Managing Risk, Maximizing Results Part 1: Video Meets Social Media

The 1979 one-hit wonder from the British group "The Buggles" may claim that "video killed the radio star," but the medium's reputation fares better in the modern communications age. Video has made huge strides in enabling PR's online efforts to reach more audiences, to impact consumer habits, to interact with customers on a personal level and to bring their brands to life. But along with these pros comes a smorgasbord of challenges: * Allowing the general public to comment freely through videos they post online (courtesy of sites such as YouTube and MySpace) opens doors for denigrating messages that damage corporate reputations; * Videos posted on corporate Web sites can monopolize bandwidth, both enraging the IT department and increasing the likelihood that the site will crash; and * If the tone of the video isn't consistent with the corporate culture and brand identity, consumers will take note. Granted, this truncated laundry list of challenges and sand traps is intimidating, but communicators must embrace the online video craze as more than a trendy add-on; rather, it's becoming a necessary component of any PR portfolio. Video can take a more traditional media relations approach on corporate Web sites and in online newsrooms, or it can be incorporated into the Wild West of social networking and consumer-generated media platforms. In the first of a two-part series on managing the video landscape, this installment focuses on the rules and standards for surviving video as it applies to new media platforms (the short answer: there are no rules or standards). The Next Frontier "The buzzword right now is 'social networking,"' says Rob Minton, communications manager at General Motors. Southwest Airlines VP of PR Linda Rutherford seconds that notion, saying, "We live in a YouTube world. But by nature, the social media environment has no control mechanism." It's that lack of control that has PR professionals everywhere on edge about their inevitable entrée into social media. But it doesn't have to be an exercise in running the gauntlet and risking corporate decapitation; it's just a matter of having a strong brand identity and corporate culture that can stand up to the general public's critical eye. Just remember some key best practices. If You Are Posting... While YouTube and its cousins are driven by consumer-generated content, PR executives can still leverage their viral power by producing video that is for that specific audience. In other words, they can post instead of just being "posted about." Remember to: Focus on content. "[With videos intended for social media] you have to worry about content," says Tim Roberts, president of Wieck Media. "It has to be genuine content, and you have to make sure you don't have a bunch of flame-throwers out there blowing stuff up." The key word in this case is "genuine." There are too many companies that illustrate what not to do when it comes to posting video on social platforms, and the problem always originates with blatant disregard for genuine content that reinforces the brand. For example, Sony got busted for creating a fake YouTube video about its PlayStation Portable device. When customers realized the deception, they were enraged. In addition to avoiding untruthful content, it's essential to avoid blatant advertising. Companies should place videos on YouTube and similar sites that offer unique, "behind- the-scenes" content. If it's fitting for the corporate identity, the videos should be quirky and playful. Know your corporate culture. "It's the culture at the very top that trickles down. There is an absolute parallel between this and blogs," Roberts says. "It comes straight from the corporate culture, and every executive suite has a different view. It's the communicator's job to take that culture into consideration." A strong corporate culture that comes through in a video will stand up to potential criticism. That said, fabricating a corporate culture that fits into the YouTube environment but is completely different from the company as a whole, will backfire: Not only will the company be living a lie, but it also will cause an identity crisis of massive proportions. "Anyone can produce a piece of footage that is so funny that it goes right around the world," Robert Campbell, managing director of London-based production company Outsider TV, said in a recent BusinessWeek interview. "But to do that with a brand attached, consistently, is very difficult." If the corporate culture is strong, companies don't even need to worry about posting video on YouTube; they can trust customers to do it for them. Rutherford cites an example of one Southwest passenger who took footage of an impromptu ukulele performance by an airline employee attempting to entertain passengers during a delay. The passengers cheered, and the consumer-turned-video-producer subsequently posted the clip on YouTube. "We hire for attitude and train for skills," Rutherford says. "I can say those words, but that video speaks volumes." "When consumers who have experienced the product for themselves praise it, that's the top of the pyramid as far as credibility goes," Minton says. Know your industry. YouTube videos are not for the faint of heart, nor are they for every industry. Roberts reiterates that different industries have different sensitivities, so posting a video that was created especially for YouTube isn't always an option. If You Are Allowing Others To Post... Social media doesn't only encompass YouTube and MySpace-type platforms; it involves any opportunity for audiences to interact, and companies are catching on. By giving customers a platform for interacting with their brands, communications executives are leveraging the power of video in building community. But not all stories have happy endings. Ask consumers for their opinion, and you shall receive. But it might not always be flattering. So, when venturing into the great unknown, keep these points in mind to minimize risk: Know what you're getting into. "If you ask people to tell you what you think, be prepared for the good, the bad and the ugly," Minton says. "Be prepared for the amount of time and resources it could take to respond." That said, don't try to respond to every single criticism. There will always be people who want to stand on a soapbox and wax vitriolic about something; the communications team must filter through these videos to identify complaints that should be addressed. Monitor the space. Don't just look at the videos relevant to your company; see what is being said about your competitors. Doing so helps generate ideas for your own PR efforts. Besides, being aware is just a smart business practice. Be upfront. If you are inviting your target audience to make a video and post it on your Web site, or if you have a blog where video links can be posted without first being approved, you must be clear to everyone that it's impossible to be all things to all people. Discourage pernicious content, but don't outright outlaw it; otherwise, people will feel like the only way to be heard is to say something positive. And if you do choose to screen the video submissions before they are posted, be fair and balanced; include a few examples of constructive criticism to reiterate that you want to hear what consumers have to say. Above all, it's essential to remember that whether you are creating video for social media or allowing customers to post their own home videos, you are a communicator first. "You're still communicating, and that communication has to be relevant to the audience," Minton says. "As communicators, you better recognize that people watch TV and read newspapers and go to online chat rooms, and you have to factor that into the way you communicate." Contacts: Rob Minton,; Tim Roberts,; Linda Rutherford,

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