Before reading this you might like to read Part 1: Context

Make no mistake, social media is a disruptive technology. It is a challenge to the existing order; to existing communications practices. If knowledge is power, then it is the masses that are gaining in power. Organisations that can leverage the tools to support their objectives are the ones that will prosper.

I see two marketing and communications challenges posed by social media for businesses today. The imperative for not burying our heads in the sand lies in our need to address these. The challenges that organisations face are how to:

  1. Regain control of the message
  2. Cut through the noise to have their voice heard


Much of the business case for engaging with social media lies in addressing these challenges.

1. Regaining control of the message
The communications model is clearly changing. Control of the message is being dispersed with customers now more likely to log on to social media websites to inform their purchase decisions than to rely on what the read on a company’s website or advertisement.

The most significant challenge for business is the fear of losing control. I regularly hear communications executives in many types of organisations express concern about the risks of participating in social media. “If we engage are we merely providing a very public platform for the expression of all the negative sentiment that we have been trying to hide?” “Will we be targeted by competitors masquerading as disgruntled customers?”

Conversations about our brand are happening anyway, regardless of whether we are engaged or not. In our conversation with him, Neville Hobson highlighted that by creating their own spaces for participating in social media, organisations are putting themselves in the strong position from where they can start to regain control. One approach suggested by Neville is that when we see a negative blog post or bulletin board discussion, we reference that discussion on our own blog and address the negatives there. We have now started a conversation that we are in control of.

Journalist and PR consultant Emily Tully contends that social media is perhaps the best place for organisations to conduct crisis management. Negative news stories and rumours spread at lightening speed online. The web is, for many, the first port of call to find out more about breaking news. The BBC’s recent crisis over the Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross prank call was in large part sparked by traditional media. However, the first place many millions looked to find out more, to actually listen to the recording of what happened, was the Internet. Within just a couple of days of the crisis breaking the interview had been downloaded 500,000 times on YouTube and that figure quickly grew to several million. What a powerful response it would have been from the BBC to have their official response/apology posted alongside the recording on YouTube. The speed of communications online is incredibly fast and managing crises solely through traditional media is no longer adequate.

Many organisations are realising that there is a new dynamic in the communications world. While PR executives are still delivering press releases to journalists, they are increasingly focusing on what are termed the “influencers” in social media communities. These are the individuals who have the largest share of voice in this space. They have the most subscribers or followers. PR practitioners are realising that this group can have a significant influence on a brand reputation, either positively or negatively. Organisations are starting to deliver their message to these individuals in the hope that they will become advocates for their brands. Press releases are being complemented by “Social Media Releases” – content tailored to the needs of these influencers; less formal, with web links to other related resources and information, photos, videos and facilities for comments, questions and feedback. European organisations such as Electrolux and General Motors are creating “Social Media News Rooms” to complement their existing Press Rooms, ensuring that they regain some control over the messages that exist in social spaces online.

2. Cutting through the noise
With so much noise – so many communications, so much content and so many messages – traditional methods of business communication are becoming less effective. Advertising and PR communications, and even traditional retail channels such as shops/branches or telephones are being bypassed or ignored by consumers. We are listening less and less to corporate communications and more and more to what friends and other individuals are saying. How can organisations have their voices heard in this new era of social media-facilitated communications?

Neville Hobson suggests that social media is quickly becoming “the most important communications channel for directly connecting with customers.” The dynamics of communication are changing, shifting from a one-to-many model to a many-to-many. Customers’ expectations and behaviours are changing and forcing organisations to communicate differently. Organisations will now be expected to communicate directly to customers in more open and informal ways. Think of it as a mid-ground between mass advertising and face-to-face meetings with customers.

Connecting directly with customers in a personal manner is the only really effective way of cutting through the noise. Consumers are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of content available. The guaranteed way of having your message heard is to make your communication direct, personal, relevant and open. Your customers will not only listen, but they will respond and be engaged.

Part 3: Opportunity, will hopefully be along tomorrow…