senior vice president and general manager, People Networks, AOL. “If you employ [certain] tactics and principles, it really becomes the center of your organization.”

It may become the center of your organization as Liu suggests, but that doesn’t mean the transition is easy—even for a company like AOL that grew up as an Internet-centric enterprise.

“We were the original social network, but it doesn’t mean much to say that today,” Liu says. “[The company] has been forced to evolve—sometimes kicking and screaming—into a new media company. It has been painful and exhilarating at the same time.”

What, then, can minimize the pain and maximize the benefits to a company’s reputation? It’s a question without a 100% complete answer, but the following best practices and considerations will at least help get communications executives off to a running start.

â–¶ Identify your organization’s differentiating factors, and work from there. “Real-time data and real-time communications—those are the things that people are really starting to invest in, so we’re beginning to open up the AIM community because we have such a viral and engaged network,” Liu says. “The differentiating factor between us and Twitter or Facebook is that we are all client-based, meant that we sit on your desktop. These [AIM and ICQ—instant messaging tools] are applications that users choose to download.”

â–¶ Find the universal application, and amplify it. “People will always find the most efficient way to use a technology, so we are launching a product that will allow users not only to communicate effectively one-on-one, but to broadcast that communication to their entire network,” Liu says. “For example, when the Centers for Disease Control has an announcement to make about the swine flu, we want to make them a certified buddy on users’ [AIM] buddy lists around the world. Then, updates can be sent in real time. We’re beginning to open up the social graph.”

â–¶ Make the customer the center of all marketing and communications efforts. They don’t call it consumer-generated media for nothing.

Today, not only is every company a media company; every person is a media channel. Communications executives need to engage them directly in permission-based interactions, where the benefit to the customer is always put before the benefit to the company.

“Social media offers a lot of strategy advantages, both to engage the public and to connect and attract the attention of key audiences. It allows us to extend the reach of our communications campaigns,” says Debbie Curtis-Magley, public relations manager at UPS. “Plus, we can turn someone who is unhappy with us into an advocate because we’ve demonstrated that we’re not a faceless organization.”

(For specific examples of social media initiatives used by UPS to enhance its reputation with various stakeholder groups, see sidebar.)

â–¶ Choose your battles, and your social media channels, wisely. All that said, though, it’s as important as ever to only engage in social media channels that complement both the brand identity and its target stakeholders. Experimenting a little bit with a lot of platforms will not only spread your resources too thin, it will introduce more reputational risks that you might not be prepared to handle.

As Denise Morrissey, online community manager for Toyota, said in the ENGAGEMENTdb report released last month by Wetpaint and Altimeter Group, “If you are going to engage [in social media], you have to have a plan and make sure that resources are available, because you can’t gracefully exit. Once you’re in, you’re in. The days of walking away from a campaign are over.”

â–¶ Don’t slip back into old marketing habits. The customer-centric nature of successful marketing today means that any accidental merging of traditional and social media approaches will muddy the waters significantly.

“Marketing today through social media is completely different, but the economics are so much more in our favor now. You don’t have to scale based on a discrete marketing budget, and you don’t have to scale messaging to consumers based on traditional means,” Liu says. “It doesn’t matter where we’ve been. It matters where we are today, and where we’re going.”


Nancy Ruscheinski, nancy.ruscheinski@edelman; Debbie Curtis-Magley,; Denise Morrissey,