Interview with Deirdre Breakenridge
Deirdre – you are an author of several PR books discussing the evolution of the communications discipline. What is your understanding of PR 2.0?
Deirdre Breakenridge: PR 2.0 is one of the greatest advancements in the field of public relations. I view PR 2.0 as an approach that is long overdue in our industry. For years, brands and the communications professionals that represent them have been using a top down messaging strategy to reach audiences. A broadcast message doesn’t build a relationship and relationships are the cornerstone of a good PR program. Today, through PR 2.0 and social media communications, we are able to change our strategy and use a bottom up approach through listening and observing people in their Web communities. Hearing what customers have to say allows a brand and its communications team to be a valuable resource by providing meaningful information that consumers are seeking, enabling the brand to become a better partner.
If I were to sum up a definition of PR 2.0 it would be the true convergence of public relations and the Internet that allows brands to have direct conversations with customers and other stakeholders, including the media, analysts and the new influencers. PR 2.0 creates a new breed of PR professionals; one that is Web savvy and skilled in the many elements of online marketing, Web analytics, observing and participating in conversations on the Web, and delivers superior customer service.
So – it’s not only to engage with some new “gatekeepers” like bloggers or community managers. It’s about stepping out in the river of the conversations of my customers?
Deirdre Breakenridge: Yes, this is true. It’s important to understand that conversations about your brand will take place whether you choose to participate in the conversations or not. As a result, brands are using social networks as a research tool and customer service platform. Three brands that have been very successful on Twitter are Comcast, JetBlue and FedEx. They have teams of professionals that listen and respond to customer complaints, inquiries and also provide general information.
When I interviewed Mark Ragan, CEO of Ragan Communications in 2007, for my book PR 2.0 New Media, New Tools, New Audiences, he pointed out that not only do social networks allow you to listen to what your customers have to say about your brand but you can listen in on customers conversations with their friends. This information is invaluable (it’s the most inexpensive form of a focus panel there is) and should be brought back to a brand’s R&D or product development teams to build a better product or service. Stepping into a customer’s river of conversations is one of the greatest gifts of social media. However, if you enter the community too quickly or participate the wrong way, the social networking culture can be unforgiving. It’s important that brands truly understand the dynamics of the community (remember this is part sociology too) before diving into the water head first.
Could you give us a good example of a company that is doing a good job at PR 2.0 and explain to us why?
Deirdre Breakenridge: Actually two airlines come to mind. The first is JetBlue and its activity on Twitter. The brand is a good case study in how to properly build community and to engage with customers on a number of levels. JetBlue has used Twitter for crisis management, customer service and to provide information on flight savings. JetBlue was also praised for the way it handled the airline’s situation on Valentine’s Day weekend of 2007, when a terrible storm cancelled several flights. Consumers were outraged when they were forced to spend more than 24 hours in the airport. The CEO of JetBlue handled the crisis very well by using YouTube videos with a heartfelt statement. He apologized to JetBlue customers offered varying levels of compensation to them.
The other recent example is Southwest Airlines and used Twitter for a crisis situation. After a Southwest airplane landed with a hole as large as a basketball in the fuselage, the TwitPics ran rampant on Twitter and the tweets spread virally through the social networks. All of this occurred long before the evening news broke the story about the airline. Southwest reacted swiftly by tweeting to its customers the official news release, a statement regarding refunds for the flight and continued to update information regarding the situation. Southwest was applauded for its quick damage control and is a good example of how Twitter can help an airline when an unexpected and potentially damaging situation occurs. Southwest was able to set the tone of the conversations on Twitter and was also able to present factual information through PR 2.0 efforts.
In a recent post I have discussed some key challenges when it comes to PR 2.0. I came along the following three aspects: 1) Listen before engage 2) Need for engaging ways of storytelling 3) Real-time reactivity – how do you feel about these aspects? And do you have anymore to add?
Deirdre Breakenridge: I have seen so many companies survey the blogosphere. When they find their competitors interacting on social networks and they are not, for them it’s an invitation to engage prematurely. Rather than listening and putting together a strong social media plan that identifies the reasons for using social media to build relationships, they dive into the blogosphere head first. They set up their profiles, send out some communication, other members of the company begin to participate, and then the communications department realizes and says, “We need to get our arms around the social media communications program.” Often policies are not developed and the effort is strictly reactionary rather than finding opportunities to build strong relationships with influencers.
When a company takes the time to listen it then is able to engage in ways that provide each and every customer or stakeholder with a customized story. One of the issues with PR in years past was that we were complacent with news releases that told one story and were usually filled with hype and jargon that no one really cared about (only the people who approved the releases to begin with). The Social Media Release is an answer to providing people with relevant information in a template that allows them to share the story with their friends or even use the information to build upon the story (i.e. you can provide a journalist or a blogger with additional resources if they are working on a particular topic for an article). And, instead of always using a credible third party, such as the media, the Social Media Release is a tool that allows a direct connection with customers.
With respect to the challenge of real time activity, it is also changing the way that the public consumes news. Years ago, consumers used to check mainstream news outlets first for their breaking news. However, today, you can log into Twitter and Facebook and follow real time news about a plane that has made an emergency landing in the Hudson River in New York, long before the network or cable news vans are present to capture the footage. As a result, mainstream media has responded by altering its news gathering techniques. For example, CNN has iReport where citizen journalists can post the photos or videos capturing news as it occurs. CBS now uses Ustream to interactively stream breaking news and many newspapers and print media are focusing on more online communities and social networks to engage with consumers and to be a part of the real time activity. This is crucial for the traditional media outlets to survive. Today, the new influencer or blogger often trumps the authority of news sources that we turned to as first choice reliable sources of the past.
The three areas that you pointed out are all challenges. One more challenge for the PR industry is the changing role of the professional. Today PR professionals are not just the liaisons that facilitate the interviews with the media and then measure the results of the editorial coverage. It’s critical to understand that we are now influencers; new journalists for our industry and we develop our own following and report on the many changes that we see. It’s a tremendous shift in the way that we think and also our daily regimen. We have a responsibility to our own communities as well as to our clients and their social media needs.
Although there are several challenges and PR professionals are learning to embrace social media for their brands and also for their own professional development, the change we experience has a direct correlation to the needs of the new media generation. As consumers continue to control and drive media, we will have to make more adjustments to accommodate the shift in their behavior.
Who is responsible and who must be involved into PR 2.0 activities?
Deirdre Breakenridge: I truly believe that a number of parties need to be involved in PR 2.0 activities. Of course, you have your PR and communications department, but no longer can we work in a vacuum. Social media communications is a game changer for any business because of the nature of the information that is shared in the blogosphere. It’s really important for the PR people or a community manager (community managers are hired to monitor, listen and often represent the company in various communities) and share the knowledge gained with other business silos in the organization. There are other departments affected by social media including HR, IT, Marketing, Sales, Product Development, and R&D, to name a few. Social media changes how you collect and disseminate information within your company.
Through a new workflow process you can monitor the conversations that become more frequent and relevant to your brand. It’s important to dissect these threads of communication. When you dissect and analyze the dialogue, you will realize that it’s critical to route the information to various areas in the company. By routing the information, you are getting information into the hands of the people, who can then use the information and react with appropriate communication or perhaps make changes in a an internal company process.
A recent discussion about the latest social media activities of Vodafone led to the point that PR 2.0 results into a new transparency about the company’s activities. But if the company is not yet ready internally to cope with this transparent positioning PR in the “open wild” will be a major failure. What do you think about this?
Deirdre Breakenridge: I agree whole heartedly. Companies are often quick to jump into the social media landscape without being internally prepared both with resources (whether it’s technology to monitor or people to manage the program) and social media guidelines to help employees understand the value and importance of social media communications. I recommend that a company begin internally with its own employees. It’s critically important to educate your employees so that they understand the importance and value of social media communications to the company. Brands need to let employees know why it’s important to engage in social media communications, what social networking means to the brand, how it can change business (and align with business goals) and what are the right steps and approach for employees to take based on social media guidelines.
All of these questions should be answered and achieved internally first, prior to moving forward with an external social media focus. However, because in a lot of cases we are talking about a cultural shift, it is often difficult to get everyone on the same page all at once. I often find that the larger the organization, the more varying levels of social media knowledge and acceptance you will find. Most organizations learn to educate internally to alter the perception of social media and to illustrate its value by having employees use it successfully in their own work groups. A sturdy internal social networking community often results in a far more successful social networking initiative with your own internal brand evangelists helping to build stronger external communities.
For Germany one can still conclude that companies are in a experimentation state. How about the US? And which level of adoption do you see?
Deirdre Breakenridge: I see a growing amount of adoption of social media in many different industries in the United States. When I wrote about PR 2.0 back in 2007-2008, the bulk of my interviews with companies and communications professionals said that social media communications was abundant with the technology companies especially in Silicon Valley. One of my themes threaded throughout the book was to illustrate how social media communications would soon catch on with a number of industries beyond the tech sector. Today we see a tremendous amount of adoption from not only technology but healthcare, education, travel, retail, publishing and many other industries.
I see the US as a leader in social media communications. A good example of our progress in government 2.0 was the Obama campaign in 2008. Obama knew how to ignite consumer interest and passion around his election. The Obama campaign truly sought to identify the people they wanted to engage, and then engaged those people within their own communities on their own terms ( in the process, giving those people the tools and content to empower them to become surrogate evangelists). Obama’s Democratic nomination campaign will forever be a hallmark for future campaigns. The 2012 election, and every election thereafter, will be driven by social media, social tools, and the people who populate influential social networks.
Another great example of US adoption is in healthcare. GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the second largest pharmaceutical company in the world, is a social media leader in an industry that is heavily regulated. While most of the large pharmaceutical companies are reticent to use social media, GSK began its program in 2007 with the launch of its first product blog called Alliconnect (Alli is the only FDA approved over-the-counter weight loss drug). Other social media efforts include an internal company blog, an external blog, More than Medicine, that focuses on healthcare trends, disease states and health related news, and has developed a social media position for the communications team.
Other industries are taking an active role in the U.S. in social media including travel, retail, publishing and not-for profit sectors. We are seeing great progress and I believe we will continue to see increased adoption and advancements in the social media arena.
Thank you for your time and for these comprehensive answers.
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