Closing the Gap With the C-Suite: Digital Times Call for Digital Measures

Like it or not, the media--and business--landscape has changed dramatically in recent hours, weeks, months and years, leaving communications professionals to educate their C- suites as to how to understand new audiences and adjust their strategies accordingly. But that is easier said than done, as many corporate leaders are still skeptical of digital media--the crux of much of the modern business transformation. "For whatever reason, communications executives get digital media, and [the C-suite] doesn't," says Steve Cody, managing partner of Peppercom. "They think it's dangerous because of the perceived lack of control. They thing it's a passing fad. They think there is a lack of ROI. [Those] are fallacies, but it's the conventional wisdom among the C- suite." Conventional wisdom be damned, as a failing economy, an ever-changing media backdrop and a turbulent business environment drastically truncate the time frame communications execs have to "sell" the benefits of digital to the powers that be. With that reality as a motivation for action, consider the following strategies for reducing the figurative distance between the minds of communicators and their C-suite executives. *Streamline the approval chain for digital initiatives. A common complaint among communications executives is the bureaucratic red tape that impedes the implementation of digital strategies. Jennifer Martin, director of PR, New Media & Digital Networks for CNN Worldwide, cites this very challenge as the barrier that faced her team in 2005, when CNN's social media approval chain was a spider web of different departments and reporting relationships; in other words, the route to approval often me with a dead end. She played a significant role in whittling the approval process down to its current iteration, which involved four executives: the SVP of PR, the PR director of new media & digital networks, the VP of interactive marketing and the CMO. When organizations operate under the belief that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, it becomes easier to close the gap with the C-suite. Then, Martin says, you can go to the C-suite with the following arguments for why they should embrace the digital frontier: It makes the executives and the brand more relevant. It provides a direct line for audience engagement and customer feedback. It's an immediate outlet for PR outreach and reaction, creating generation awareness, a vehicle for proactive and reactive crisis management and content for PR and marketing. It follows the law of numbers: 10 people connect to 100 people, who connect to 1,000 people, and so on. *Identify internal communications gaps and use digital platforms to bridge them. If the low comfort level is an issue when closing the gap with the C-suite and selling digital strategies, start internally. "Start small by launching an internal blog or by posting comments on other blogs," Cody says. "Create an open and transparent forum for conversation." That said, once you start small, you must continue to increase the C-suite's comfort level by introducing new initiatives and strategies that eventually branch out to external efforts. "For people to immerse themselves in digital media daily is really important," Martin says. "You can't dip your toe in and then pull it out." *Make sure your brand is present on the Web. "Your brand" means both your personal brand and your organization's brand. "Branding on the Web from an individual standpoint is really important," says Dale Durrett, Eastern region sales manager for LinkedIn. "One thing that happens whenever you meet somebody, whether you are pitching them or recruiting them, is that they Google you. There is very limited control over what they discover." As far as getting your organization's brand online, "The ability exists for brands to be built in this day and age without big budgets," Durrett says. "PR is the way brands are gaining visibility. They are out there and engaging in the blogosphere." The ability to make a big splash with a small budget is a great selling point when pitching the C-suite. "The great thing about social media is that there are so many opportunities to engage for free," Martin says. "It's not nearly as expensive as an advertising campaign." *Measure up. If the perceived lack of return on investment is a C-suite hang-up, start asking questions. "Find out how the C-suite defines ROI, and measure accordingly," Cody says. And, for many organizations, digital ROI may come from unexpected places. "Right now, the best way for us to show ROI is through customer service," says Marcy Cohen, senior PR manager for Sony Electronics. "We launched a Sony Electronics blog in 2007, written mostly by the SVP of corporate communications. The group that benefited the most was our customer service department." Cohen points to the blog's ability to field customer service complaints and queries in a timely and personal way, and to subsequently see the positive commentary posted after an issue had been resolved. *Show them that everyone else is doing it. "That's where many people make mistakes," Durrett says. "They think people are doing X when they are really doing Y." Because monitoring and tracking digital media is so easy, this approach can be very effective when trying to connect with the C-suite on the topic of digital communications. It's the "show, don't tell" methodology of teaching or, in this case, convincing--especially when they see that their competitors are ahead of the game. "Showing what your competitors are doing in the digital space is a great way to help sell it through," Cohen says. *Bring them back to reality. If all else fails, communications executives could try to close the gap with the C-suite by speaking frankly and without reservation. Tell them what fears are valid, and then tell them to get over it. Choose from the following reality checks: "It's a dangerous medium, so you have to learn to live with the loss of control and move on," Cody says. "If you're not paying attention, the bad things matriculate just as fast as the good things," Martin says. "Whether you are online or not, those conversations are taking place," Durrett says. There is always a softer approach, though. "Mistakes in the digital world are not fatal," Martin says. "They are opportunities to learn." PRN CONTACTS: Steve Cody,; Jennifer Martin,; Dale Durrett,

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