How to Lose Friends & Alienate People: Refuse to Relinquish Control

Of the many reasons executives cite for being hesitant to fully embrace the power of digital communications channels, the fear of losing control is among the most frequent. But that's not to say that the same executives aren't pushing to incorporate these channels into their business plans. According to the results of a recent survey conducted by PR News and Peppercom, it's quite the opposite. Of the nearly 500 professionals who responded to the survey, the vast majority (87%) believes that digital platforms will play a more strategic marketing role in 2008 (for results, see page 2). However, the findings revealed some inconsistencies. For starters, despite the widespread belief that digital will play a more strategic role in 2008 marketing plans, the need for improving digital communications is currently a low priority in the overall marketing budget, with almost half of respondents saying that only 0-10% of allowance was allocated for digital tools in the last year. Only 8% believe that this number will increase significantly in the year to come. But enough with the numbers for a moment; the true pulse of digital communications can be taken by looking at what executives are (and aren't) doing to force these platforms into their overall business plan. Southwest Airlines remains a time-tested example of a company that opened itself up to risk, and reaped rewards (measured in reputational capital) accordingly. The list to date of their branded digital platforms is impressive: the "Nuts About Southwest" blog; the "Wanna Get Away" microsite; YouTube videos; a Facebook page; a Twitter application; and a presence on LinkedIn. (For a guide in the best content in the digital age, see sidebar on page 7.) Clearly, the Southwest execs have jumped on the bandwidth bandwagon--the key, though, was being willing to cede control to the audiences in that popular cyberspace. "Conversations are going to happen on other blogs and [social networks], so why not let it happen on your own site?" says Paula Berg, PR manager for Southwest. "You can't control it, but you can at least try to contain it." Berg is referring to Southwest's practices of allowing consumers to generate content on the company's sites, be it through blog posts, videos or general commentary. Rather than censoring remarks that are unkind or unpleasant, the communications team publishes everything, save for comments that are profane in any way. "Don't let unapproved comments go unposted or unaddressed," Berg says. "That undermines transparency." Indeed, transparency is the backbone of digital platforms, as consumers are quickly becoming immune to corporate speak; shallow pleasantries only raise more eyeballs and, in turn, alienate more people. In this vein, Ford highlights the following barriers to implementing a social media plan: A lack of commitment among senior management; A lack of best practices; and, A lack of leadership from marketing and PR firms in the digital space. *A cure for commitment-phobia: "With talk of a recession and growing competition in the digital space, companies are increasingly concerned with building a stronger digital presence," says Steve Cody, managing partner of Peppercom. "However, they are unwilling to allocate the resources necessary to have a stronger online presence." If this sounds familiar and commitment-phobic leadership teams are holding you back, boost management's confidence by offering examples of companies that have profited by taking a chance, a la Southwest. When the airline was considering abandoning its open-seating policy in favor of assigned seats, the CEO made the announcement on the blog. More than 700 people responded to voice their opinion, which, it turned out, was largely in favor of not changing the policy. This commentary strongly influenced executives' decision- making process by making them aware that, if it ain't broke, there's no need to fix it. *If at first you don't succeed ... "The majority of those surveyed are reacting to digital tactically but lack the necessary planning that is essential in creating a strong digital presence," Cody says in reference to the findings. "It is essential to learn from established best practices and the pitfalls of prior mistakes." While the pitfalls of prior mistakes are unique to each organization (and, hopefully, few and far between), there are a number of universal best practices: Transparency is critical: "Anyone marketing in the digital space must take great care to be completely open about their marketing initiatives and any other underlying circumstances which, if discovered by users without being made explicit by marketers, might appear dishonest," says Sam Ford, project manager for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Convergence Culture Consortium Program in Comparative Media Studies. Think dialogue, not monologue: Allow negative comments to be posted, and address them with a follow-up explanation. In Southwest's case, the airline's short booking window incited complaints from customers. The company's schedule planner posted an explanation, which was met with more negative commentary. This prompted execs to change their inventory policy. The change was explained in another post, and customers had the satisfaction of knowing that their voice was heard--and answered. Hire a babysitter: Every digital platform in your communications portfolio should have an owner who is responsible for updating content, managing commentary and monitoring consumers' reactions. The more platforms you have, the more supervisors you need; dumping the entire load on one person will lead to insufficient updates, unanswered comments and unaddressed complaints. Let it go: As Berg suggested, it's time to let go of your control issues, because consumers are going online and talking whether or not you're there. "The spread of online video cannot be tightly controlled by the company if you want it to be successful," Cody says. *Lead, follow or get out of the way: The third barrier--a lack of leadership among communicators themselves--might be the most difficult to remedy, as it involves changing characteristics that have been long imbedded into professionals' very beings. But sometimes leadership actually means getting out of the way and letting others do the work for you. Case in point: When an online video demonstrating the geyser-like chemical reaction that occurred when a Mentos breath mint was dropped into a two-liter bottle of Diet Coke surfaced, it went viral instantly. Mentos executives relished the free positive publicity, but Diet Coke representatives refused to stand behind the video, missing out on a golden opportunity to enhance the brand. "Pay close attention to how your product is being used by others, but don't let a prohibitionist stance kill a good branding opportunity that is user-generated," Cody says. PRN CONTACTS: Steve Cody,; Paula Berg,; Sam Ford, Digital PR: A 4-Minute Survey by PR News and Peppercom 1. Which of the following digital tools is your company currently using (check all that apply)? Blogs 27.7% Social Networks 21.9% Podcasts 18.1% Viral Videos 10.8% Wikis 9.1% None/Other 7.7% Sentiment Monitoring 4.7% 2. Which of the tools that you are not currently using do you plan to explore in the next 6-12 months (check all that apply)? Podcasts 20.8% Social Networks 18.5% Blogs 17.8% Viral Video 17.5% Wikis 14.6% Sentiment Monitoring 7.9% None/Other 2.9% 3. What is the main goal of your digital program (check all that apply)? Build/Enhance Reputation 31.6% Drive Sales 18.8% Keep Up With Competition 13.8% Testing/Experimenting 13.6% Internal Communication 12.0% Recruit/Retain Employees 6.3% Other 3.9% 4. How much of your overall marketing budget was allocated to digital tools in the last year? 1%-10% 36.1% Don't Know 22.6% 11%-25% 19.5% None 13.6% 26%-50% 3.9% 51% or more 3.9% No Response 0.4% 5. How much do you expect that number to change in the next year? Increase Slightly 35.5% Increase Somewhat 24.8% Don't Know 17.2% Stay the Same 12.5% Increase Significantly 7.6% Decrease Slightly 1.2% Decrease Somewhat 1.0% These findings are a follow-up to the survey preview, which appeared in the 03-03-08 issue of PR News. Learning The Four Cs At the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA) conference in Orlando, held March 5-7, 2008, the main theme was "Digital Changes Everything." For keynote speaker Anne Sweeney, co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney-ABC Television Group, content itself is still the starting point. She repeatedly drove home the point in her presentation that it's content, not just digital, that changes everything. "[Content] drives revenues, platforms, our brands and your messages," she said. "We've led the way into the digital revolution with great shows in great ways. We see huge potential on digital platforms because Disney Media Network reaches every media demographic." Sweeney offered four best practices--the "Four Cs," as she called them--for media practitioners to live by in the digital age. They can also be easily applied for PR professionals. Consumers Come First: Pay attention to your target audience, study the demographics: Who are they? From there, create a campaign that reflects their interests and goals. For Sweeney, "what consumers want is more TV at their fingertips and at their schedule." Content Drives Everything: Everything starts with content. It's a maxim that's been so oft repeated it's starting to become a cliché, noted Sweeney. Content drives consumers to media channels that can effectively convey that content. The demand for it is constant. The challenge lies in leveraging that demand to forge stronger relationships with consumers. In Sweeney's case, because ABC/Disney had the content, they were able to "move easily into the digital space," as evidenced by their newly launched video platform, Stage 9 Digital Media, which will present short videos or series, such as the Trenches sci-fi thriller. Creativity Is Everything: In a market as cluttered as entertainment, it's important to be more creative than ever to break through, said Sweeney. Remember: Creativity is key when communicating messages to the public and making them stand out. Are there any components in your campaign that could handle a bit of tweaking to make it more compelling for coverage? Commit to Change: In Sweeney's world, there are three constants: the demand for content; partnership between TV and advertising; and change. But the entertainment business-- and society--have been radically altered since the dawn of the digital age. To evolve, it's imperative to not adhere to the old rules. Change is a challenge, but it's also critical. "Status quo isn't a viable strategy," said Sweeney. In the PR vernacular, this can be translated to mean the following: Don't be afraid to take risks when working on a PR plan or campaign. It's when you're afraid to take that step into the unknown that you remain stuck in neutral. And, in PR, that's a sure sign of death.

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