13/04/2011

By Tom Berry, Head Of Consulting Services At Bite Communications'

A new report from Bite Communications this week revealed that the single greatest digital challenge facing PR (public relations) is the need for engaging and stimulating content. Here Tom Berry, the agency's director and head of consulting services, explores the commoditisation and ownership of social media.

No one owns social because everyone should own social – but PR/Comms is the best group to get everyone in the company on the same page." Survey respondent, Many Voices, One Message

Arguing about the ownership of social media, or the more nebulous "digital", is like arguing over who owns communications. Social is not a thing; it’s not a tool to be created and distributed like a press release or an email. But many organisations treat it is such – digital brand strategies are often about building things: Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, blogs. Engaging with audiences and building community is done after the fact. The problems with this approach is that brands think about conversations after they have thought about channels – then they wonder why no-one is joining in.

The bright shiny objects associated with digital are a tactic, not a strategy; a part of the journey and not the destination; it is the content, the community and the conversation that drive influence, not the channel. That’s what makes the notion of competing comms functions debating who "owns" digital so ludicrous – like alcoholics fighting over an empty bottle.

Of course, there is no denying the importance of online. In Many Voices, One Message, published by Econsultancy and Bite Communications this week, we asked comms directors around the world about their role and the impact that new channels and social media are having on their business. The feedback was mixed, and highlighted that rate of change is happening at different times in different geographies, but, in general, respondents understand the inevitability of embracing the social world:
"Social media has completely upended our former communications models – in just the last 24 to 36 months. It wasn’t on our radar at all, to being the central organising principle of all our communications." Matthew Broder, VP external communications, Pitney Bowes.

But, for every Pitney Bowes there are many more companies struggling with the concept: they are worried about where to start, how to cut through the noise, and the dangers of immediate and uncontrolled feedback.

That’s why an integrated approach is so important – both at functional and channel level. Communications departments – PR, marketing, pre-sales, influencer relations – are all part of a wider communications agenda: the need to jointly engage internal and external stakeholders to build advocacy, loyalty and valuable transactions. This should be achieved through a series of consistent and clear messages, supported by relevant and useful content and delivered through the right blend of online and offline media, influencer engagement, face-to-face and traditional marketing channels.

Easy, huh? Well, the reality is rarely that simple; little things like money tend to get in the way of logic. Integrated communications campaigns require integrated budgets, and in large, complicated organisations, budgets are usually fragmented and jealously guarded. PR and marketing teams are often located in different departments – even different geographies.

Part of the secret to winning in integrated communications is to refocus on core competencies. While I disagree that there has to be a victor in the digital tug of war, there is no doubting that the art of storytelling, through any channel, is home turf for PR.

But no matter how good we are at digital, what services we start to develop or how well PR and marketing work together, there remains one essential truth – if you have nothing to say, saying it through new channels will compound your problems. As one respondent to our research said: "You’ve got to be comfortable with the product and what you’re saying about it, because there’s no controlling it once it’s out the door."

The full Many Voices, One Message download the report.


Watch the video below featuring David White of Weboptimiser, talking about the success of search and online media.

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